“McMindfulness.” I came across this term for the first time today. I wish I had coined it. It would be nice to be able to make a claim to originality. But coming across the term is almost good enough. It provides a name for a phenomenon that I didn’t even know needed one, and it makes it real. I don’t think anyone knows who coined this term. It’s kind of like “neoliberalism.” Suddenly there is a name for something you know is a problem — an important problem that can be difficult to put your finger on.

Mindfulness practice is a meditative discipline, originating in Buddhism, that involves the cultivation of a type of present-centered, nonjudgmental awareness of the ongoing flow of one’s emerging experience. While mindfulness enjoyed some popularity in the 1960’s as a countercultural phenomenon, in recent years it has surged into mainstream prominence to be embraced with gushing enthusiasm by both popular culture and mainstream psychology.

Book cover of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain © Ballantine | Amazon.com
Book cover of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain © Ballantine | Amazon.com

So what is McMindfulness? It’s the marketing of mindfulness practice as a commodity that is sold like any other commodity in our brand culture. “Mindfulness really works.” It reduces stress, cures depression and anxiety, and manages pain. We know so because research proves it. Never mind the fact that up until recently there was no research comparing the effectiveness of mindfulness to anything else. Never mind the fact that the research that has compared mindfulness-based cognitive therapy to traditional cognitive therapy (the latter allegedly being the evidence based treatment of choice) finds that the emperor has no clothes. And never mind the fact that there is no solid evidence that traditional cognitive therapy is more helpful than any other bona fide form of psychotherapy (including the “discredited pseudoscience” of psychoanalysis).

That’s not the point. McMindfulness is a stock on the rise. A brand that promises to deliver. It satisfies spiritual yearnings without being a religion. It’s backed by brain scientists at Harvard and MIT. It’s magic without being magical. It even transforms corporate culture and increases market share! Now that’s worth paying for.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in mindfulness. I would not have practiced it in one form or another for the last forty years if I didn’t. But isn’t mindfulness practice supposed to be, as the Zen teachers of old used to say, nothing special?

Then again, mind you, why would the Zen students of old have undergone such hardships to seek the teachings of reclusive Zen masters if they really believed that they had nothing special to offer? Clearly a canny pitch if ever there was one.

Yoga in King George Square, Brisbane © Sheba_Also | Flickr Creative Commons
Yoga in King George Square, Brisbane © Sheba_Also | Flickr Creative Commons

So hasn’t mindfulness always been marketed? I suppose in one sense the answer is “yes.” People have bought and sold things since the beginning of time. Street merchants have always hawked their wares. Yogis have always claimed to have supernatural powers. The Buddha promised enlightenment as the end of suffering. Saint Paul promised salvation. Freud said that psychoanalysis could transform neurotic misery into ordinary suffering — not exactly a hard pitch. But good salesmen know that many customers don’t respond well to hard pitches. And whatever Freud’s limitations may have been as the leader of a new movement, he certainly managed to instill faith in his disciples. But there is something different about the selling of mindfulness these days. That’s what makes it McMindfulness. McMindfulness is the marketing of a constructed dream; an idealized lifestyle; an identity makeover.

I’m not saying that mindfulness practice doesn’t work. It’s not as simple as that. In order to understand what mindfulness does and does not do for people, we need to understand the desires, needs and yearnings that the successful marketing of mindfulness taps into. We need to think about the role and function of the self-help industry in our culture. We need to remember that psychotherapy is a type of secular religion. And we need to remember that psychotherapy needs to be marketed in our culture, just as medications need to be marketed. Of course the profits in the psychotherapeutic industry are negligible relative to those in the pharmaceutical industry. But psychotherapists do need to pay their rent. And then, of course, there is the marketing of ideas. Developers of new brands of psychotherapy don’t make a fortune, but there is always the social capital that comes with developing a successful therapy brand.

And students of mindfulness are doing something fashionable. It’s reminiscent of seeing a psychoanalyst in New York during the 1950’s, but it’s even hotter than that. And it does help them — as much as anything else does.

14 thoughts on “McMindfulness

  1. Great post, Dr. Safran! I’m thinking we can also consider how mindfulness has been appropriated as a technology of the self of sorts that leads one to feel like we ought not let anger–if one dares admit to feeling angry–drive us to act. This effect might very well limit possibilities for political mobilization and social action.

    1. This is a very interesting-post and a very interesting discussion. I would like to add to what has been said that in my view we cannot grasp the market appeal of Mcmindfulnes without considering also the fascination for the “ethnic” side of it: it is a practice that is all the more appealing because of its aura of exoticism.

  2. I agree that it seems paradoxical to charge large fees for techniques aimed at increasing universal consciousness. This goes for Mindfulness, but also Deepak Chopra’s Center which costs thousands of dollars for a weekend of “self realization” in a ritzy spa and TM which costs $1000 – $2000. Thus, they are only accessible to wealthy people, which seems contrary to the philosophies behind these practices. However in respect to Jessica’s comment, mindfulness is a useful technique (teaching it for profit is what seems off) which takes the ego driven “I” out of the equation. When one sees an injustice we can better act upon it in a fair and balanced way. Politics could certainly use more mindfulness in order to achieve change.

