What Our Recent Obsession With Mindfulness Really Means

Mindfulness has become a buzzword in business media, but is the co-opted Eastern philosophy just for the power players of Silicon Valley? We take a look at its origins and evolution.

If you've been paying attention in the last few years, you've likely seen the word mindfulness pop up more frequently, especially in business media. We've certainly mentioned it a lot.

Simply put, mindfulness is about living in the moment. The concept has roots in Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies, but is much more complicated than just meditation. The way that we talk about mindfulness in the present day has become something its originators might not recognize.

While the true notion of mindfulness started centuries ago, the Western mindfulness movement gained a bare-foothold at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and Jon Kabat-Zinn’s founding of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society in 1979. Since then—and recently, especially—it’s move from sunny kumbaya hillsides to office spaces.

How Mindfulness Made The Move To Mainstream Office Life

Mindfulness is "an Eastern tool for Western results," says meditation author Victor Davich. With our access to connectivity—wearing the whole Internet's 2 billion voices not just in our pockets but increasingly on our wrists and faces—comes the stress of keeping pace. We're turning back to old gurus to cope with our new, technologic lives, but the practice looks a bit different now.

There are whole companies that encourage their employees to be more mindful. They drop into yoga poses during mindfulness-drills, and attend expensive seminars on the subject.

No activity is safe from mindfulness: The Center for Mindful Eating says that someone who eats mindfully "is an individual who by choice, directs their attention to eating on a moment-by-moment basis."

In the last 10 years, it's gone from a blip to a headline-maker, according to Google Trends' report of the search term:

A search for mindfulness books on Amazon turns up nearly 8,000 titles.

In short, the word "mindful" is worn out, and the current image is far from monk-like. The jet-set is ohm-ing on their way to business meetings.

The reason we are all grasping for a bit of peace isn't hard to guess. It’s a well trod idea that technology is taking up too much mind-space and the tech that connects us, wears us out.

"In a logical world, technology would make us work less not more, because technology helps us identify and solve problems quicker, and it gives us more freedom and flexibility," says Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, psychologist at University College, London.

"That bright side of technology is often eclipsed by its dark side: it is hard to switch off, and there is too much information to process as well as too many distractions now. So, yes, we are living in the age of technology-induced stress and most of the concerns around work-life balance are based on technology; we should really redefine the term to talk about web-life balance," he says.

So we need to be purposefully mindful, to keep our robot companions from becoming overlords. But are we soaking too long in our eucalyptus and hemp-oil bubble baths, here?

The Problem With Mindfulness' Image

The decidedly WASP-y cover of the February issue of Time gives the practice a face: white on peach, blonde hair, powdery eyelids, and a Mona Lisa smile. She’s thin and exudes relaxation. She’s the woman you envy in the front row of yoga class.

A Google image search for "mindful meditation" turns up similar results: white men and women whose ribs you can count, in the gauzy white uniform of mindfulness.

Is mindfulness just a practice for those afflicted with chronic #firstworldproblems? "The image of the serene, young white woman closing her eyes and breathing deeply doesn't come close to telling the whole story of how mindfulness is beginning to transform lives," Huffington Post features editor Carolyn Gregoire noted.

In Silicon Valley, the idea of mindfulness appears to be, like many other things, one more tool to get ahead. "Meditation here isn’t an opportunity to reflect upon the impermanence of existence but a tool to better oneself and improve productivity," says a Wired report on Silicon Valley’s meditation habit.

Conferences on mindfulness are about networking. "Everybody knows this [emotional intelligence] thing is good for their career," Chade Meng-Tan, the founder of the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, told Wired. "And every company knows that if their people have EI, they’re gonna make a shitload of money." Google employees in this story were being mindful—for motivations that’d piss a monk off.

"Meditation more than anything in my life was the biggest ingredient of whatever success I've had," Ray Dalio, the billionaire founder of the world’s largest hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, said in 2012.

