Unintended Consequences of the "Modern Mindfulness Industry"

Updated: Apr 4

Note: This was originally a stand-alone piece written on my old site that I first posted back in 2017. I chose to move it to my blog in my site redesign.

from Wikipedia: "Unintended consequences (sometimes unanticipated consequences or unforeseen consequences) are outcomes that are not the ones foreseen and intended by a purposeful action.

The term was popularised in the twentieth century by American sociologist Robert K. Merton."

Note: this paper, "Mind the Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research on Mindfulness and Meditation" (2017) underscores many of the issues discussed below and is essential reading for every mindfulness student, teacher ... and uneducated and/or unscrupulous profiteer. I am grateful for the work of all these highly-respected co-authors.

Additionally, I am grateful for the work of Ron Purser, author of McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality and Mark Leonard, Director, Mindfulness Connected. Both of them have been supportive of me sharing my own experiences as a now former corporate mindfulness trainer.

Although many believe that mindfulness is a "Buddhist thing," the truth is it is taught within the wisdom traditions of many cultures and beliefs around the world. Mindfulness is a state of intentionally conscious awareness, and the Buddha was a spiritual leader whose philosophies incorporated an integrated and intentional focus on both individual and collective human evolution. His approach to teaching was not about claiming ownership for something that is a universal human quality that everyone possesses in varying degrees; rather it was to offer reflective tools for facilitating self-knowledge that when applied not only benefits the practitioner, but all humanity as well through the example they lead by. 

This is not always how it has worked out though. 


​Mindfulness - meet stress


While attending a meditation retreat in 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn was inspired to offer what he'd learned about mindfulness in his studies to those who would likely never set foot in a yoga or meditation center, as he believed it was necessary to disconnect meditative practices from "…the cultural, religious, and ideological factors associated with the Buddhist origins of mindfulness." Kabat-Zinn felt if he could communicate his vision in a scientific and secular context, mindfulness could be marketed in multiple environments - and so the ethical component of the foundational Buddhist teachings was intentionally de-emphasized.

Following the lead of Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson to bring in mindfulness practices to aid in external stress recovery, Kabat-Zinn founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where he developed the Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program, that was eventually renamed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Kabat-Zinn was interested in establishing "…a distinctive brand name for his program" where he used mindfulness as a concept that could function as “…an umbrella term broad enough to contain the multiplicity of key elements that seems essential to field a successful clinical program." MBSR is primarily a mind-body healing and wellness program that merges Buddhist philosophical teachings with scientific methodologies, and includes Hatha Yoga practice, all which prompted Kabat-Zinn to offer a broadly vague definition of mindfulness that has since been repeated by countless students and teachers - many without questioning what it actually means:


“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” - Jon Kabat-Zinn

With all earned respect - if you want to become intentionally conscious, that's simply not enough. How are you showing up in the present moment?

What is the impact you are having upon yourself ... and every person who crosses your path?

In every mindfulness course I have taught, students asked me what Kabat-Zinn actually means by the word "non-judgmentally." It does not mean that you passively give up your ethical principles and not speak up about what you believe is right or wrong conduct. Sound judgment, critical thinking, and wise discernment are all essential qualities to possess in both our personal and professional lives. Radically honest self-reflection and complete ownership of our shadow behaviors is also essential.

Mindfulness is not about "I'm OK and you're OK - and we don't have to change anything" - unlike what some mindfulness teachers have been taught to say. We all have to engage in wise discernment and change things within ourselves - or else we will stay stuck in our old status quo. As the late Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa said in his book Cutting Though Spiritual Materialsm: "The problem is ego can convert anything to its own use ... even spirituality."


That goes for mindfulness as well.

