How Mindfulness Became a Cultural Phenomenon

On World Mental Health Day, we present an essay on mindfulness by Barclay Bram

If worn correctly, my mindfulness headset touches my third eye like a kiss. Sometimes it slips. Sometimes when it’s calibrating I spend a few minutes pushing it around my forehead, tightening the clips around my ears. Muse, ‘the brain sensing headband’ is grey. It has sensors that are the colour of brass. A red light pulses above the sensor that reads my heart beat. It is designed to help me meditate. It syncs up with an app on my phone. Deepak Chopra tells me to close my eyes. Soon, I hear the sounds of rain created by the app in response to my brainwaves. When my mind is calm, the rain is a light patter. In moments of clarity, I hear the sounds of birds chirping. When my mind wanders, or I get agitated, the rain falls harder. Sometimes, I hear thunder.

Then a gong sounds. I come back into the room. The app offers me the option to journal. I can select from one of five smileys to rate my meditation. Then the app gives me a score. There’s a waveform graph of my brain waves. Peaks and troughs, I stare at the staccato workings of my mind. The graph spikes up every time the present moment slips away. Moments of calm are shown on the downswing. There’s a badge at the bottom that tells me how often I heard a bird chirp. This time, I managed 17 birds. I smile. Not a bad meditation, I think, as I look at the graph.

Mindful meditation, it is said, can do a lot of things for you. It can help with many forms of mental distress, particularly anxiety and depression. It can make you more productive. It can make you more efficient. It can make you happier. It can help you transcend your ego. It can help you pass your exams. It can make you a better runner. It can make you a better cook. It can make you better in bed, whether you interpret that sexually or restfully. Just google ‘mindful + <insert aim here>’ and it’s very likely there’s a link that will show you how mindfulness will help you achieve it.

According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is widely acknowledged as the father of the movement, mindfulness is “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”.

As my Muse headband tells me, thoughts sometimes come along unbidden. We spend our lives cleaved between our anxieties about the future and regrets about the past. We should watch for this – sit on the banks of the river of our consciousness and observe, without passing judgment, as our mental garbage flows by. There are ways to keep yourself present; you can watch your breath. You can try keeping a particular posture. You can feel your feet flat against the floor, and the light pressure of the earth against them.

I am present, I think, when the sounds of my Muse are quieter, when the rain is less tropical and more like London in October. The quietness of the mind and the quietness of my app meet for a moment, before I start to become too conscious of it and the moment passes, as if carried away by a gust of wind that brings with it storm clouds. I hear thunder.

Mindfulness is everywhere. The industry is valued at over $4 billion. One of the biggest mindfulness apps, Headspace, has a valuation of $250 million and a swanky office in Los Angeles. Oprah has her own mindfulness app, and Arianna Huffington speaks at the mindfulness summit. Mindfulness therapies are offered by the NHS, which touts them as being ‘as good as drugs’ for preventing depression relapse. It’s offered in schools, at universities and workplaces. Google has its own monk, who encourages employees to Search Inside Themselves. Mindfulness, the Harvard Business Review once wrote, can literally change your brain.

But, inevitable as it might seem now, mindfulness struggled for years to be taken seriously. Kabat-Zinn, the instigator of the mindful revolution, was a seasoned meditator who graduated from MIT with a doctorate in molecular biology. At a meditation retreat he managed to slip out of present-centred awareness long enough to have a vision of using meditation techniques to help patients deal with chronic pain, stress and anxiety. As he would later tell Time magazine, no-one had thought to do so before because it was too esoteric for the medical establishment and too close to apostasy for actual Buddhists. “Partly because I had a PhD from MIT in molecular biology and had studied in the lab of a Nobel Laureate,” he says in the interview, “people projected onto me that ‘he must know what he’s doing’, so they let me do it.”

In 1979 Kabat-Zinn founded his Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. The mindful revolution was born at the same time that Thatcher took over as Prime Minister in the UK and started to make inroads to the popular consciousness as Reagan took office. These are not coincidences.

To understand how mindfulness managed to take the world by storm, you have to understand three interweaving strands that coalesced at the time that Kabat-Zinn was just starting out. The first is that spirituality had firmly decoupled itself from religion. At the start of the 20th century, the famous psychologist and philosopher William James published a book called The Varieties of Religious Experience which posited that despite differing dogmas and practices, all religions at their core pointed to the same experience. This experience – of the divine, if you want to call it that – formed the backbone of the new-age spirituality that had pervaded the 60s and 70s. Transcendental meditation was seen as a way to unlock the gates of this unmoored spirituality.

