Is Mindfulness Selling Out?

A post I wrote first featured on the Kull Initiative for Psychotherapy blog

A friend of mine who works at a large tech start up recently told me that, along with sleekly designed offices, unlimited vacation and daily lunches catered by local restaurants, they have an in-house mindfulness expert.  I became immediately skeptical of what felt like this corporate workplace co-opting a practice originally based in Buddhist tradition using it for business-minded “personal growth and even success strategies.”

This is exactly what writer Virginia Heffernan describes in an article for the New York Times Magazine called The Muddled Meaning of ‘Mindfulness.   Heffernan explores how the business world is using the mindfulness practice to increase workers’ productivity. As a clinician invested in bringing mindfulness into my work, and someone who has experienced the benefits of the practice in my personal life, I was concerned that the commercializing of mindfulness, along with stripping away elements that contribute to lasting benefits, could make the practice appear like another flash in the pan trend.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, considered the godfather of mindfulness as it is generally practiced in the United States, defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”  At first, that sounds easy enough.  But how does one “pay attention on purpose,” and how is that going to help with the stresses of everyday life?

Meditation is used to help focus awareness on what you are experiencing in the moment without judgment.  This can be done in complete silence or calm sounds in the background.  Distracting thoughts, those about anything other than your focus (which could be your breath or a specific part of your body), are acknowledged and gently pushed to the side.  Meditation can occur sitting, lying down or walking and can be done alone or with a group.

In a therapeutic setting, mindfulness can be used to address symptoms related to anxiety, depression, compulsions, obsessive thoughts and everyday stresses.  Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy or stress reduction can help clients grow more comfortable drawing focus away from disruptive or distressing thoughts to observing and coping with present occurring situations.  This can lead to a deeper acceptance and compassion for one’s self.

So while everyone from start-ups, to Whole Foods, to professional sports teams have mindfulness and meditation on their lips, it can’t replace the benefits of a sustained practice.  And though it may not be the business world’s strategy du jour for long, with its long tradition of helping people lead more content lives, mindfulness is here to stay.