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.

What Our Recent Obsession With Mindfulness Really Means
[Image: Flickr user Konstantin Stepanov]

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.”

About the author

Freelance tech, science and culture writer. Find Sam on the Internet: @samleecole.