The (over) promise of the mindfulness revolution – San Francisco Chronicle

Posted: February 15, 2020 at 2:57 am

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The phones screen turns a serene blue, and Calm, the leading mindfulness application, opens. At the very center, without capitalization or punctuation, small and faint, are the words take a deep breath.

That gives way to a menu. What brings you to Calm?

The app offers options to reduce anxiety, develop gratitude, build self esteem, even increase happiness.

The next screen offers a seven-day free trial. Once the trial has ended, the annual rate is $69.99, a small price for happiness.

Somewhere around 2010, according to experts and Google search data, the practice of mindfulness began an upward swing. In less than a decade, it has become the fastest-growing health trend in the United States, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mindfulness rules the online app store. The San Francisco-based Calm is valued at $1 billion, and its competitor Headspace at $350 million. (The industry as a whole has been estimated to be worth as much as $4 billion.) Meditation retreats are en vogue. Corporations offer access to mindfulness in the same way they do for gyms. Even the military uses mindfulness breathing techniques to boost soldiers performance.

But as with any Next Big Thing, there are reasons to be cautious. Some say this rush into mindfulness has outpaced the science and stripped it of its cultural context. All of this threatens to turn a tool for well-being, for situating oneself in the current moment, into a tool for standard American commercialism.

Around the same time mindfulness began its upward trajectory, Ronald Purser, a management professor at San Francisco State University, started to feel the familiar weight of doubt. Hed been doing a fair amount of corporate management training and consulting redesigning the workplace to work better, at least in theory, for everybody. I became somewhat disillusioned and disenchanted, he says. Even when we were making progress, trying to redesign work so employees would have more autonomy and decision-making, the management sort of pulled the plug on some of those experiments.

It was around this time, too, that Chade-Meng Tan, a software engineer at Google, gained notoriety for integrating mindfulness into Googles corporate culture through a series of in-house mindfulness seminars. In 2012, Tan turned those courses into a blockbuster book, Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace), and Purser found himself attending Tans very first public offering.

I became very disappointed by what I saw, just in terms of what the program was and how superficial it was, Purser says. I just saw this as part of the interest in behavioral science techniques as a way of yoking the interest or subjectivity of employees to corporate goals.

A year later, Purser published an essay with the Huffington Post. It was titled Beyond McMindfulness. Mindfulness meditation, he wrote, was making its way into schools, corporations, prisons, and government agencies including the U.S. military. Purser, a student of mindfulness for 40 years, wasnt knocking the practice but was wary of its growing reputation as a universal panacea for resolving almost every area of daily concern. Last year, Purser expanded on the essay and published a book titled McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality.

Early on in his book, he writes this: I do not question the value of adapting mindfulness for therapeutic use, nor do I deny that it can help people. What bothers me is how its promoters want things both ways: one minute, mindfulness is science, since thats what sells; the next, it stands for everything in Buddhism, since thats what makes it sound deep.

The issues Purser called out eight years ago have only grown with time. Rhetoric, he says, still outpaces results. The practice becomes increasingly decontextualized, meme-ified and gamified. Mindfulness becomes a cure for more and more our happiness, our anxiety, our pain, even world peace.

Its worth pausing a moment to define or at least try to define mindfulness.

At its very core, its deepest and truest roots, mindfulness is a Buddhist meditation technique. There are hundreds, probably thousands of different meditative techniques. This is only one of them, says Mushim Ikeda, a Buddhist meditation teacher. Traditionally, in the Buddhist scriptures, it is said that what we call mindfulness meditation was one of 40 different techniques that the historical Buddha, the one we call the Buddha, talked about. So it wasnt even his one and only meditation technique according to those scriptures.

She knows those scriptures well. Ikeda, who primarily teaches at the East Bay Meditation Center, describes herself as a socially engaged teacher a social justice activist, author, and diversity and inclusion facilitator.

She describes mindfulness meditation as a secular term in Buddhism, one thats also called insight meditation. This is a sort of awareness, she says, that is different from the awareness that we might call everyday awareness the sort we need to drive a car, or maintain a conversation, or use an ATM. She and others describe mindful awareness as spacious and nonjudgmental. Ikeda says, Its been said mindfulness only sees. It does not judge.

The most common technique involves closing the eyes and focusing on the breath and only the breath, moving other thoughts, and the thoughts that come with those thoughts, away and out.