Kabat-Zinn wasn’t the first person to lift esoteric Buddhist practices from their dogmatic confines. He was the first, however, to do so while wearing a lab coat. He went a step further than the new agers – they’d stripped the practice from the dogma, because they argued that the dogma merely got in the way of the divine (religious historian Jeffrey Kripal has called this tradition “the religion of no religion”) but Kabat-Zinn took the divine away altogether. Here, simply, was a tool. As he writes in his book Wherever You Go, There You Are, mindfulness “will not conflict with any beliefs... religious or for that matter scientific – nor is it trying to sell you anything, especially not a belief system or ideology”. The present moment, he argues, belongs to nobody but you.

At the same time that spirituality decoupled itself from religion, the state was decoupling itself from, well, everything. In 1977, John Knowles, the famed physician and president of The Rockefeller Foundation, published a stark polemic, Doing Better and Feeling Worse, that introduced the world to the “doctrine of personal responsibility” for health. The idea of a “right to health” he wrote “should be replaced by the idea of an individual moral obligation to preserve one’s own health”. He wasn’t a fan of “sloth, gluttony, alcoholic intemperance, reckless driving, sexual frenzy, and smoking,” – “one man’s freedom in health is another man’s shackle in taxes and insurance premiums,” he wrote, having clearly not enjoyed his twenties.

The personal responsibility doctrine dovetailed neatly with the general neo-liberal trends of the age. The individual was seen as the prime mover of his or her own destiny, and the state should get out of their way. The unions were smashed. The railways were sold. The banks got more powerful. Thatcher said there was no such thing as society. Community centres closed. Communities shrivelled. You know, you were there. Or maybe you weren’t, but you’ve lived in the shadow of those decisions.

Society atomised and then it digitised. The disparate strands around Kabat-Zinn braided. Spiritual practices became just practices. These could then be leveraged as we took responsibility for our own health, at just the same time that we were told we should be taking responsibility of pretty much everything. We were now all entrepreneurs investing in our destinies. We could no longer be passive. We needed to optimise. Enter tech.


A few years ago, when I was going through a profound bout of insomnia, a counsellor at my university recommended I meditate. I downloaded Headspace, a meditation app that a few people around me had started using. It had only existed for about three years at the time. It had been started by Andy Puddicombe, a British guy who had spent ten years learning to be a monk in Tibet and had a degree in circus arts. Thus began the period of my life where my mate Andy became the last thing I would hear before falling – whether immediately or hours later – into fitful sleep.

Headspace, which now has over 300 employees and brings in more than $100 million in revenue a year, took mindfulness digital and placed it in our back pocket. The author of books on meditation and mindfulness Neil Seligman told the BBC that Headspace “transformed the industry and penetrated the global market”.

My Muse headset, and the neat graphs it draws me to show me how deeply I’ve meditated, is not so dissimilar to any of the other apps on my phone that I can use to track my vital signs. There are apps that chart how deeply you sleep, how many calories and nutrients you consume and your smartphone automatically records how many steps you take. This is just the start of it. The quantified self-movement, which got a lot of coverage in the early 2010s as journalists sought out the fringe cases of people wearing sensors and tracking things like their lipid levels, now seems banal. Today, health insurance companies actively track people’s fitness data and go out into rural China and trade basic medical care for the data they can mine from patients.

It’s no wonder that as tech has opened up more and more ways to quantify our intimate biological processes, that someone would find a way to do the same for our brains. If mindfulness was already seen as a way to hack our minds, why not hack mindfulness itself?

Muse works by using EG-sensors that track your brainwaves. “Brainwaves are the sum total of the electrical activity in your brain, so as you think or do anything mental your brainwaves change, and Muse can read those changes in brain activity,” according to Ariel Garten, one of its founders who I contact by phone in Toronto. These sensors, which help to track focused attention and brain wandering, provide the metrics that help you assess how deeply you meditated. This technology was initially used by the company to run games; people were told to focus on a ball on a screen and could make it move with their mind. But the applications for this were quite gimmicky.

A consultant I spoke with who had worked with the company at this stage of its development noted that they didn’t really know what to do with the technology. “But then we kind of realised – instead of using your attention to change stuff outside you,” Garten says, “why not use it to change the stuff inside?”

But by offering metrics Muse is gamifying mindfulness, using the same underlying techniques used by tech companies that have us chasing likes and trying to beat our previous score to maintain our engagement with the service. I put on Muse and I chase birds. When I mention this to Garten she laughs. “But don’t you notice how the birds fly away as soon as you focus too much on them?” The idea, she argues, is that you start chasing birds but soon after tire of the pursuit and forget all about them.

But to be honest, that never really happened for me. I realised after a while that if I held my breath, I could game the device. The clouds would part and a bird would sing. I wish I was the kind of person who could have realised this and not acted on it, but I’m not.

I spent the majority of my summer wearing my Muse headset in the evenings before I fell asleep. I’d sit on the side of my bed, my feet on the floor, and I’d take myself into the forest. One night, mid-conversation with my housemate, I realised that it was nearly midnight. I wanted to keep my Muse streak going so I cut the conversation short and charged upstairs. 11:58, the sounds of rain.

