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Susan Kaiser Greenland

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The Branding Of Wisdom

Posted: 06/24/10 10:39 PM ET

It's tough to find time to meditate day after day, but in my humble opinion it's never been more important: Our future may well depend on it.

Recently I was asked to write about the future of secular mindfulness in America. It's hard to predict but my educated guess is that it will hinge on how well we translate key concepts into language and experience that everyday people can understand. Articulating classical concepts simply and accessibly is the first step. The benefit of spending some time viewing life experience with mindful awareness is now widely acknowledged but a visceral understanding of how to contextualize what we see is not as well established. At least not yet.

One classical concept from mindfulness that seems ripe for translation is the principle of no-self: In other words, the dissolution of an over-identification with what at first glance seems to be I-me-mine.

Nixing I-me-mine is especially challenging in today's consumer climate where personal and corporate branding is prized. Just open a magazine, read a newspaper, turn on a computer, television, or radio and you'll be bombarded with branded messages from marketers great and small - from enormous corporate entities like Google, Coke, and Nike to individuals ranging from the famous (think our own Arianna Huffington) to the not-so-famous (your neighbor the mommy-blogger) to the now infamous (Tiger Woods and Martha Stewart, for example). The branding of corporations is not surprising. It's a logical extension of a long standing sales and promotional effort that began with marketing consumer products. But the extension of branding into the realm of the individual is more surprising and, from the classical view of 'no-self', can get a bit dicey. From this perspective the popular notion that 'you are your own brand' is a slippery slope for everyone - and you can imagine what happens when those teaching wisdom traditions venture down that slippery slope too.

In a world where popular belief has it that every man, woman and child would benefit from their own personal brand (one they can create easily on Twitter, Facebook, and the like) it's not surprising that those bringing mindfulness into the secular world are using these branding platforms too (full disclosure: including me!). But I can't help but wonder, given that no-self is fundamental to mindfulness, whether the secularization of mindfulness is on a collision course with itself. What happens if all the well-intentioned people trying to translate mindfulness into secular language useful to a general population are looking to do so through a lens of branding? Awash in various products (books, cds, dvds, curricula, or programs) the basic message - that mindfulness is transformative - can be lost. Instead we get a whole lot of parallel play where even in the midst of what appears to be collaboration we see each practitioner gently or not so gently pushing to solidify their own approach. Ironic when one of the ways a practitioner begins to understand the concept of no-self - or no such thing as I-me-mine - is by recognizing that nothing is solid and there's movement in everything, even stillness.

But let's be realistic. We live in a world that requires a strong branded message to reach large numbers of people and if the message of mindfulness can transform even one child's life isn't it worth getting the word out? I think so. The issue is not whether we should articulate (or brand) the message in a way that is smart and accessible but how to brand the message without losing its nuance.

I'm not sure that I agree with those who say that we're all our own 'brands.' But I do think we all have our own voices, and the challenge each of us faces is to speak our truth skillfully and effectively. How do we figure that out? I'd suggest the old fashioned way: the way contemplatives have answered tough questions for millennia. We park our rear ends on our chosen meditation seat (whatever that seat might look like and wherever that seat might be), dig deep inside, and look for the answers that are already here.

 
 
 

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