The British publication, the Guardian, published on January 23 an article entitled, “Is Mindfulness Making Us Ill?” The author, Dawn Foster, had a negative experience with a group meditation. Instead of calming her, it induced a state of anxiety that persisted for days, along with a persistent tension headache. The experience apparently led her to investigate the practice.
Although the article starts with a basic misunderstanding of mindfulness, it does highlight some key ways in which the mindfulness movement is being co-opted on corporate and governmental levels.
Mindfulness Isn’t Meditation
Foster makes a fundamental error at the beginning of the article, describing mindfulness as “the practice of sitting still and focusing on your breath and thoughts.” If you’re familiar with the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, you know that mindfulness means concentrating on the present moment. In his words, “Mindfulness frees us of forgetfulness and dispersion and makes it possible to live fully each minute of life. Mindfulness enables us to live.”
That means that if you’re washing dishes, put your attention on washing dishes, not on the idea that once you’ve finished this job, you can sit down and have tea and dessert. If you’re walking, concentrate on the walking, not on where you’re going. When you’re focused on the present, you’re being mindful.
Mindfulness may be part of meditation. More importantly, with focused attention on the present, that present moment is meditative.
The Commercialization of Mindfulness
Foster’s article provides a helpful guide to an important reason why mindfulness practices may not be working out in Great Britain. She quotes Will Davies, author of The Happiness Industry, as saying that corporate heads recognize that depression, stress, and anxiety lead to decreased productivity and increased sick days.
Instead of changing the workplace environment by reducing excessive workloads, improving management practices, and taking steps to increase morale, Davies says, “We’re now reaching the stage where mandatory meditation is being discussed as a route to heightened productivity, in tandem with various apps, wearable devices and forms of low-level employee surveillance.”
Thich Nhat Hanh also envisioned how the practice of mindfulness could change the atmosphere of a workplace, but he imagined meetings with calming music in the background and participants who had learned the practice of listening to each other with mindful openness. An example of how this actually done is the prayerful practice with which the Society of Friends conducts its business meetings and seeks consensus.
Instead, British businesses offer apps, surveillance, and forced participation in meditation. When a practice is stripped of its spiritual foundations, can anyone be surprised that this isn’t working out too well?
Next week, I’ll address some of the issues that can arise when one first begins to practice mindfulness.