The Branding of Mindfulness

12/16/2017 06:57 pm ET Updated Dec 18, 2017

The burgeoning “mindfulness revolution,” which is now estimated to be a $4 billion dollar industry, has spurred the professionalization of mindfulness training. One implication of this trend is a transformation of the traditional roles of both “teachers” and “students.” This amounts to the professionalization of the role of the mindfulness teacher in conjunction with the student-as-consumer. Not unlike the increasing corporatization of, and neoliberalism’s war on higher education, students are no longer learners seeking knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but have taken on the identity of the customer. Similarly, the professionalization of the role of mindfulness teachers has colonized not only the teacher-student relationship, but it introduces market logic with its demands for competition, savvy marketing and entrepreneurialism.

Proponents of the mindfulness movement have themselves acknowledged that regulating the quality, competence and standards of teachers is a vexing problem. Vishvapani who is both a Buddhist teacher in a Western sangha, as well as a professional mindfulness teacher admits:

Inevitably, the emergence of the secular mindfulness movement means that mindfulness and meditation teaching are being professionalised. That effects Buddhists like myself who are earning a living in this way, and it is useful for all of us to recall that mindfulness is best taught as an expression of one’s practice; when it is an aspect of one’s profession it is unavoidably mixed with drives such as anxiety about money, ambition and the desire for status.

And just as Ralph Nader sounded the siren on quality control and safety issues in the automobile industry, leading to consumer protection legislation, we now see a growing concern in the mindfulness community for the lack of qualified and competent mindfulness teachers, a backlash against the mindfulness-is-good for everyone advertising which ignores the adverse effects of mindfulness which researchers like Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm have chronicled in their book, The Buddha Pill.

Jeff Wilson, Professor of Religious studies, points out that the logic of the market dictates a competitive space where mindfulness teachers must invest in branding their products, which requires increasing attention be given to advertising, savvy social media outreach, and blending with the demands of consumer convenience. As he states:

Quality control becomes ever harder to enforce as profits accrue to those who can best gain customers through savvy marketing and product design—these do not necessarily mean that the products are of low quality, but customers flock to products that have the slickest ads or apps with the nicest interface, which are not guaranteed to be those with the most reliable instructors or deepest understanding of meditation.

This new competitive space has opened a new market for professional certification. The recent launch of the International Mindfulness Teachers Association (IMTA) has even ruffled feathers in the mindfulness community. IMTA’s Executive Director, Dawa Tarchin Phillips, is a self-styled spiritual entrepreneur who leads $22,500 pilgrimages for ascending the seven chakras on our planet to commanding $12,000/day consulting fees for training senior managers in mindfulness. For only an $800 annual fee, organizations can become members. But that’s not all; there is an additional $500 fee to apply for program accreditation, and another $1500 fee to license the IMTA logo, plus a $1500 annual renewal fee.

Let’s take another recent example of how this is playing out in corporations. Richard Fernandez, whom I heard speak at the Awakened Leadership Conference, formerly worked as a trainer at Google’s Search Inside Yourself mindfulness program, but went off on his own to form his own mindfulness training consulting company, “Wisdom Labs” (he subsequently has become Executive Director of Google’s spin-off, the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute). Fernandez described how he pitched and sold mindfulness training to Ford Motor company managers. Fernandez begins his session by noting another vendor who sells corporate mindfulness programs, and their business card has a logo of a Buddhist mandala on it, along with their slides. “NO! NO!,” he admonishes. “That’s a No! No!” He warns the workshop attendees that you don’t want to have “allergic causing artifacts.” His next big quip, and he really gets animated now: to close the deal, to sell the program, it’s all about having the right branding strategy and language. He uses the term “languaging,’ which I detest, but it reveals how mindfulness programs must accommodate to the rationality and performance expectations of the corporation. Fernandez explains, “I mean, yea, I can see how this could become sort of mercenary if the focus is all on product and performance, but this is how we have to position it – to get senior managers’ attention.” “And sometimes we do say that happier workers are more productive”.

In fact, Fernandez sees his role as a mindfulness consultant as equivalent to being a translator of the dharma (Buddhist teachings). Some of his key talking points in his workshop were:

“IT’s all about having the RIGHT LANGUAGE! See, this is how we perform a translation function. We know it’s the dharma, but they don’t. We don’t ever lead with compassion or empathy up front – that would never sell. We sort of Trojan-horse that in and sneak that in later after we get some traction with the program. And our whole thing is really how do we perform this translation function without losing integrity of the dharma.”

Throughout the workshop Fernandez emphasizes, “It’s about creating a compelling brand!” He says, “It’s all about branding and positioning….yea, we have to give credit where credit is due (Buddhism), but we are aiming for a more productive worker, not spiritual awakening.” It is also interesting that the program that he sold to Ford was not even billed as mindfulness—instead it was renamed, “Evidenced-based forms of mental conditioning for resilience, well-being and sustainable high performance.”

