The marketing of well-being

“McMindfulness.” I came across this term for the first time today. I wish I had coined it. It would be nice to be able to make a claim to originality. But coming across the term is almost good enough. It provides a name for a phenomenon that I didn’t even know needed one, and it makes it real. I don’t think anyone knows who coined this term. It’s kind of like “neoliberalism.” Suddenly there is a name for something you know is a problem — an important problem that can be difficult to put your finger on.

Mindfulness practice is a meditative discipline, originating in Buddhism, that involves the cultivation of a type of present-centered, nonjudgmental awareness of the ongoing flow of one’s emerging experience. While mindfulness enjoyed some popularity in the 1960’s as a countercultural phenomenon, in recent years it has surged into mainstream prominence to be embraced with gushing enthusiasm by both popular culture and mainstream psychology.

So what is McMindfulness? It’s the marketing of mindfulness practice as a commodity that is sold like any other commodity in our brand culture. “Mindfulness really works.” It reduces stress, cures depression and anxiety, and manages pain. We know so because research proves it. Never mind the fact that up until recently there was no research comparing the effectiveness of mindfulness to anything else. Never mind the fact that the research that has compared mindfulness-based cognitive therapy to traditional cognitive therapy (the latter allegedly being the evidence based treatment of choice) finds that the emperor has no clothes. And never mind the fact that there is no solid evidence that traditional cognitive therapy is more helpful than any other bona fide form of psychotherapy (including the “discredited pseudoscience” of psychoanalysis).

That’s not the point. McMindfulness is a stock on the rise. A brand that promises to deliver. It satisfies spiritual yearnings without being a religion. It’s backed by brain scientists at Harvard and MIT. It’s magic without being magical. It even transforms corporate culture and increases market share! Now that’s worth paying for.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in mindfulness. I would not have practiced it in one form or another for the last forty years if I didn’t. But isn’t mindfulness practice supposed to be, as the Zen teachers of old used to say, nothing special?

Then again, mind you, why would the Zen students of old have undergone such hardships to seek the teachings of reclusive Zen masters if they really believed that they had nothing special to offer? Clearly a canny pitch if ever there was one.

So hasn’t mindfulness always been marketed? I suppose in one sense the answer is “yes.” People have bought and sold things since the beginning of time. Street merchants have always hawked their wares. Yogis have always claimed to have supernatural powers. The Buddha promised enlightenment as the end of suffering. Saint Paul promised salvation. Freud said that psychoanalysis could transform neurotic misery into ordinary suffering — not exactly a hard pitch. But good salesmen know that many customers don’t respond well to hard pitches. And whatever Freud’s limitations may have been as the leader of a new movement, he certainly managed to instill faith in his disciples. But there is something different about the selling of mindfulness these days. That’s what makes it McMindfulness. McMindfulness is the marketing of a constructed dream; an idealized lifestyle; an identity makeover.

I’m not saying that mindfulness practice doesn’t work. It’s not as simple as that. In order to understand what mindfulness does and does not do for people, we need to understand the desires, needs and yearnings that the successful marketing of mindfulness taps into. We need to think about the role and function of the self-help industry in our culture. We need to remember that psychotherapy is a type of secular religion. And we need to remember that psychotherapy needs to be marketed in our culture, just as medications need to be marketed. Of course the profits in the psychotherapeutic industry are negligible relative to those in the pharmaceutical industry. But psychotherapists do need to pay their rent. And then, of course, there is the marketing of ideas. Developers of new brands of psychotherapy don’t make a fortune, but there is always the social capital that comes with developing a successful therapy brand.

And students of mindfulness are doing something fashionable. It’s reminiscent of seeing a psychoanalyst in New York during the 1950’s, but it’s even hotter than that. And it does help them — as much as anything else does.

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Jeremy Safran

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