And while mindfulness is being taught to help reduce stress, again, with all earned respect to Goleman, Kabat-Zinn and others in the field, the reality is you can't reduce stress, and you can't manage it. However, you can learn how to skillfully respond to it. Still, most people who take a mindfulness course are mainly interested in reducing their stress levels the way it is understood in the West, as that is what is commonly promoted - and expected of teachers to help them achieve. Teaching mindfulness practices with a goal to reduce symptoms of stress without examining and eliminating the causes of the stress is simply a band-aid over a deep, often toxic situation. Left unaddressed, engaging in "stress reducing" mindfulness meditation practices alone is like tossing pebbles at Goliath.Taming the beast of chronic stress without (or within for that matter) just doesn't happen in a few weeks, and if a student hasn't gained sustainable benefits by doing the work of mindfulness every day with eyes both closed and open, the likelihood they will continue to reap early benefits grows smaller each day. These are the people who say they "tried" mindfulness, but it "didn't work." Well of course it didn't!

Mindfulness, meet science ...

In recent years, people have been conditioned to believe that scientific evidence is superior to anecdotal evidence. In some cases, this is a correct belief. But when it comes to assessing the benefits of embodying mindful awareness (an aspect of consciousness) bothare worthy of consideration. Mindfulness and heartfulness are interchangeable words in the Asian Pali language, where some of the origins of mindfulness began. Scientific evidence honors the wisdom of the mind, anecdotal evidence honors the wisdom of the heart.

The "laboratory of life experience" is at least equally as important as the science lab as it relates to both understanding and improving the quality of human experience. However, it began to lose favor when being able to produce scientifically quantifiable metrics demonstrating the effectiveness of mindfulness quickly became the centerpiece of the marketing and promotion of trainings. I've had countless students tell me that the mindful awareness skills they've learned improved their relationships, self-worth, creativity, courage, communication skills, decision making processes, sense of purpose, and much more that simply cannot be measured in a lab; however, no one denied their quality of life increased as an outcome of their practice. But the reality is that scientific evidence sells programs to corporations and institutions more easily than what may be perceived as "touchy-feely" in any way, and so the secularization of mindfulness that Kabat-Zinn had envisioned became a reality.

As the late - and great observer of human beings from his travels all around the world - Anthony Bourdain said beautifully: 

"People, wherever they live, are not statistics. They are not abstractions."

Many Buddhists and non-Buddhists have publicly stated that a secularized, "non-offensive" version of mindfulness - removing inclusive, universal ethical and spiritual principles from teachings and trainings - was a mistake that is having many unintended consequences. "Modern mindfulness" trainings generally avoid any reference to human spirituality – which I define universally and inclusively as that which brings strength, depth, meaning, ethics, and purpose to guide our lives, and is personal and unique for each one of us. Discussion of intrinsic spiritual needs and universal ethical principles has been pretty much forbidden in the workplace out of a fear of bringing in religious beliefs. That's completely understandable. However, focus on our body, mind, and maybe a bit about regulating difficult emotions while denying our spiritual well-being is like asking a car to run on three cylinders, not four – inefficient and clunky at best.

Everyone I've ever spoken to about the subject of scientific studies has said, "You can make a study 'prove' whatever you want it to." The ethical question that anyone who publishes a study on mindfulness (who will benefit from positive outcomes) must be, "Do I have an agenda? How do I define a 'positive' outcome? Have I overstated the results in my favor? Am I hiding anything, or being misleading in my data? Are my sample sizes really too small to show significance for a larger populace? Am I being blinded by science?"

As Albert Einstein once said, "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts."

The ethical component of mindfulness arises from heartfulness - and provides anecdotal evidence no one can apply a bunch of numbers to. Without it, a purely scientific-driven application and approach to mindfulness is lacking - and unsustainable. Without the critical thinking and wise discernment that is supported by properly executed scientific methods and application, anecdotal evidence can quickly turn into new-age gobbledy-gook. We need both scientific and anecdotal evidence. 

... and the workplace

Many well-intentioned mindfulness teachers who are teaching it in a secular format in workplace environments attempt to place our spiritual needs into our emotional realm. But bravery is not an emotion. Inner strength is not an emotion. Forgiveness is not an emotion. Humility is not an emotion. Patience is not an emotion. The experience of discovering our purpose, and applying ethical principles and meaning to our lives are not emotions. However, they all come from choices made within us, and reaching into the depths of our human spirit to persevere and grow is universally celebrated – and this may be where we can more comfortably bring in an inclusive embrace of this vital part of our health and true happiness. Bravery, humility, forgiveness, depth, meaning, strength, values and purpose all fuel our resilience to make it through the ups and downs of life with grace, wholeness and humanity - even when the road is treacherous and the odds for survival – let alone success - look impossible … and resilience framed by honorable, impeccable character is a skill that is so needed in our intensely demanding world. 