Mindfulness as a secular, western therapeutic intervention did not begin in Silicon Valley. Rather, youd have to go back to 1979 and a man named Jon Kabat-Zinn and the founding of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Kabat-Zinn has studied the effects of what he dubbed mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR for short), on everything from brain function to skin disease.

Still, its hard to ignore Silicon Valleys latest role in spreading and expanding mindfulness in the pursuit of a different tech culture value, peak performance. There is Search Inside Yourself, the book that coincided with the movements growth spurt. There are Twitter co-founder Jack Dorseys much-publicized meditation retreats. (Black Mirror, the dystopian science fiction show, seemed to parody both him and the now-ubiquitous apps.) Recently, there was the dopamine fast, a pseudo-scientific dopamine reset by way of doing nothing. (One originator said he drew directly from Buddhist Vipassana meditation when he crafted the fast.)

The voices are soothing and smooth soft, but not quite a whisper. The cadence and diction perfect, gently pulling you along. Birds chatter in the background. Waves move gently to meet a beach. Or maybe a brook babbles as it pushes over and under and between river rocks.

Breathing in ... I am calm.

Breathing out ... I am at peace.

A chime rings, a signal that this 90-second meditation to calm anger has ended. Calm offers its congratulations.

The danger in this rapid evolution is that it threatens to turn a very old practice into a fad that overpromises and underdelivers.

Helen Weng has practiced Buddhist meditation for more than two decades. I was reading a lot of books about psychology because I was unhappy because high school is horrible, she says. And her father, who, along with her mother, had immigrated to the United States from Taiwan, could offer her books about Buddhist philosophy. The two came together. The Dalai Lamas teachings offered her an opportunity to cultivate her own well-being. I dont like the word happiness anymore, but you can use mental exercises to become more aware of your feeling states and your thoughts.

Now Weng works as a clinical psychologist with the psychiatry department at UCSF and a neuroscientist with the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine and the Neuroscape Center, both at UCSF as well. Her scientific work uses magnetic resonance imaging to measure the amount of oxygen in the blood that flows to the brain as people meditate. Essentially, she can track whether the meditator is actually focused on their breath or if their attention has wandered. And in her clinical work, she offers meditation as one of many possible therapeutic interventions.

Still, she calls the recent spread of mindfulness very freaky.

Im very proud that practices from eastern cultures and religions generate so much interest, she says. At the same time, mindfulness and its results are super hard to study. So much so that I just thought I was a bad scientist for a long time. Whats more, she says, meditation isnt always the right sort of behavioral therapy.

Im very disturbed by these messages that meditation basically cures everything or its good for everyone or theres universally very good positive effects. The effects are really moderate and subtle. Its not any better than any other kind of psychotherapy, she says. Part of it is cultural appropriation where its this magical, mystical thing that then people can say does all these things, and I think were still in the height of that and its going to take some time for things to settle down.

Medical students, she says, inevitably ask her how much time they have to commit to mindfulness to make it work. There are studies that show clear benefits to mindfulness. Weng points to one that indicated 30 minutes a day of compassion meditation for two weeks increased altruistic giving to strangers and brain responses to pictures of people suffering.

But the key here is consistency. What happens if you work out for 30 minutes just once? she asks. It benefits you a little bit. Thats good. But if you just do it once, its not going to have a long-term effect.

After the chime and the congratulations, the waves keep moving in and out, and a quote appears onscreen. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. (A quote sometimes attributed to Albert Einstein, but probably more correctly attributed to Narcotics Anonymous.) And in that moment, Calm reminds you that you really should turn on push notifications, in order to fully experience Calm. Decline and itll ask one more time about its mindfulness reminders.

Are you sure? Its hard to set aside time for yourself in our busy world without a little help.

Farrah Fawcett and Lee Majors are jogging. Theyre tan, of course. Their shorts are short. Her blond hair is fanned out, so are his brown curls. She has a broad, blindingly white smile and a red handkerchief tied around her neck. His jacket is zipped down almost to his navel; his chest is hairy. And right beside them, a headline: Farrah & Lee & Everybodys Doing It: Stars Join The Jogging Craze.

This is the cover of the July 4, 1977, issue of People magazine. Alex Will, the chief strategy officer for Calm, the industry-leading mindfulness meditation app, likes to reference this cover when he talks about mindfulness. (Theres even a copy of the issue at the office.) To understand the future of mindfulness, just look to the past.

