I'm of two minds about mindfulness. Sure, it's a great concept: Stop and smell the genetically modified blue roses every now and again, disconnect, focus on the moment and transcend the frenetic pace of existence. And yet, the idea of mindful living as THE hot marketing trend of 2014 threatens to take a perfectly nice idea and turn it into the spiritually nourishing equivalent of a burrito vending machine.
What the hell is mindfulness anyway?
Mindfulness is simple: Kidding, it seems simple, but it's certainly not as simple as you'd think. It's just leaning in to the moment, right? Feeling the feels? Oh, you silly Zen goose. Actually, in reading about it you often discover that advocates are more comfortable talking about what it isn't. It "isn't the old San Francisco hippie fluff." It's "not only about reducing stress. Or about emptying our minds of all thoughts. Or about religion."
It's not just breathing. Or just moment-occupying. From the same above-linked NYT piece from March, 2013:
"People have the sense that mindfulness is something they can do by focusing on a raisin for five minutes," said Michael Baime, director of the Penn Program for Mindfulness at the University of Pennsylvania Health System. "That is mindful practice, but it takes more than that."
Janice Marturano, who used to work at General Mills but now runs the nonprofit Institute for Mindful Leadership, defines it as "intentionally paying attention to the present nonjudgmentally."
Easier said than done, Janice Marturano! For instance, you can:
- find a quiet place
- focus attention on your breath or an object (not a raisin!)
- notice when the breath enters and leaves
- notice when the mind takes a hike and redirect it
- do that for 10 minutes or work your way up to 30 or 40 minutes
BUT THAT IS NOT ALL.
There's also what Ms. Marturano calls "purposeful pauses." Deciding that instead of thinking of a coming meeting while brushing your teeth you really focus on the taste of the toothpaste and the bristles and the water. "Take yourself out of autopilot," she said. And eventually expand that "being in the moment" to other parts of your life.
So why is it the NEXT BIG THING?
To quote the vastly underrated movie Dog Park, maybe "there's a lot of gentleness going around." Well, actually, yeah. Part Silicon Valley trend, part New-Age spiritual foofaraw, part emotional intelligence awareness, the people at the top (with money, free time, the luxury to try new approaches to stress reduction) finally realized the great distractathon of content and resources and news and information is actually just the spiritual centeredness equivalent of a cat and a laser pointer.
Says Huffington Post of this trend toward heedfulness:
Mindfulness, it seems, is having a moment. 2013 saw a significant spike of interest in holistic health and mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation (not to mention a number of celebrities and CEOs hopping on the mindfulness bandwagon) and it's a trend that will likely continue to gain momentum in 2014.
Well, you know what I always say, if celebrities and CEOs are doing it, then squeeze me into the Radiant Orchid skinny jeans of mindfulness already. But it's not just celebrities and CEOs, it's also conference founders and trendspotters, too.
Soren Gordhamer, founder of the Wisdom 2.0 conference, told the NYT:
"What the culture is craving is a sense of ease and reflection, of not needing to be stimulated or entertained or going after something constantly. … Nobody's kicking out technology, but we have to regain our connection to others and to nature or else everybody loses."
Says the director of trendspotting at marketing communications behemoth JWT Worldwide:
"Mindfulness is part of a much larger trend we've been observing called mindful living," Ann Mack told the Huffington Post. "It's kind of a counter-trend to the past decade of overly stimulated, ADD-afflicted, tech-saturated culture that we've been living in. What was once the domain of the spiritual set has filtered into the mainstream as more people are drawn to this idea of shutting out distractions and focusing on the moment."
So JWT made a list of 10 key trends for 2014 , and on it are mindful-related things like "raging against the machine," a trend which "puts a higher value on all things that feel essentially human," like in the movie Her. And then, in the entry for "mindful living" itself, we learn that "Consumers are developing a quasi-Zen desire to experience everything in a more present, conscious way."
More mindfulness trends appear in JWT's roundup of "100 Things to Watch in 2014." Alongside items like "human touch," "algae," and "tofu fast food," we see that "survival of the focused," and "mindfulness in the classroom" are cropping up in the year to come.
Look, who doesn't want to be in the moment? I would moment the moments away if I could. Unless the moment is terrible. Then of course, I want out of the moment faster than you can say hot marketing trend of 2014. But I get where this thing is coming from: We leaned in, we leaned out, and we are so fucking tired of all the leaning, and the squinting, and the talking, and split-screen attention.
And if it works for high-powered executives and other successful people, then why not us? Says HuffPo:
A number of high-powered executives — from LinkedIn's Jeff Weiner to the late Steve Jobs to Oprah — have touted meditation as their secret to success. Even several years ago, you'd never expect to hear a billionaire hedge fund founder admit to meditating daily, but it's becoming a lot more common.
"Meditation more than anything in my life was the biggest ingredient of whatever success I've had," Bridgewater Associates founder Ray Dalio claimed, while Oprah has said that meditation helps her to create her best work and best life.
I'd like to mention that perhaps these things things came after success rather than before, but that's just a theory. What does all this best-life mindful chatter mean to us, the regular old consumer? Only time will tell. First, we'll need some products to help us get there, eh? Perhaps Mindful Living magazine will hit the shelves in the coming year. Maybe IKEA will offer a guide to mindful furniture arrangements. Maybe Starbucks has a Mindfulness Tea in the works. Expect a boost in classes offering meditation cruises, silent retreats, and pretty much anything that involves putting down your phone and shutting the hell up for a minute. Quasi-Zen? Quasi your bank account.
Parents, don't worry, you haven't been left out of the frenzy: There's currently a book out on mindful parenting, which Slate has written up as yet another impossible standard of perfection for parents to grovel toward humbly. Regardless, just know that when it comes to being a consumer in 2014, meditate mindfully and ye shall be rewarded.
But the thing about mindfulness, in spite of the fact that it will no doubt be marketed as a well-heeled, laughing with salads kind of lifestyle choice, is that any meditation worth its salt should cost zero dollars and fuck-off sense. You ought to be able to do it anywhere, any place, without a side of Mindfulness Energy Booster + matching exercise halter. (Don't you feel like so many commercials for everything from yogurt to shampoo portray ultra-immersion in THE MOMENT of consumption? It's gross. Expect more of that.)
So beware the mindfulness machine or anything that tries to separate you from your mindful money. And anyone who finds they just can't quite hop on the bandwagon, don't sweat it. Anecdotally, as a huge fan of doing nothing, I've tried meditation and mindfulness before, and, surprise, I'm not that good at it. Maybe it's my impatience — I admit my limitations! — but I find other ways to relax that work well for me, like walking, reading, and doing nothing but not trying to make myself do nothing on purpose.
I think that, like any form of self-betterment, whether it's eating better or exercising more (or at all), you keep an open mind and see what works for you. We can't all do SUP yoga. And while we could all probably benefit from unplugging, I think there are just as many other ways to get out there and calm the energy.
Just don't let a marketing trend make your lifestyle choices for you, or inadvertently make you feel left out when everyone's headed out to the Meditation Bar for empty glasses of post-work silence. You can always do the opposite of mindfulness. Is it thoughtlessness? Or is it mindlessness? Or is it emptiness? Quick, the moment is passing.
Image by Jim Cooke.