State of Mind

In Defense of McMindfulness

Even hacky corporate attempts at promoting the practice can increase wellbeing.

A white t-shirt with an image of pile of grey stones printed on the shirt, and also the word "mindfulness". The shirt has a big red price tag.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by OlegPhotoR/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

When I interviewed Max Vallot, the founder of the running gear brand District Vision, he made a controversial assertion: “Even the word ‘mindfulness’ printed on a t-shirt is a net positive for the world.”

This statement might sound cringeworthy, suggesting the capitalist co-opting of an ancient practice to serve modern needs. Vallot admits that he occasionally hears the charge of “spiritual materialism” in his line of work. After all, District Vision markets its gear as “tools for mindful athletes,” and its line-up includes yoga blocks, “micro-courses” in breathwork, and T-shirts with imagery like mushrooms and eyes. Perhaps you’re even rolling your own eyes right now.

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There is a phenomenon known as the McDonald’s Effect: the idea that something that is widely available will be perceived as less valuable than something rare even if it is essentially the same (or better—sometimes you’re just craving a McFlurry). Many in the mindfulness space decry the popularity of mindfulness, and caution against its widespread secular dissemination.

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But I think Vallot has a point. The criticisms ring of elitism and exclusion, and can even prevent people from getting some of the tangible benefits of mediating even just a little bit. In recent years, as I pursued a master’s degree in mindfulness studies through Lesley University, I have had similar conversations with others in this field who care deeply about practice, from academics to mindfulness directors at organizations to professional athletes who began to practice to get an edge and ended up becoming dedicated meditators. It’s time we embrace McMindfulness, which opens doors and creates opportunities to practice where they otherwise might not exist. There are many gateways to mindfulness—who are we to be gatekeepers?

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Another word for McMindfulness might be “thin” mindfulness. “Thin” mindfulness could include a body scan, a gratitude practice, or a morning meditation intended to induce a flow state. Thin mindfulness is offered by workout apps, millennial-pink journals, and even Instagram tiles. The exercises are the kind of thing that might not be out of place at a corporate retreat, or professional conference session on burnout. Educational researcher Christopher McCaw critiques thin mindfulness as merely “a technique designed to improve individuals’ psychological capacities.” The “thick” version of mindfulness, on the other hand, is situated in a spiritual and ethical context. This could include becoming a student at a local monastery, or studying the dharma and embracing a specifically Buddhist worldview. Thick versions, according to McCaw, are “value-laden and emphasize personal transformation rather than just ‘improvement.’”

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In Work Pray Code, author and sociology professor Carolyn Chen deftly points out how the secular mindfulness movement has appropriated concepts based in Asian traditions, and it is illuminating to see how practice has often been molded, shaped, and stripped of any overtly religious features in order to serve the needs of Westerners. “Even though mindfulness is a Buddhist practice, Buddhism is hardly mentioned in the current explosion of secular self-help mindfulness that promises to improve nearly every aspect of life, from parenting to eating, from losing weight to grieving and having sex,” notes Chen. I agree that it is important to understand and recognize such context—especially if you’re the person who is teaching mindfulness, or selling related goods. But I also think offering a practice that is ultimately divorced from a religious tradition is a meaningful modern adaptation.

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Consider that even a very basic engagement with mindfulness can be good for your wellbeing. Researchers have found that a “microdose” of practice (say, 10 minutes a day, or even five) can have beneficial effects, such as decreased stress and anxiety and increased happiness and connection. Other research has revealed that mindfulness correlates highly with the ability to savor the positive, feel gratitude, and experience satisfaction. And one doesn’t need to be an expert to cultivate such contentment. As I’ve pointed out in the past, even a subpar attempt at sitting still and paying attention is likely to be better than simply giving way to a ruminative rut of worry. Breathing exercises can even help you exit a panic attack. In fact—take in a deep breath right now. Hold it for a moment. Now let it go in a long, extended sigh. Nice, right?

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And the more tools and reminders we have around us that we should breathe deeply, the more often we are likely to do it. In fact, another translation of the Pali word for mindfulness (Pali is the language of the first Buddhist scriptures) is “to remember.” There is a rich history in Buddhism of sprinkling sensory cues in monastic environments to help practitioners tune in to the present. Things like the smell of incense or the sight of a flower arrangement or the sound of chimes can all be reminders to pay attention. So, too, could the visual cue of the word “mindfulness” on a T-shirt.

Yes, it would be wonderful if everyone fully understood the traditions that mindfulness comes from, rather than simply making a few purchases with which to embrace the spiritual practice du jour. But mindfulness has undergone countless transformations in its rich history, and this evolving versatility has allowed it to transcend borders and respond to the needs of practitioners for millennia. Not everyone has the space to embrace the robust tradition out of which mindfulness has arisen. If a stripped-down version is the vanguard of the practice, so be it. To preserve the practice in amber only serves to make esoteric, archaic, and precious what could be fresh, responsive, and available.

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The Zen master Dogen wrote, “Understand clearly that when a great need appears a great use appears also; when there is a small need there is small use; it is obvious then, that full use is made of all things at all times according to the necessity thereof.”

As a Zen practitioner for 20 years now I have felt profoundly stirred by the depth of a practice that I have barely grasped, and profoundly annoyed by influencers describing their morning routine that is devoid of Zen as “so Zen.” I’ve also, for the most part, learned to let it go. McMindfulness might be the small use that has arisen to address many small needs, and if it does so successfully, why should I have a problem with that?

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My own gateway to practice was a simple book that might fall under the oft-derided “New Age Spiritualism” category in a store. That little bit of McMindfulness prompted my teenage self to do the unthinkable—pause and practice. To this day I am grateful, and striving in each moment to be less judgmental, more open, and appreciative of all potential gateways. So go ahead—get in on the trend however you like. The door is always open.

State of Mind is a partnership of Slate and Arizona State University that offers a practical look at our mental health system—and how to make it better.

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