What happens when we are cut off from our emotional experiences – and told they aren't important? What about our spiritual necessities – and we are told they don't belong at work or other areas of our lives? I've taught courses on mindful and intentionally conscious eating, and part of our obesity epidemic lies in the quantity and poor quality of the food many people eat  – yet another part lies in our spiritual emptiness and a need to fill a void and a deep hunger we are being told to deny. The suffering some experience is immense, and we are taught it is socially acceptable to numb, escape, and avoid life's challenges by drinking too much alcohol, taking drugs, unhealthy eating, spending too much, etc. 


When an entire part of our human experience is neglected, it's like cutting off an appendage and then denying it exists, or dismissing it as unimportant, or worse, threatening to others. I've taught courses for training organizations who insist on offering a secular interpretation of mindfulness only, and going "off-script" was verboten because they didn't want to "offend" anyone. When mindfulness is taught in a manner that does not include radically honest self-reflection and taking ownership for the impact we have upon ourselves and everyone our life comes into contact with (including our ripple effect), it is a disservice to the work itself.

In terms of mindfulness trainings in the workplace are concerned, if the causes of a dysfunctional workplace are not openly dealt with,  mindfulness trainings can be simply band-aids over deeper workplace problems that are being pushed under the rug. And if a culture of mindfulness is not transparently adopted, reflected and supported by all levels of leadership and management, it will not be sustainable. To be truly effective, a mindfulness educator and coach incorporates aholistic approachand is a strategic partner with any organization that wants to build an organizational culture that values human wholeness and ethical transparency. They teach skills that help to empower a dynamic, supportive workforce that loves coming to work every day with a sense of shared purpose to attain the company's visions and goals – which is often the opposite of what is happening now.And of course, teaching about being mindful in the workplace without remembering to bring it fully into our entire lives, no matter where we are in any given moment, compartmentalizes practice and focuses primarily on improving an organization's bottom line, not the wholeness of all the human beings who work there.

And then there's this:

Because mindfulness education has become a lucrative offering in the corporate training field, competition between teachers and "brands" exists – which invites in elitism, fear, scarcity thinking, "overstating" the results in scientific studies on mindfulness - and perhaps most disturbing, competitiveness and concerns about lawsuits between trainers/companies who teach mindfulness concepts and principles that nobody owns. Any pull to do this is ego-driven, grasping and attached – the antithesis of what mindful awareness is, and if he were alive today, would be likely be brought to light by a tearful Buddha himself. I was shocked to experience these behaviors from fellow teachers myself, and many tears have been shed because of it. In fact, years ago when I first began teaching what I've been studying since I was a child, I was verbally attacked by Buddhists on LinkedIn who said I had "no right" to teach mindfulness, being that I wasn't a Buddhist. That felt pretty elitist and attached to me - and it continued while I was teaching mindfulness skills - even by some teachers who many look up to. Therefore, I have no doubt I'll be judged as being judgmental by some teachers who read this piece who won't even see they've weaponized the term.

There are countless people who have taken a couple classes or read a few books about mindfulness and then hung out a shingle to make money teaching what it takes years to embody, and who are harming others due to their lack of experience. I studied and practiced mindfulness for decades before I felt in my heart I had the grounded knowldege and experience to teach it with humility, with reverence for the trust and psyches of my students, and as a service to the wholeness of mindfulness itself - not just "cherry-picking" popularized marketable benefits. The universal ethical components of mindful awareness must be included - or it is fragmented and cannot serve people in every aspect of the human experience, no matter where they are in any given situation or encounter, in any given moment.


Then there are self-proclaimed mindfulness teachers who don't walk their talk - like this guy.

