Unintended Consequences of the "Modern Mindfulness Industry"

Updated: Nov 1, 2020

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 a holistic approach and 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.

From Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics: The Mind, Volume 2 by HH the Dalai Lama, (2020, November) Wisdom Publications:

"...the focus is on marketized mindfulness, on searching inside oneself and using psychological and technological tools as a bridge. Meditation as optimization of attention with a high ROI. That marketized meditation has been severely and rightfully criticized by Ron Purser and others as McMindfulness. "...the contemplative training in concentration will not succeed with a chaotic mind; one must also train in ethics — that is, one must cultivate virtue and reduce nonvirtue — precisely because mental afflictions, or nonvirtues, cause the mind to be unsettled in a way that inhibits the cultivation of attention.

In short, mindfulness (i.e., cultivation of certain mental factors) can’t be divorced from wisdom and ethics. The question therefore arises: what’s the wisdom of our times and what moral and material complexity does that wisdom need to engage?"

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.