Mainstream Meditation and the Million-Dollar Mindfulness Boom

August 13, 2019
Chris Berlin, second from right, leads a group meditation in Emerson Chapel.
Chris Berlin, second from right, leads a group meditation in Emerson Chapel. / Photo: Rose Lincoln, Harvard Staff Photographer

Today, mindfulness mediation can be found everywhere from schools to prisons to sports teams.

The trendy fitness apparel company Lululemon is now advertising mindful clothing for men. There’s also Mindful Meats, Mindful Mints, and Sherwin-Williams sells a paint color they call Mindful Gray. There’s even Mindful Mayo, which you can buy at your local Whole Foods for $5.99.

So why has mindfulness meditation suddenly become so popular? Well, for starters, recent studies show benefits against an array of conditions both physical and mental, including helping to counter stress, chronic pain, and other ailments such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.


But are there possible downsides to mindfulness being fully embraced by capitalists? As David Gelles writes in the New York Times, “With so many mindful goods and services for sale, it can be easy to forget that mindfulness is a quality of being, not a piece of merchandise.”

This is the Harvard Religion Beat, a podcast examining religion’s underestimated and often misunderstood role in society. Here, I’m speaking with Chris Berlin, mediation teacher, instructor at Harvard Divinity School, and counselor to Buddhist students at Harvard. I wanted to get his insight into this mainstreaming of mediation and what he thinks the reasons are for today’s mindfulness boom. I’ll also talk to him about the potential issues faced in our new digital mindfulness landscape, as well as how small benefits can lead to lasting positive change.

Full episode transcript below.

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[News Clip]

That's Jon Kabat-Zinn speaking with journalist Bill Moyers in the 1993 documentary, “Healing From Within.”

Years earlier, in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, Kabat-Zinn launched a revolutionary program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR. The intent of program was to introduce mindfulness meditation practice as a way to help people with stress, anxiety, depression, and even physical pain.

Now, I know most of you are likely familiar with the term, but I just want to define more clearly the definition of mindfulness. According to the Foundation for Mindful Society, mindfulness is “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what going on around us.”

Heading into those early MBSR sessions at UMass, Kabat-Zinn, who’s now in his mid-70s and is actually a molecular biologist by training, he’s been a longtime meditator in the Zen Buddhist tradition. And despite, as we just heard, his early concerns that people might be turned off by some of the religious underpinnings of mediation practice, he quickly discovered that the everyday New Englanders he was working with began reporting positive results from the program. They were experiencing less pain and more relief.  

Flash forward to today, and there are over 1,000 certified MBSR instructors teaching mindfulness techniques in almost 300 hospitals and medical centers around the world.

Within the science community, the number of randomized controlled trials involving mindfulness jumped from 1 during the period between 1995‒1997 to a whopping 216 from 2013‒2015. Also, 52 papers were published in scientific journals on the subject of mindfulness in 2003; by 2012, that number had jumped to 477.

Outside of the scientific world, just look in your phone’s app store, where you’ll find and endless scroll of mindfulness meditation apps. In fact, according to the Financial Times, in 2017, there were 1,300 meditation apps ready for download. 1,300!

So why is mindfulness meditation suddenly so popular? Well, for starters, there’s a growing body of scientific evidence to support its benefits. The Harvard Gazette reports that recent studies show benefits against an array of conditions both physical and mental, including helping to counter stress, chronic pain, and other ailments such as psoriasis, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

And mindfulness courses these days can be found everywhere from schools to prisons to sports teams. One of the most popular mediation apps out right now, Headspace, claims to be the official mindfulness partner of the United States Women’s National Soccer Team.

The trendy fitness apparel company Lululemon is now advertising mindful clothing for men. There’s also Mindful Meats, Mindful Mints, and Sherwin-Williams sells a paint color they call Mindful Gray. But, my personal favorite, that has to be Mindful Mayo, which you can now buy at your local Whole Foods for $5.99.  

But are there possible downsides to mindfulness being fully embraced by capitalists? As David Gelles writes in the New York Times, “With so many mindful goods and services for sale, it can be easy to forget that mindfulness is a quality of being, not a piece of merchandise.”

I’m Jonathan Beasley, and this is the Harvard Religion Beat, a podcast examining religion’s underestimated and often misunderstood role in society. Today, I’m speaking with Chris Berlin, mediation teacher, instructor at Harvard Divinity School, and counselor to Buddhist students at Harvard.

I wanted to get his insight into this mainstreaming of mediation and what he thinks the reasons are for today’s mindfulness boom. I’ll also talk to him about the potential issues faced in our new digital mindfulness landscape, as well as how small benefits can lead to lasting positive change.