​Not acknowledging that dark shadow behaviors are going on when teachers don't want to address them is driven by fear and ego, and the deeply transformative power of mindful awareness is withheld when teachers are not asked to honestly (and compassionately) self-reflect. The message becomes controlled when their marketing focus is on ROI, metrics and scientific evidence only - yet a 2016 study concluded, "The proportion of mindfulness-based therapy trials with statistically significant results may overstate what would occur in practice." This cannot be stressed too much, because it is not ethical to do this. I've even asked other mindfulness teachers if they have taken the time to actually read each study that boasts these claims, and not one person said they have - they just link to any positive-sounding study posted in the media that furthers their business without question - and often not even knowing how to read and understand scientific research. This is engaging in publication bias - giving it strong value simply because it is a published study - and therefore it must be true. When you don't engage in critical thinking and wise discernment you are vulnerable to "fake news" - and when a study expresses your own beliefs it is confirmation bias.

And to make matters worse, some of these studies are co-conducted by companies and/or individuals who will profit from positive outcomes - a definite conflict of interest, and again, highly unethical. This is an unintended consequence of stripping mindfulness trainings of the ethical component in favor of not "offending" anybody, because teachers are not holding themselves (or one another) to an honorable code of conduct and reverence for not only the facts, but to those whom they are teaching. I've directly witnessed some "big names" in the field who publicly espouse how mindfulness makes you more compassionate, humane, and full of loving-kindness who in fact treat people in the exact opposite way. 

Teaching these skills is most honorably done in service of doing the work of mindful awareness itself and all whose lives may benefit with humility and impeccability – not about leaving a mark, becoming a "mindfulness expert/brand/celebrity," getting a book deal, funding for professionally benefitting research, and making big bucks. Just because a company has a large public presence, a big PR and marketing budget and charges big bucks to learn from them doesn't make them "better than" a relatively unknown highly experienced teacher who shares the exact same principles in their trainings. 

And this ...

Another issue arises when a teacher/training company insists that their interpretation of how mindfulness is taught and practiced is THE way. Whether it is a Buddhist interpretation or a secular one, when this takes place (and I've experienced it directly numerous times, as have other teachers I've spoken with) rigidity, attachment, grasping, dismissive judgment, and elitism takes place - all the antithesis of their "talk" about what mindfulness is. There is no one way to teach someone how to become what the the essence of mindful awareness is: intentionally conscious. In fact, it is wise and common sense that diverse approaches that further mindful awareness be welcomed and honored - and truly dedicated teachers would be wise to support one another's diversity in teaching - which includes being open, flexible, accepting, interested, and above all humble - acknowledging a) they don't know everything, and that b) other credible methods that lead to the same place are not a threat to the purity of the work - they enhance it, as well as increase adoption and interest. Diversity adds a richness of ideas and perspectives, as well as increasing inclusivity. The guiding self-reflective questions to ask yourself are: "Does _____ increase your conscious awareness in a grounded, practical and actionable way? Is there solid, credible scientific and/or anecdotal information to support this? Does what you're being told make sense to you - or not?" 

For example, if you like to meditate to music or nature sounds to feel grounded and focused, but a teacher tells you that's not what mindfulness meditation is (and I've heard that said myself) - listen to your own gut about it. They aren't necessarily always right - and they also may just be regurgitating what they were taught, without using critical thinking or questioning it. Sometimes I meditate in silence and sometimes I use music. Sometimes I sit, and sometimes I'm walking on a treadmill at the gym. The bigger problem is getting stuck. Own your own mind. 

Mindfulness, meet the marketplace

As much as Jon Kabat-Zinn probably didn't foresee – or even want it to happen, an unintended consequence of mindfulness as a self-help technique has acquired some baggage. When there's money to be made (and shadow behaviors are not eliminated) the ego rears its head. Now that it's become mainstream, "McMindfulness" is as prevalent as "fake news" and untrained, inexperienced, self-proclaimed experts have smelled the potential to make lots of money selling trainings and compete with one another to sell their take on mindfulness, again, often marketing the more scientifically quantifiable benefits Kabat-Zinn and other researchers have offered via clinical studies to sell to large corporations that are mainly attracted by the promoted claims of having less stressed and more productive, more attentive, more focused employees. 