Perhaps the most successful branding of mindfulness is the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts and was legally trademarked in 2000. Over 25,000 people have undertaken the 8-week MBSR program, with some 1000 certified practitioners/teachers, taught in over 600 clinics worldwide. One could even claim that it is this cascading teacher-training model that accounts for the wide diffusion of mindfulness in society. The Center for Mindfulness’ tiered-teacher training model requires a considerable financial investment ($8500) taking up to 36 months to receive certification status. A certified MBSR teacher can then progressively advance, by enrolling in further courses and training, to become a “teacher’s trainer.”

Clearly, becoming certified and becoming part of the MBSR teacher community not only offers instant brand recognition, but also accrues many other benefits, such as low start up and overhead costs, as many MBSR teachers often teach in existing hospitals and clinics. Hoffman, in his article, “The Mindfulness-Stress Reduction Police” describes how the Center for Mindfulness:

is tightening its grip on its franchise and erecting barriers to entry for new entrants with new ideas concerning mindfulness instruction. This is classic economic stasis. As any enterprise grows and becomes successful it can seek to bar or hassle new competitors by lobbying for certification, regulation and control. The Center for Mindfulness, as it seeks to firmly establish what is and is not MBSR, can tweak its 36-year-old program, but no one else can and expect the respect of the Center.

There other elements of MBSR that account for its success (besides its salutary health benefits) in terms of how mindfulness as a product offering was positioned in the marketplace. To better understand this, it’s instructive to see the similarities between Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonalds who created the fast food industry, and Kabat-Zinn who created the mindfulness industry. Both figures demonstrated the capacity for opportunity recognition, that is, the ability to perceive an untapped need in the marketplace, create new business opportunities, and perceive new and innovative ways of delivering products and services. Kroc perceived the opportunity to provide busy Americans access to fast food that would be delivered consistently through automation, standardization and discipline. Kroc recruited franchise owners who were ambitious and driven, sending them to his training course at “Hamburger University” in Elk Grove, Illinois. Franchise owners would earn certificates in “hamburgerology with a minor in french fries.” Kroc continued to expand the market reach of McDonalds by identifying new markets that would be attracted to fast food at low prices.

Similarly, Jon Kabat-Zinn perceived the opportunity to provide stressed out Americans easy access to mindfulness meditation in a short 8 week program that would be delivered consistently through a standardized teaching curriculum. Kabat-Zinn continued to expand the market reach of MBSR by identifying new markets such as corporations, schools, government and the military. As entrepreneurs, both took measures to ensure that their products would not vary in quality or content across franchises. McDonald’s hamburgers and french fries are predictably the same whether one is eating them in Dubai or in Dubuque, Iowa. Similarly, there is little variation in the content, structuring and curriculum of MBSR courses across the world.

Successful branding stories are often characterized by disruption, taking an experience or an industry and turning it on its head. The MBSR brand is a disruptive force in the marketplace, as Kabat-Zinn is rhetorically effective in both in his public talks and writings that there is nothing particularly Buddhist about mindfulness, compassion and wisdom. His familiar tropes, pithy quips and talking points such as: “The Buddha wasn’t a Buddhist”, “Buddhists don’t own mindfulness”, “Mindfulness is an innate, universal human capacity” serve to ensure potential customers that MBSR is a non-religious product offering.

Successful branding stories also base their appeal on actual storytelling and emotional connection. A powerful branding story for MBSR is the one that Kabat-Zinn and his followers often tell, recounting his meeting with the Dalai Lama.

I specifically asked His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the Mind and Life XIII conference in Washington, D.C., in 2005 whether there was any fundamental difference between Buddhadharma and universal dharma and he said ‘no’.

By seeking an unofficial endorsement from the Dalai Lama, Kabat-Zinn lays claim to legitimate authority for his “universal dharma mindfulness” brand. However, Mind and Life Institute’s video recording of this exchange provides a very different account than the story recollected by Kabat-Zinn. First, Thupten Jinpa, translating for HHDL asked Kabat-Zinn’s question: "Can we make a valid distinction between the Buddhadharma, on the one hand, and the universal dharma, on the other?" HHDL responded: "Oh yes. Suppose we are trying to put universal dharma, this for scientists… (pause, laugh)…we just can't apply to all dharma."

Clearly, the HHDL did not answer with a resounding “no,” but actually seems to qualify that the so-called “universal dharma” may be useful in the scientific domain, but it is by no means equivalent to the entire Buddhadharma. Jeff Wilson notes how Kabat-Zinn seems to go out of his way to seek validation for MBSR from the Buddhist tradition and Buddhist authorities, while at the same time disavowing that MBSR has anything to do with Buddhism.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Branding and marketing are part of doing business. The McMindfulness brand is now in its full glory—fast, convenient, and easy to consume. As sociologist George Ritzer points out, when our lives and everyday experiences become McDonaldized, the resulting effect is often one of irrationality. Transforming mindfulness into a more efficient, calculable, predictable, and controlled product offering may be leading to counterintuitive and unintended results. While aim was for control through standardization, mindfulness has now become an unregulated consumer commodity that is uncontrollable. The McDonaldization of mindfulness is turning into global brand, a predictable product that is accessible to everyone, where the export of a “new American dharma” has attained the status of a Big Mac.

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.
CONVERSATIONS