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Jonathan Beasley: So, one thing I wanted to start with is that this idea of mindfulness, even though it seems like such a current buzzword, it didn’t just start in the 1970s with Jon Kabat-Zinn—this has actually been around for a long time, since the early Buddhist teachings, correct?

Chris Berlin: Right. So, basically, there’s the teaching. There are the mindfulness teachings, the commentaries on the teachings, and the formal practice. Now, how we understand mindfulness today is, I think, really multifaceted. Certainly, as you mentioned, Jon Kabat-Zinn, who was kind of the father of our stress reduction practice of mindfulness—mindfulness really geared there to foster a sense of health, wellbeing, really flourishing both in mind and body, so it really has become a mind-body practice in that context.

JB: Is mindfulness simply the secular approach to meditation?

CB: Well, it can be a very subjective phenomenon depending on the person. We do have the Jon Kabat-Zinn, the MBSR, mindfulness-based stress reduction model, which tends to present itself in more secular terms, skillfully, to be amenable to the medical field and to what we might call real world problems around clinical matters—depression, anxiety, illness, that kind of thing.

So, that certainly has a place in terms of how we approach ourselves and what we’re carrying from the standpoint of coming into breathing, coming into body, coming into senses, to cultivate a sense of wellbeing, a greater sense of wellbeing. However, we can also see mindfulness, again, contextualized deeply within a religious tradition as a means to getting to this place called nirvana. So, in that sense, the presupposition there—as we talked about earlier—at the very beginning of that sutra, of that teaching, that this is all we really need to get to a place of this state that we call nirvana is a pretty radical thing to say. The presupposition there is that there is this potential, soteriological benefit. Not just I’m healthy and I’m happy, but I’m enlightened. So, that can pose a bit of a problem for a lot of people encountering that with maybe a healthy form of skepticism, perhaps.

So, I think if we say is mindfulness secular, is it not, I think it really depends. I would say that mindfulness, rather than being secular or non-secular, is fundamentally human and is just, at its core, a human practice that can open doors.

JB: When people first try to meditate, when you first try that mindfulness practice, it can be incredibly difficult and, in a way, feels unnatural. So, if you’re saying this idea of mindfulness is a very human quality, how do people who struggle to achieve that get there?

CB: Good question. Part of it, again, has to do with … one teacher of mine once said re-grading the pavement, which is we’re undoing the habitual … By practicing mindfulness, we’re sort of unhooking ourselves from the habitual relationships that we have with our own thoughts and our own experiences. So, that process takes some time. It’s not like you’ll sit once ... Maybe you will. Maybe you’ll have an experience … I’ve actually had people who’ve come to sit with me, and that first time they just open into this space where they go, wow, I didn’t know. I didn’t know. But to expect that is a setup. It’s a setup.

So, part of what we’re doing is retraining, first of all, and this is why I think that the Buddhist view of meditation can be very helpful, in that we’re using ordinary experiences of being in our body, of paying attention to our senses, of paying attention to the breath and how the breath feels, first noticing even where the breath is. Am I breathing in a shallow way, or am I actually able to just take that slightly deeper and notice change there? We’re noticing things that are already happening within the body; we’re just paying attention in a different way and cultivating a sense of stability of mind, of concentrative attention, so that all of those other things, this ruminating and what we call monkey mind that wants to just run away with our awareness, with our attention, that we’re able to see it for what it is and bring it back. So, we’re retraining the mind to stay with things that are actually wholesome supports for our practice, and that does take some cultivation, it takes some practice.

JB: We live in such a plugged-in world today, and I wonder if you’ve noticed a change in how people practice mindfulness meditation?

CB: I think one of the changes that I would point to here are some of the advances that we’ve made by doing empirical research into mindfulness, that there is almost a guarded confidence in what mindfulness can do for us.

JB: In terms of the physical wellbeing, the research that’s gone into it, reduction of stress and some of these other particular physical ailments.

CB: Right, that mindfulness actually has ... Not just mindfulness, but also compassion meditations, some of the research suggests that it, for example, lowers inflammation in the body. I mean, who would have thought? But that is documented at least, and of course more research needs to be done there, but everything from building gray matter in the frontal lobe of the brain, to increased attentional focus, to good outcomes around stress responses in the physical body, cognitive functioning in children. It benefits emotional regulation. So, there is enough research there to validate that mindfulness and/or meditation has real-world benefits for us both physically, mentally, emotionally. So, I think that has given our society some, as I say, guarded confidence about the fact that there’s real merit to this. So, that, I think, has changed and has also allowed for an opening for more people to be curious.

