April 6, 2017

Four Lies the Wellness Industry tells us about Mindfulness Meditation.

Marketers will tell you anything you want to hear in order to get you to buy their product.

I know. I used to be one.

Lately, I’ve noticed a troubling trend as mindfulness meditation has become the hottest new self-improvement tool in the handbook of the wellness industry. Names such as “Retreat and Renewal,” “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction,” and “Mindfulness and Awareness Relaxation Training” pepper the lists of programs offered at retreat centers. Books with phrases like “Finding Peace” or “Reducing Stress and Anxiety” in their titles are cropping up on bookshelves everywhere.

I understand that businesses need to make money, and in order to make money, names and titles need to contain attractive keywords. In fact, I’ll bet you’re reading this now because you Googled “mindfulness meditation” and the word “lie” jumped out at you. (Either that, or you’re a regular reader of elephant journal, in which case…good job!)

But after a point, marketing deteriorates from being attractive to downright misleading, and that isn’t cool.

I challenge wellness marketers to start using titles like these:

Retreat and Revenge: Feel Your Anger and Finally Deck That Person Who Pisses You Off
Mindfulness-Based Insanity: Create and Experience Your Very Own Nervous Breakdown
Mindfulness and Awareness Neurosis Training: Get Intimate With Your Own Smelly Sh*t
Reduce Denial With Mindfulness Meditation: Imbalance—Can You Handle the Vertigo?

Guaranteed to scare off those annoying love-and-light new agers, yes?

Okay, all kidding aside, let’s take a moment to debunk some of the lies fed to us by the wellness industry and look at what actually happens instead.

Lie No. 1: Mindfulness meditation is relaxing and will make us feel better.

False. It’s not uncommon for new practitioners of mindfulness meditation to feel worse, because meditation creates the space for all kinds of unconscious thoughts to float up into our awareness.

Often, these thoughts are accompanied by feelings of rage, despair, jealousy, or boredom.

When we practice meditation, we aren’t allowed to jump up and check Facebook or engage in our stimulus of choice when things get prickly. We commit to staying right there with those feelings while they tighten our stomachs and burn holes in our psyches.

However, over time, we learn that it is possible to sit with intense thoughts and emotions without freaking out. We discover that all mental states are workable, and that they really won’t kill us.

Lie No. 2: Mindfulness meditation will make us less anxious and/or make our lives less stressful.

False. Mindfulness meditation practice gives us an opportunity to set aside some stimulus-free time so that we can observe what’s taking up space in our heads. That’s it.

Personally, I’m convinced that the root cause of our stress is at least partly biological in nature. Our glorified monkey brains simply weren’t designed to deal with the complexity of modern civilization. All of the meditation in the world won’t change that. We need to take action (see this article on simplifying your life) to make our lives less stressful.

Lie No. 3: Mindfulness meditation will make us more compassionate.

False. Unfortunately, it is quite common for practitioners to try and mimic compassion by pretending that they have transcended their feelings—especially anger. This doesn’t work. It’s like ignoring the pain of a broken ankle or a burned hand; if we pretend that we don’t feel anything and just move our injured body around any old way, we make the injury worse. Then, we lash out at others because it hurts.

As we’ve seen above, mindfulness meditation creates an opportunity for us to fully experience our anger, despair, boredom, and fear. Compassion emerges when we allow ourselves to feel our own difficult emotions and make friends with them. Then, we can be with the difficult emotions of others without trying to fix them.

Lie No. 4: Mindfulness meditation will help us focus and be more productive at work.

False. Well, okay, maybe not really false. It depends on how we define “productivity.” If productivity means multitasking or “constantly scanning for opportunities and staying on top of contacts, events, and activities in an effort to miss nothing,” then mindfulness meditation isn’t going to help very much, because it actually takes us in the opposite direction.

When we meditate, we bring our awareness back to the breath over and over again. Eventually we develop the ability to notice when our minds are wandering away from the task at hand, then to let go of those thoughts and return to what we are working on. We actually begin to un-learn multitasking, which is a good thing—The New Yorker explains how multi-tasking makes you dumber.

In conclusion:

The wellness industry needs to stop presenting mindfulness meditation as an instant fix and inform spiritual seekers what it really is: a serious practice that has the potential to be transformative, but only over the course of years and even decades of dedicated practice, study, and guidance. Use words such as “insight,” “awaken,” “transform,” and “awareness.”

Will honest marketing bring in millions of dollars? No. But it will attract those who are committed to hanging in there for the long haul, doing the work, and quite possibly changing the world.

Think of them as repeat customers.


Author: Catie Moore

Image: home thods/Flickr

Editor: Catherine Monkman

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Patrick McGinn Apr 15, 2017 7:42pm

I agree that mindfulness meditation is difficult and that marketing spins this fact. I disagree with assertion that meditation does not help beyond the actual time doing it. My own personal experience is that I am more capable of handling anxiety and stress in everyday life situations if meditating regularly. I find it hard to believe the author has not also experienced this benefit.

Christy McReynolds Apr 9, 2017 2:46am

Weird how an article criticizing the "wellness marketers" of being gimmicky is so, well, gimmicky. From the "Four Lies" clickbait title to the supposed lies that aren't really lies, the whole thing just feels contrived. Nearly every "lie" was followed up with "but longterm meditation does indeed do this thing." So they're not really lies, since mindfulness meditation really does do these things -- the author's real issue seems to be that people aren't focusing on the fact that results won't be instantaneous and require us to actual PRACTICE our practice. But that's true of any beneficial practice, whether it be eating healthfully or exercising or something as mundane as brushing our teeth. It would be ludicrous to pitch a fit that "the Wellness Industry tells us that brushing our teeth gives us better oral health when everybody knows that brushing them only once doesn't help!!!!!!" That reaction is every bit as ridiculous here. I'm pretty bummed that I wasted one of my 3 daily reads on Elephant Journal on something as uselessly petty and misleading as this.

Nicole Jaquis Apr 7, 2017 6:37pm

I love this one! "Mindfulness-Based Insanity: Create and Experience Your Very Own Nervous Breakdown" - two and a half years co-running an ashram (yoga/ayurveda retreat center for mostly foreigners) in the foothills of the Himalayas, I have realized our main job is to hold a safe-space for people to loose their shit. Because their regular busy multitasking lifestyle never allows for that space, much less keeps it safe. Thank you for writing this one!

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Catie Moore

Catie Moore is a student and practitioner in the Mishap Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Collapsenik. Science fiction zonk. Coffee addict. Scribbles and cartoons on meditation, collapse, and sacred activism on her blog.