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The mindfulness industry

In this video Prof Chris Goto-Jones discusses the mindfulness industry and the relation it may or may not have with mindfulness practice.
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One of the things that’s hard to ignore about mindfulness today, is that it’s deeply and painfully fashionable. No matter what our concerns might be about the social issues we’ve dealt within this module so far, the ethics of capitalism, the relationship between self-cultivation and violence or the purpose of a modern educational system, it’s difficult to ignore the urge to buy a new meditation cushion, download a new app on our smartphone or purchase a new device that monitors our heart rate while we’re sitting silently on a custom-made platform overlooking the ocean for $40 an hour. With fashion comes fashion. We can now buy special thermal meditation clothes to keep our joints warm while we sit motionlessly.
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We can have our haircut into the mythical styles of legendary gurus. We can buy jewelry emblazoned with sanskrit text, to deepen our practice and to identify us as travelers of the path or bracelets with hand-carved beads made from semi-precious stones or rare words for each breath we take. We can buy wearable technology that measures our heart, our breath, and even our brainwaves, explaining to us whether we’ve made progress in a quantifiable way on a particular day. Indeed, we can even use these devices to make our meditation into a competitive sport. I can demonstrate statistically, that I was more mindful than you today but that I was only the 15th most mindful person in my local area.
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I can subscribe to courses about mindfulness, about mindful eating, mindful walking, mindful motion, mindful talking, mindful leadership, mindful working, mindful drinking, mindful relationships, instant mindfulness, and even mindful sleeping. Indeed, I can now spend my entire day engaged with the mindfulness industry in dozens of different ways, spending hundreds of dollars and not once have engaged in even a single moment of mindfulness practice. It’s one of the most revealing ironies of this field, that a simple practice that emphasizes liberation from arbitrary desires and attachment to external objects, should squan a marketplace worth more than a billion dollars per year in the USA alone.
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A practice that calls on us to interrupt our tendencies towards unreflective, impulsive or compulsive behaviors, that do not nourish but diminish us, has given rise to an industry of gimmicks and toys that we snap up without thinking. When I say this is an irony, I mean this partly because many people use this ballooning industry as evidence, that we’re in the midst of a mindfulness revolution. Mindfulness seems to be everywhere and there is a sense in which this does show that aspects of mindfulness. That is those aspects that can be monetized, have permeated into mainstream society.
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However, the irony here is that this kind of commodification and commercialization of mindfulness, actually serves as evidence, that the mindfulness movement has not yet succeeded in working a transformation on the norms and values of our culture and societies. For as long as society sees mindfulness as something, that can be wrapped in cellophane and bought in a shop or online, we remain as far away from the revolution as we have ever been. We’ve already seen how, if it means anything at all, the mindfulness revolution means transforming the way that we understand and signify the devices and structures of capitalism around us.
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So if mindfulness isn’t accomplishing this for me or for you, then either were not part of the revolution or there simply isn’t one to be part of. Mindfulness emerges as just another commodity in the marketplace like football or Lego. So it’s important for people, who are studying and practicing mindfulness, to remember that there are no necessary or sufficient trappings.
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We don’t need any particular equipment or any particular spaces in order to bring our attention to the present moment on purpose and non-judgmentally, we don’t need to sit on a particular cushion, although we might like to, we don’t need to sit in a particular place, although we might like to, and we don’t need to smell particular smells or wear particular clothes, although we might like to. Mindfulness is simply about bringing our attention and our awareness to how things actually are with a compassionate sense of acceptance, howsoever they are. It’s not about striving to construct material conditions, that make doing this more pleasurable or easy for us. Although we might like it to be.
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Just to be clear, I’m not saying that the mindfulness industry has no value, indeed It’s clearly worth more than a billion dollars. All I’m saying is, that the relationship between the mindfulness industry and your practice of mindfulness, is not obvious or clear or linear. I’m not saying that you are wrong to want to sit on a new cushion rather than the old one you’ve had for 10 years, and I’m not saying that you’re wrong, to want to practice on the top of a mountain or in a carefully constructed meditation studio in the heart of a bustling city rather than on the bus or in your kitchen at home.