The Evolution of Western Mindfulness

Outside of co-opting mindfulness to get ahead in a competitive business landscape, the Eastern philosophies of meditation and mind/body awareness have found their way to help some unexpected people: in struggling school systems and football fields.

The NFL has also taken notice of the benefits of meditation in recent years. "Quiet your minds," "Focus your attention inwardly," "Visualize success," ESPN reports sports psychologist Mike Gervais as chanting to the Seattle Seahawks during a training camp meditation session in 2013. That year, the team won the Super Bowl.

Former NFL defensive back Jimmy Stewart—now a therapist specializing in PTSD—goes on to explain the intense need for meditation in sports. Getting hit in the head repeatedly at a half-ton force isn't what's causing instability in players, Stewart says; it's the lack of emotional balance and the mental pressures of the sport.

Similarly, mindfulness practice has also made its way to help vulnerable kids: half of the students at Cesar Chavez Academy in East Palo Alto, California, are homeless, as of most recent census data, says principal Amika Guillaume. Stanford University researchers are using methods of mindfulness—yoga techniques, calming exercises, and focused breathing—to help students cope with the PTSD of their daily lives.

Students in violent, low-income communities had fewer suspensions after a school year of mindfulness training. And these are individuals who don't have the luxury of a mindfulness retreat.

"When we look at low-performing schools it’s not that these children are unable to learn, it’s that very often they are unavailable to learn," Madeline Kronenberg, a West Contra Costa County school board member, told California’s KQED public media.

"They’re not able to focus; they’re so fixated on other things that are going on in their lives that it’s difficult for them to be able to find space for learning. Children that were closed-off about their problems and acting out at school were able to unclench their fists to express themselves more freely," she explained.

These kids don't have addictions to smartphones or access to a retreat, but they're finding the benefits of a deep breath, anyway. No membership fee required.

Translate these realizations into a high-pressure, always-on life of a business person, and you start to see the complete picture: Mindfulness doesn’t have to be an activity reserved for those who can afford work-appropriate yoga pants. The whole point is to put away outside worries and be present, after all. "The basic premise, that we should focus more on the present, increase self-awareness, and relax, is clearly useful for anybody," says Chamorro-Premuzic.

"However, it’s not surprising that mindfulness appeals to the rich because it can provide a psychological antidote to the materialistic vacuum created by greed, wealth, and materialism," he says. "Everybody needs meaning and purpose, and they cannot be bought with money."

[Image: Flickr user Konstantin Stepanov]

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  • Maya Crawley

    I like the points you raise about the fundamental incompatibility between the original ideals of the Eastern traditions that gave rise to mindfulness, and the way to which it has been appropriated here in the West to serve our own cultural ideals.

    As both a psychologist and an ashtanga yoga teacher, I can say that mindfulness is not always trendy. Becoming more mindful takes hard work and discipline, and these things are not really valued by our fast-paced culture that favours instant gratification.

    Becoming more mindful also takes courage. Be warned - you might not always like the things you become aware of as you practice! But you will surely be better of than if you stayed in the dark.....

  • In my (long) experience as a practitioner and professional the crux is to avoid to apply the techniques of meditation and mindfulness to achieve anything. That is, to achieve more of the same old ego-driven goals that we were taught as children. No technique in itself can transcend what we believe to be tru on an unconscious level. The techniques of meditation and mindfulness are foremost designed to get to know the essence our mind. The through time appearing clarity and spaciousness are a byproduct or fruition of our practice and not a goal in itself. The trap in modern mindfulness approaches seems to me the focus on creating something, rather then being with what is.

  • David Lloyd-Jones

    Western "thought" is mostly the mumbling of a bunch of savages from Northern Europe who roamed the world at will for maybe a thousand years, mostly because of their willingness to use gunpowder at will.

    Gunpowder came to its, uh, dead end when it developed logically into atom bombs. The savages used these a couple of times on an Asian people who had copied their savage ways for a couple of generations. Then it dawned on them that they might not like it If they used this atomic stuff on each other.

    So they decided to give civilization a try.

    That attempt is now in its earliest stage.