"People trafficking in McMindfulness do concern me. I have no reason to think they aren’t well-intentioned people. I think they are. But I think their relative lack of knowledge can end up reinforcing certain characteristics in people - self-centeredness and a fixation on achievement, for instance - that actually undermine well-being." - Richard Davidson, "Taking Mindfulness to the Streets,"The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 2017. (Yes, that Richard Davidson.) 

And from a February 2019 interview titled "A Neuroscientist on Love and Learning" with Davidson on Krista Tippett's On Being show: Ms. Tippett:  "I want to talk about mindfulness, because that is, would you say, a primary tool or the primary tool in the work as you’ve done it?"

Mr. Davidson: "I would say, it’s a primary tool, and - well, I should back up and say, we don’t use that word that much. We certainly use it, but we don’t use it that much. It has been so hyped in the media, in education, in all kinds of places, that some of its nuanced flavor, I think, has been lost.

"We talk about it as mental exercises to cultivate self-regulation, to cultivate the regulation of attention, the regulation of emotion. So far, I haven’t found a single parent who didn’t want to help their child better regulate their attention and better regulate their emotions. Framed in this way, I think we can make it quite universal."

To read more about "McMindfulness," Ron Purser has written a book titled McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality. Here are links to articles and interviews: 

The Mindfulness Conspiracy Why Corporations Want You to Shut Up and Meditate

Mindfulness has become a commodity to many: marketers slap the word onto products as a sales gimmick (on everything from "Mindful Mayonnaise" to "Mindful Minerals" skin care products to "Mindful Mints" and [shudder] "Mindful Manicures" that tout infusions of "unicorn magic"!).  Where there's a profit to be made, there will be opportunists ready to capitalize on it – which ultimately serves to turn mindfulness into something not taken seriously. The commodification of mindfulness threatens to turn it into the next "pet rock." There is a "money grab" going on, whether it is in over-priced "brand name" trainings that many people can't even afford, or products that have nothing to do with intentionally conscious awareness. 

"Increasingly, mindfulness is being packaged as a one-minute reprieve, an interlude between checking Instagram and starting the next episode of 'House of Cards.' One company proclaims it has found the 'minimum effective dose' of meditation that will change your life. On Amazon, you can pick up 'One-Minute Mindfulness: 50 Simple Ways to Find Peace, Clarity, and New Possibilities in a Stressed-Out World.' Dubious courses promise to help people 'master mindfulness' in a few weeks." - David Gelles, "The Hidden Price of Mindfulness, Inc.", NY Times, March 2016.

Respected mindfulness educator Matthieu Ricard voiced his concerns to the writer of a May 2017 piece published in Time magazine titled "How We Ruined Mindfulness":

“'There are a lot of people speaking about mindfulness,” Ricard told me, 'but the risk is that it’s taken too literally — to just 'be mindful.' Well, you could have a very mindful sniper and a mindful psychopath. It’s true! A sniper needs to be so focused, never distracted, very calm, always bringing back his attention to the present moment. And non-judgmental — just kill people and no judgment. That could happen!'

"Ricard’s point is that the secular mindfulness movement typically offers mindfulness without morals. It’s a 'me me me' mindfulness that might be good for you, but doesn’t necessarily make you good. In contrast, he believes the ancient Buddhist tradition offers a much-needed ethical framework that integrates concepts like compassion, empathy and caring. The secular courses could easily include this wider value-based perspective, but most fail to do so — they’re too busy packaging mindfulness for our age of hyper-individualism."

It's heartbreaking to see that mindfulness became compromised and commodified to this degree after the spiritual and ethical components were purposefully stripped away to make it more "marketable." This is extremely distressing for long-time, highly experienced teachers (including myself) who have had the honor and privilege of teaching thousands of students these transformative skills with both reverence and responsibility. 