JB: With so many mindfulness meditation apps out there now, along with other digital resources, is there a risk that people are getting a kind of watered-down version of mindfulness?

CB: If we think about it from the standpoint of a pebble dropping into a pond, let’s say an experience of an app, like Headspace, maybe for five or ten minutes is like a little pebble dropping into a pond. The question is there, I think: Does that ripple effect from that pebble dropping… How far does it reach? My opinion is that no matter how gentle the pebble drops in, every part of that pond is affected in some way. It may be very subtle, and maybe there are no more pebbles dropping into that pond, whereas if you take a larger rock and you throw it in—which might be someone going on a retreat—that those ripples reach every part of the pond in maybe a more obvious or intense way. So, what size ripple is created still, I think, leaves us with some benefit.

JB: So, maybe to just expand on that questions then, as a meditation teacher yourself, is there a thought or concern that people might not have a positive mindfulness experience via an app because maybe the teacher isn’t qualified enough, or the instruction is insufficient or counter-effective, or things like that?

CB: I think, as a practical question, there’s always that potential, yeah. Everything that I’ve seen ... And I know that some of those apps actually rely on monks to do the guided practice. I personally haven’t seen that process abused. It seems as if the people who feel as if they really have something to offer have practiced and often are in teaching roles already. But what I’m saying really points us to the importance of having a teacher of some kind, and knowing who the teacher is matters. That’s especially true if somebody, I think, wants to take their practice to the next level. It’s one thing, maybe, if you use an app five minutes a day at your job just to calm down a little bit, maybe get a little bit of nourishment through breathing, and then can continue working. There’s nothing wrong with that. Again, it’s: How can I become a better human being?

JB: There’s so many different reasons why people practice mindfulness meditation as well as a number of ways to actually practice, right?

CB: Different practices for different personalities, different characteristics and tendencies. Some people really … I’m somebody who loves visualization exercises. I’m just a very visual person by nature, and so if there’s a visualization meditation on subtle physiology or what have you, I take to it immediately. But some people have a really hard time visualizing, and for them, maybe it’s more about really settling into stillness, less doing and more opening, and that works for them.

For others, loving kindness meditation is really where it’s at for them. Their heart opens and it changes their lives when they practice that, and that’s what resonates with them the most—what they feel like they need the most in their lives. So, we have this richness of practices available to us. I think the key is to give whatever we’re practicing a chance, really put it to the test, see if it’s true for us, and give it a chance to work.

It can be easy to bird hop from one thing to another and feel like, wow, I don’t really feel like I’m getting anywhere. And I’ve heard this from people who have sometimes been practicing for twenty years. It’s like, why do I still feel all this stuff? Well, part of that answer there is you’re a human being, so trying to lose that … Good luck. Good luck with that. But the other piece to that is, I think, keeping your practice fresh, keeping it spontaneous, fresh. Respond to the moment. The more tools we have in our toolkit, I think the more we feel capacious enough to respond to whatever we’re dealing with in any given moment.

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This summer, the T (or subway) in Boston has been experiencing even more problems than usual. After a derailment in mid-June, delays and overcrowding are pretty much the norm. One recent evening on my commute home, I found myself in a sweltering, jam-packed train car. We’d move 20 feet or so, and then suddenly stop and sit for 10 mins. We’d move 30 feet or so, then stop and sit for another 10 mins. As this went on for several stops, train passengers started getting frustrated.

The conversation between the people on my right grew louder. The person on my left not wearing headphones started to blare his music. My heart was beating fast and my patience was beginning to wear thin. I needed to get off that train. But then (prelude #7 at 1:19) … I took a deep breath, opened up the meditation app on my phone, cranked the volume up on my headphones, and closed my eyes.

Even though I was anxious about what my fellow passengers might have been thinking about me, I tried my best to deflect those concerns, and to follow the directions of the guided meditation. And as I sat there on the T, like a sardine in a tin can, I meditated. It was hard—very, very hard—but I was able to resist every urge I had to open my eyes, and by the time I got to my stop in Dorchester, I felt less tense and less anxious than I had before.

The research company IBISWorld estimated that, in 2017, mindfulness meditation-related businesses in the U.S. generated over one billion dollars in revenue—a figure that is perhaps not that surprising.

After all, there’s really not a single activity we could undergo in which we can’t, with focused attention, be mindful about it. One can work mindfully or parent mindfully. We can exercise, eat, and even spend our money mindfully. And as I learned on that sweltering subway car in downtown Boston, we can even commute mindfully. 

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The Harvard Religion Beat is a pop-up podcast brought to you by Harvard Divinity School. It’s hosted and produced by me, Jonathan Beasley, and edited by Heather Latham. Thanks so much for tuning in.

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