  • Chelsea Leger

    I took the 21-day meditationSHIFT course (www.thetadprinciple.com) a few months ago and I've seen dramatic improvements in various facets of my life. I seem to have experienced the effects in a somewhat reverse way than those in the business world: while executives might become interested in mindfulness from a business standpoint and subsequently realize that it helps them on a much more personal level, I decided to try it out purely for emotional and mental health reasons and then saw the fringe benefits in my professional life. I have to say that taking that course is probably the best thing I have ever done to improve my overall development, both as a human being and as a professional. Good article.

  • Robert McGovern

    I might not be getting this, because my first step in mindfulness is paying attention to what I'm doing. After that, all the other steps are easier.

  • Cher Holton

    The power of languaging is critical … and too often the words meditation and mindfulness create images that block the openness needed to truly test it out. In our leadership training, we share what we call IF moments: Inner Focus time to prepare for a specific event. For example, you can practice an IF technique before a big meeting, or in preparation for a difficult performance review or presentation. It involves taking a few minutes to be alone, practice breathing, and allowing your best "self" to be present for the situation. It has been well-received, and leaders seem willing to try it out because it is tied directly to their activities.

  • Rob Curtner

    Mindfulness practice can lead to changes in awreness of self, more self aware choices and behavior. That seems like a fine basis for organizational change. The practice part is about individual repetitive effort to meditate. Years of effort in most instances. This article is too light on the practice part.

  • Carl Erikson

    I have worked with many business clients in my psychotherapy and training practices for years and have taught all of them mindfulness meditation. I have found that the practice of mindfulness meditation makes them more open and able to innovate far better than before they began their mindfulness practices. Often it is helpful to have some guidance or a teacher when beginning to do meditation. When a teacher is not available or possible I highly recommend the guided meditation training downloads by Jon Shore at http://www.meditation-download.com to most of my clients since they are very effective.

    One can argue all day about the effectiveness of meditation or mindfulness or one can try it and see for oneself. I usually recommend the second option.

  • 18 years ago there was no teacher to be found (for myself). As a curious searcher of self knowledge I fell upon thich nhat hanh and utilized his books as a guide post in my practice. I find it mmm interesting and a little bit funny that now this practice in all it's myriad forms is so popular. I hope that for most if not all of the people who are pursuing this experience come to know the real values of meditation and living fully aware. Peace

  • Chitra Balakrishnan

    It appears that the exploration of the concept of mindfulness presumes a certain outcome. What do we expect to see out of people who are "mindful"? Is mindfulness a concept or a characteristic trait?

  • Carl Erikson

    A very good question. I would suggest that mindfulness is a state of mind available to everyone. A state that already exists and is just waiting to be discovered and lived.

  • Gwynn Torres

    Mindfulness also allows us to accept those things we cannot change, whether they be issues in our work lives, personal lives or the often traumatic things that happen in our communities and around the world . Thanks to technology, global news is hitting us all day, every day. And unless you're a sociopath, you have to find a way to process the pain you feel for others more and more. This may be more of an issue for some than others, but mindfulness is a helpful exercise for anybody.

  • Samantha - thank you for writing this and putting us all on our heads in reflection. Another note to mention about the term "mindfulness" is that it's a legal safe word and free from religious connotations which would explain why schools and businesses use it so much. As a teacher, I've also used writing as a centering tool to bring our minds to focus on the present.

    Thanks again and I look forward to more of your clever work.

  • Tom Christoffel

    This is a well-written article. The "stillness" practice offered in "Steps to Knowledge: The Book of Inner Knowing" by Marshall Vian Summers I've used since 1999. It leads to an understanding of one's meaning, purpose and direction, as an individual and as part of greater communities. For problem-solvers, it aims at being able to see through complexity to the simple which moves humanity, individuals, organizations along the evolutionary path. It honors those in the past who by trial, error and very hard work have given us the opportunities of this time. It is not an easy path, so research is required. No deprivation or asceticism is required. Peace.

  • Kari Uhlman

    Joshua 1:8 This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success.