  3. Just to add a bit to the discussion. Part of the attraction of “mindfulness” in the west is its connection to Buddhism. Well, the Buddha taught a form of mindfulness (in his words, samma sati) that was part of a chain of practices that were ethics, wisdom, and compassion based. Mindfulness is the practice that exists along with ethical views, correct effort , positive action, and a calming and insight type of meditation called jhana (among others factors). Together, these eight interdependent links form the Noble Eightfold Path that leads away from stress and suffering. Mindfulness is the practice or quality that keeps us on the path, reminds us what is skillful and unskillful, and supports samatha-vipassana meditation. It has a measure of judgment or evaluation to it, and is more than just “awareness.” It is not Zen’s “just sitting,” and is actually a richer and brilliantly faceted practice that can lead to an ethical life more free of attachments and resultant suffering.
    Some have misappropriated mindfulness for profit (see http://www.mcmindfulness.com ) or are using it in forms that are helpful, but possibly offer half a loaf. For those willing to explore what the Buddha actually taught 2600 years ago, there awaits some real breakthroughs, but not the kind that aid businesses to get more productivity from already overstressed workers.

    1. Michael: While at one level I agree with you, at another level I think it’s problematic to create a false binary between “the real thing” (i.e. the authentic Dharma that the Buddha taught) and ersatz Buddhism (i.e. Western Buddhism, mindfulness or even “McMindfulness”). The search for the “real Buddhism” is hopelessly confounded with the search for the “authentic”- and I don’t think the authentic exists out there somewhere in some pure form. I don’t think it can be situated in some space outside of consumer culture, because consumer culture is the culture that we inhabit.

      1. Jeremy, I agree with you on one level, but feel that yes, there is an authentic Dhamma that can impact the ethical and consumerist drift that we’re experiencing in the west. This Dhamma is the antidote to consumer culture; the prescription provided by the Buddha still quite valid.

      2. Authentically transmission of ancient practices and teachings still exist, not westernized at all, but as Jessica Benjamin said, one has to find, check and then trust a teacher as the teachings. And it’s in no way marketed.
        And like with Freud: it’s not about changing. It’s about understanding:)
        No first-Mary-then-Tara kind of thing..:) (Queen;)

  4. Food for thought: Quote from Slavoj Zizek –
    “Western Buddhism is becoming the hegemonic (dominant) ideology
    of global capitalism because its meditative stance is arguably the most
    efficient way for us to fully participate in capitalist dynamics while retaining
    the appearance of mental sanity. Western Buddhism enables you to fully
    participate in the frantic pace of the capitalist game while sustaining the
    illusion that you’re not really in it. But you’re well aware of how worthless
    this spectacle is. What really matters to you is the peace of the inner self, to
    which you can always withdraw.”

    1. Let’s call what Zizec said McMarxism Or really McMarcuse. Everything is susceptible to being colored or used for gain including the Buddhist idea of no gain or emptiness. Nonetheless there are differences and distinctions to be made between practices that are transmitted with devoted teaching and give access to greater knowledge and ethics and those that are merely marketed. That does not mean as Jeremy says that marketed practices can’t be useful to people. What they can’t do is create a rich tradition that allows people to deepen their practice. For that a person must move from the market to the teacher of tradition. Learning that distinct cation is part if what protects people from the capitalist culture Zizek is critiquing.

      1. Agreed Jessica. I’m not saying that marketed practices can’t be useful to people. I’m also not saying that no distinctions can be made between teachers, traditions & practices that are more likely to help people to “deepen their practices” and develop as ethical, wise & compassionate human beings versus those that are less likely to. But I am saying that the distinctions are not as straightforward as we would like them to be. Respected Dharma heirs are marketed with glossy ads in Tricycle magazine. Does this mean that they or their teaching are corrupted? Not necessarily. It’s just that attempting to live “a good life” takes ongoing effort. And that effort can be facilitated by attempting to maintain an ongoing awareness of the way in which every thing we experience and strive toward is shaped in part by our culture (which happens to be a consumer culture). And given the global nature of culture in our times…the Dalai Lama is embedded in this culture, just like you and I are. Actually, the Dalai Lama does a pretty masterful job of using PR tools to advance his spiritual and political agendas. There is no “pure” mindfulness practice or dharma. In psychoanalytic terms..it’s all overdetermined.

  5. Jeremy, I think the reason why zen teachers say mindfulness is ‘nothing special’ is because they are speaking from an enlightened perspective. Students continue through hardships because their beliefs that there is something to be gained are unenlightened. When they realise this they will say the same as the teachers.

  6. Zizek is right as long as compassion is not the focus of practice and it’s understanding. It had a reason, why in eastern Buddhism enlightment was considered an inseparability of wisdom and compassion, or emptiness and Manifestation.
    It was said, that when realizing only the wisdom aspect it can lead into ignorance and cynism, whereas realizing only the compassion aspect can lack the clarity needed for help to be effektive for the beings, not just for ones own feelings.

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