Mindfulness is becoming mainstream, Will says. People are starting to understand that taking care of the mind is just as important as taking care of the body. Meditation and mindfulness is one way to do that.

In some respects, Calm isnt doing anything that hasnt already been done. Before smartphones, one could buy a meditation CD, slip it into a home stereo and start counting breaths. The app just makes it more portable and more accessible than ever before. I think one of the reasons Ive been so successful is that it is a very low bar for someone to try and get into, Will says. There are short, two-minute long meditations, narrations to help with sleep, even a beginners guide to mindfulness. Similarly, if you want to go deeper, we have a 30-minute master class where you can learn how to break bad habits.

All of the content, Will says, is vetted by mindfulness instructors, and, now that the app is available in more than 100 countries, the programming is also run by people to make sure translations work. This is very nuanced, he says. Language really matters. The Calm app has also been part of various clinical studies in an attempt to back up the applications rhetoric.

Mindfulness, by the way, has already had its magazine-cover moment. Not quite 37 years after the jogging craze, Time magazine featured the Mindfulness Revolution on its Feb. 3, 2014, issue. A blond, fair-skinned model stands straight, hands at her sides, eyes closed, face slightly upward. And the headline: The science of finding focus in a stressed-out multitasking culture.

Mindfulness began to trend in large part because corporations embraced the practice as a way to help employees relieve stress. This is one of the cruxes of Pursers concerns that mindfulness is just a way to wring more productivity from employees, a sleight of hand that shifts the onus from the company to the worker.

In 2012, the year Chade-Meng Tan published Search Inside Yourself, the idea of offering mindfulness courses to employees still felt novel. The New York Times featured Tan and the course hed developed for Google employees a course that involved meditation, Tibetan brass bowls, stream-of-consciousness journaling and lots of emotional openness. Even then the course was framed as a way to help employees deal with their intense workplace no mention of toning down the intensity.

Eight years later, mindfulness courses are the rule, not the exception. Apple, Nike, HBO and Target have all offered some form of mindfulness training to employees. Aetna, the insurance provider, decided to offer mindfulness and other stress-relief activities (including dog petting) after an internal study found that the most stressed-out employees spent $1,500 more a year on health care. And if a company cant bring a trained expert on board, well, they can always give employees memberships to Calm or Headspace.

The Buddha taught that almost everything comes and goes, says Mushim Ikeda, the East Bay Meditation Center instructor. Its called impermanence or change. And health trends famously come and go. Its a product of our capitalist system.

One year, its a certain kind of berry thats going to cure everything. Another year, its mindfulness meditation thats going to cure everything. Five years from now, heaven only knows, itll be something else. Burnt toast who knows?

Ikeda offers a path forward, a path separate from capitalism, a path that encourages students to cultivate a practice in which they care for themselves so that they may, in turn, care for their communities. Its an approach based in social justice and altruism. And yet, she isnt dogmatic.

Mindfulness, Ikeda says, does not judge.

A person might use mindfulness to lower their blood pressure or achieve peak performance. A corporation might use mindfulness to paper over an inherently unjust and healthy system. All this, she says, is like using a Swiss Army knife for just one thing. Its not what the tool was intended to do, and its not all it can do.

Mindfulness is always mindful awareness of something, Ikeda says. Who knows what a given individual is going to do with it? Or what it will do for them?

An individual might, for instance, become mindfully aware of a broken system.

Ryan Kost is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @RyanKost

Ryan Kost writes for The San Francisco Chronicles Culture Desk. Hes always on the look out for unexpected and untold story and loves covering the people and communities that dont always get a lot of press the stuff we miss, the stuff we look past. Sometimes we miss whole worlds and communities, even though we live right alongside them. A big part of what he tries to do is make all that a little more visible for our readers.

He loves getting tips and story ideas from readers, so dont hesitate to reach out. Previously, he lived in Portland, Ore. where he wrote for The Oregonian and The Associated Press, covering national, state and city politics. He helped launch PolitiFact Oregon, a fact-checking website aimed at keeping politicians truthful. Hes also worked at The Boston Globe, The Arizona Republic and The Tampa Tribune. Hes won a number of state and national awards.




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The (over) promise of the mindfulness revolution - San Francisco Chronicle

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February 15th, 2020 at 2:57 am

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