Mindfulness, meet daily life

​The Life Skill of mindful awareness can't just be compartmentalized to where we may see attention, performance and engagement benefits at work, and be a holistic practice no matter where we are in any given moment. If we are mindful at work – then we are mindful everywhere else - or we are not living mindfulness in wholeness. Therefore, a holistic approach to mindfulness supports the integration of being and doing within the entire context of our lives: our relationship with ourselves, our relationships with others, our home and family life, our work/school/daily activities, our social/community life, and wherever we choose to offer our service to causes that matter to us.

The stress of attempting to juggle a "work" self, a "family" self, a "relationships" self, etc., can lead to a sense of dissociation and disconnect between being and doing - or the experience of a non-integrated self. In a "whole person" embodiment of mindful awareness, we are the same person no matter where we are in any given moment. Living without a sense of integration can also lead to avoidance, escapism, justification, denial, excuses and compromises in integrity. Universal ethical principles are not something we fearfully deny the importance of in every area of our lives - nor are they something we use as a weapon to divide us. Unsullied mindful awareness allows us to see the difference between self-righteousness - and simply the right use of ourselves, which is the foundation of Ethical Intelligence.

Last but not least: Are you being mindful ... or "me-full"?

Kabat-Zinn's basic definition of mindfulness (and the variations on the same theme given by others) misses a key point: it does not ask that we consider how we are showing up in the present moment, and the impact our thoughts, choices, actions and behaviors have upon us and everyone in our sphere of influence. Eliminating an ethical framework out of fear that mindful awareness trainings are trying to impose a religious belief system has thrown the baby out with the bathwater. When life becomes all about us and "What's in it for me/my bottom line?", ethics, values and morals become socio-culturally framed as a hindrance to the ego that is competitive and fear-driven. Instead of deep self-reflection we have self-indulgence that gives a false impression of living mindfully: dropping all the "right" buzzwords and "looking the part." Giving a false appearance of mindfulness sadly contributes to a mainstream misinterpretation about what practice is authentically about – and it's not all about you. It's no wonder why my fellow teachers and I have to spend so much time educating people about what mindfulness isn't.

There has been a "self-love" trend going on in the self-help world, and while its important to have a healthy sense of self-worth and compassion, directing our attention inward without an equal gaze outward can become narcissistic, and left unchecked becomes the malignant self-love that Sam Vaknin, self-admitted malignant narcissist extraordinaire has been warning about for some time. Constantly "selfie-taking," attention seeking and approval addiction are outgrowths of social media that have fueled the "It's all about me" mindset – and it is beginning to take a toll, but the trap is difficult to spring ourselves from when "everybody else is doing it."

A Turning Point: From "Me" to "We"

Perhaps it's time to remember to hit the reset button and upgrade our internal operating systems. Consciously shifting from "me" to "we" re-minds us in the moment to break free of the inward-only focus of self-help and the "How can I use mindfulness to get what I want?" mindset, to the outward focus of helping our fellow human beings and "How can I use mindfulness to help others - as well as myself?" Doing the sometimes scary, messy, uncomfortable-at-best work on ourselves is a service to everyone our life impacts. This can only fully take place if you are guided by strong, Ethical Intelligence arising from the solid foundation of character - so that the ego doesn't learn mindful awareness or Emotional and Social Intelligence skills for self-involved gains. 

Nobody is more or less important than anyone else. It makes no difference whether you are a CEO or a custodian, an ambassador or an artist, a professor or a pizza maker, becoming intentionally conscious, and choosing to lead the change you wish to see is a premium, sustainable Internal Operating System upgrade, because you aren't merely doing transformational work for yourself; your awareness expands to include owning the impact you have in whatever sphere of influence you lead in.  Actions speak loudest, character matters, and keeping universal ethical and spiritual principles in all mindfulness-centered trainings, (regardless of where they are conducted or who teaches them) can help keep it clean, and serve mindfulness itself. The consequences of doing this are positive outcomes for all humanity.

Isn't that the point?


©2017, 2020, Suzanne Matthiessen, innerevolution media. All rights reserved.

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