How Mindfulness Lost Its Way

It’s hard for any trend to sustain momentum these days, but mindfulness may be the exception.

The thousand-year-old self-help practice has been the basis of numerous books, classes, apps, and seminars. Patrons are able to order “a more mindful burger,” at Epic Burger in Chicago or an “Enjoy the ride” trucker hat from Mindful Supply Co. With new ‘mindfulness’ products from Apple and Amazon, it doesn’t look like this $1Billion industry is losing steam anytime soon.

The issue, however, doesn’t lie in the space’s burgeoning growth trends but more so its ever transforming interpretation. The principled practice of amplifying altruistic awareness is quickly becoming dismantled from its original intentions and usurped by corporate entities hallowing out the morality, nobility, humility, and utility behind this benign spiritual engagement.

Long before the Becky’s and Brittney’s returned from their Bali meditational retreats, the art of creating a more blissful brain stemmed from a young man named Siddhārtha Gautama, aka Buddha. The young Eastern theologist formed a meditation called Vipassana, an exercise in which the meditator uses his concentration as a tool by which his awareness can chip away at the wall of illusion that prevents him from the living light of reality.

According to Professor Zinn, the forefather of modern mindfulness argues, “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally,” says Kabat-Zinn. “It’s about knowing what is on your mind.”

Further, Dr. Thomas Joiner, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, explains, “Authentic mindfulness is also humble in the sense that it places the self in its proper, minuscule place within each moment’s infinitude. The mindful person is attuned to the miasma of sensation that has nothing at all to do with one’s own subjectivity, but rather concerns the features of the present moment surrounding one’s own mind, in its minute detail and its vastness, too.

Unfortunately, the modern reincarnation of mindfulness replaces the practices original intent of self-awareness with an impression that this exercise be utilized as an iron-clad, self-indulgent, and self-enhancement tool. Today’s mindfulness is attached to effectively annihilate stress, to be your best self, to solve problems with your significant other, ways to advance in the workforce, and a method to completely cure serious physical ailments.

Recent promotional language from a workshop this summer co-sponsored by UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center: “Practitioners report deeper connection to themselves, more self-compassion, and greater insights into their lives.” The emphasis is on the individual — connection to themselves and insights into their lives.

At a mindfulness retreat I attended earlier this year, the workshop leader encouraged us to remember the selflessness of authentic mindfulness and not to “fetishize” it as a means for self-enhancement or for the affluent’s minor life hurdles. And yet we spent 90 percent of that retreat focused on our own sensations — the muscular sensations we felt we in “mindful walking,” the tension points in our muscles and joints during “mindful stretching”, the cathartic elevation of our voices with “mindful laughing”.

During a “mindfulness” discussion at another retreat I attended, a young lad from Portland complained that the absence of “mindfulness” as a barista (at his father’s coffee shop) stopped him from securing the necessary number of tips to travel the world.

The mix of corporate career progression and mindfulness isn’t solely confined to some shallow child from the Northwest. From Oprah’s magazine, Ariana Huffington’s Thrive company, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and the World Economic Forum in Davos corporations are co-opting the practice of mindfulness.

And early results show, that corporate investments into mindfulness are merely a faddish optic. In Michelle Goldberg’s article, “The Long Marriage of Money and Mindfulness” the New Yorker journalist discovered most corporation mindfulness program lack a clear understanding or have failed to allocate the necessary resources to integrate such a program. Companies such as Goldman Sachs, Monsanto, General Mills, and Uber proudly publicize their “successful” corporate mindfulness programs, yet each organization continually struggles with low employee morale, is known for their poor treatment of vendors, and are notorious for their ethically dubious practices.

Last year, Uber proudly announced their partnership with Arianna Huffington’s Thrive to create a more “mindful” work culture.

After a summer of sexual harassment accusations from employees, underpaying drivers, spying on journalists, the former CEO chastising a driver, and a board member dropping sexist remarks in front of Arianna Huffington herself… I am skeptical this ride-sharing service is now successfully embodying Buddha’s mindfulness framework of compassion, empathy, and caring,

Make no mistake, authentic mindfulness is a potentially useful and noble idea. But the current recalibration of this practice has strayed dangerously too far from young Gautama’s original goal.

Mindfulness isn’t the emptying of the mind. No true reading of mindfulness attempts to offer clear solutions to our problems, or describe it as an excuse over-exaggerate life’s quandary’s, and certainly no ancient or modern interpretation gives credence to the idea that sagaciously pontificating the present be leveraged as a corporate marketing tool.

Mindfulness wants us to pause, reflect and gain distance and perspective. And when I pause and reflect about the current state of mindfulness, it’s my perspective that it’s best to keep my distance from its current form.

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