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All I’m saying is, you don’t need these things in order to practice. In order to practice, you just need to stop and practice. It says immediate and free is taking a breath. You can do it right now. In fact, let’s do it right now. Press pause and do a three-step breathing space or don’t press pause and do the breathing space anyway while I continue talking. It doesn’t matter. The point here, is to try to be more mindful of how we engage with society, including with the mindfulness industry, that is part of that society. So remember, the mindfulness industry is part of society, not part of your mindfulness practice per say.
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For some of us, it is genuinely useful to have a material something or another, to which we can shift our attention in order to help us regulate our emotional arousal by moving the quality of our experience onto something else. If wearing a bracelet or sitting on a particular cushion does this for you, then great. But don’t assume that it will for you just because it does for someone else or even worse just because you’re told it will by an advertisement. Neither the bracelet nor the cushion have magical powers to make you more mindful. Only you can do that and you already know how to do it without these things.
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Now, I confess I have this bracelet and it means a lot to me. I find that it helps me to regulate myself. When I see it, I’m reminded of what it stands for or at least to me and that in itself, helps to effect a shift in the quality of my attention. It reminds me to make the effort. It triggers my practice, it doesn’t replace it. In short, there’s nothing you can buy that will make you instantly mindful or provide you with a shortcut. Believing and behaving as though this is possible, is part of the evidence that the mindfulness revolution has not yet happened.
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Of course, you might want to buy stuff as a fashion statement or just because you like it and that’s obviously fine and splendid. The fact that people want to clothe themselves in a mindful like identity, also says something about the status of mindfulness in today’s societies and cultures. So finally, we should also spend a moment on the commercialization of
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mindfulness training: by which I mean the packaging of mindfulness training programs as commodities that can be sold to the general public or to specific client groups. These could range from online subscription services that individuals can take with them anywhere they go to bolster their well-being, to professional interventions in corporate settings designed to bolster productivity and efficiency in the workplace. One of the things that we’ve already discussed at length, is the importance of understanding the responsibility of teachers of mindfulness. It’s important to think about these responsibilities in the context of an unregulated industry. While many companies take these issues very seriously and some provide excellent training opportunities for clients, it’s important to keep in mind that some do not.
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For some, there is a straight-forward and cynical attempt to cash in on the fashion for mindfulness. In the worst cases, this can involve exploiting the vulnerabilities of populations who need support. Hence, provision can be uneven and sometimes even irresponsible. Somewhat ironically, this is not only true of the commercial ventures but also some Buddhist organizations, who sometimes attempt to appropriate mindfulness as their own in an attempt to get people in the doors of their temples and raise enough money to say repair the roof. As we saw earlier in this module, the best hope for regulation in an unregulated space like this, might simply be the market itself.
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There are some very successful companies providing mindfulness training in various ways and for those who believe in the power of the free market, this is in itself an indication of the quality and reliability of their services. Such companies contribute directly to furthering the mindfulness movement in societies today. However, as we’ve also seen in this module, one of the big questions about the role of mindfulness in society, is about the extent to which it should be disruptive of capitalism rather than furthering its interests. So if we take a more radical stance on the potentials of mindfulness, then commercial success might indicate the ethical and ideological failure of this potential.
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In the end then, the mindfulness industry as a complex and fascinating space in which many of the most interesting and important issues surrounding contemporary mindfulness play themselves out. It’s a vibrant and experimental space. It’s full of risks. Full of opportunities for everyone involved. If we learn nothing else from this course then, we should at least learn to enter this social space mindfully. Making sure that we bring a quality of attention to it that enables us to make use of it in nourishing ways rather than allowing it to feed on us.
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In the final session of this module, we’ll take a look back over the issues about mindfulness in society and see whether there are common themes or common concerns that we might be able to highlight.

In this video, I discuss the mindfulness industry and the relation it may or may not have to the practice of mindfulness.

What are your thoughts on the commercial aspects of mindfulness? Is “for profit” mindfulness training ethical? Can mindfulness actually help us to navigate consumer culture?

Leiden University

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Demystifying Mindfulness

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