Another friend saw me post about my Muse headset on Instagram as I started the research for this article. He told me he trialled a Muse headset at a place in NYC called Float where they have suspended animation tanks. He wore it and started a meditation at the same time as Zac Efron, who happened to be next to him. At the time the app didn’t have birds but instead measured how many times your meditation was “disrupted” by a passing thought. Zac must have had a lot on his mind – he had 23 disruptions. My friend only had three. “I won,” he said.

By wearing a mindfulness headset and playing a game against the various elements in your life that are quartering your attention, you are inviting judgment into an exercise that is supposed to be non-judgmental. When, self-satisfied, I look at my 17 birds and smile, I have judged my meditation. That holds regardless of whether I’m happy or sad about my meditation. The point of meditation is that you will fail at it. No one, not even the most trained and ascetic monk can hold present-focused attention in perpetuity. That’s why they are practising monks – no one is perfect.

To invite neo-liberal optimising technologies into mindfulness makes it yet another millennial competition. It risks being just one more thing to be anxious about, another marathon slog with an ever-receding finish line.

Mindfulness, ideally, should be intrinsic. The beauty of being in the present moment should be all the reward you need. But that isn’t how mindfulness is sold today. Mindfulness is often directed at extrinsic goals – it will make you a better employee, a better lover, and a better person more generally. Mindfulness is just the latest optimising technology leveraged by our entrepreneurial selves.

It’s no wonder then that some of its most ardent devotees are in Silicon Valley. It would be wrong however to characterise the valley’s interest as simply a response to the digitised mindful offerings of companies like Headspace and Muse. San Francisco in the 70s was a hotbed for Zen Buddhism and transcendental meditation, and there was a strong hippie and New Age movement in Berkeley and at Stanford, where people like Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin studied. Steve Jobs dropped out of college and meditated for a few months in India, and later credited this experience as formative for crafting the Apple aesthetic.

Silicon Valley has tried very hard to eschew some of its more capitalist tendencies behind a veneer of spiritually informed benevolence. “Don’t be evil,” is Google’s motto, and the company has been encouraging employees to Search Inside Themselves since 2007 when an engineer, Chade-Meng Tan – the “Jolly Good Fellow” – launched the company’s School of Personal Growth. Members of Facebook, Google and Airbnb sit on the board of directors of the new-age Esalen institute, nestled in the redwood forests near Silicon Valley. Wall Street goes to the Hamptons. Silicon Valley goes to Burning Man.

One could potentially see an irony here. The people most responsible for dragging our attention are themselves interested in techniques that are supposed to help us reclaim it from them. Critics argue that Silicon Valley’s interest in mindfulness is cynical. They claim that the tech proponents of mindfulness are offering a patch to try and hold together our increasingly fragmented digital selves. Mindfulness is an attempt to claw back the present moment from the world of 24/7 email and the tsunami of push-notifications that keep us tethered to our devices. Instead of changing their business model, they offer us a psychotherapeutic raft to cling to.

There have been some notable moments where the contradictions undermining Silicon Valley’s mindful aspirations have been glaringly obvious. Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, last year posted a long tweet thread about going to a vipassana retreat. He sat in silence for ten days and watched his breathing. In true tech fashion he also wore a heart-rate monitor and tracked his vital signs. In the thread he analysed the data, talking about how the metrics corresponded with his perception of how deep his meditation was.

He also casually mentioned that his retreat was in Myanmar. “The people are full of joy and the food is amazing!” he tweeted, encouraging his four million followers to visit. He neglected to mention the genocide happening in the country, nor the fact that his rival Facebook was implicated in it.

He was following, blindly, the well-beaten path of tech-myopia. In 2014, Google was hosting a talk titled ‘Three Steps to Build Corporate Mindfulness the Google Way’ in San Francisco. A group of activists, called Heart of the City, took the stage to protest how the company was changing the city. They held a banner calling for an ‘Eviction Free San Francisco’ and distributed bright yellow flyers to attendees: ‘thank you for your practice’ the flyers said, ‘we invite you to consider the truth behind Google and the tech industry’s impact on San Francisco’. The city was in the midst of a tech-induced housing crisis.

Bill Duane, senior manager of Google’s Wellbeing and Sustainable High-Performance Development programmes, grabbed the mic. Instead of responding to the protesters demands, he led a meditation for the audience. “Check in with your bodies,” he said, and asked people to “feel what it’s like to be in conflict with people with heartfelt ideas.” The audience closed their eyes as security grabbed the protesters and lead them off stage.

And this is what mindfulness’ critics are most perturbed by. They see mindfulness as a way for us to turn away from social critique. The standard image of the mindful meditator is someone (usually white, usually attractive) sitting alone, searching inside, with their eyes serenely closed to the problems of the world.


Muse does more than just measure my focus. There are meditations that do away with the sounds of the rainforest and instead give me wind chimes if I manage to hold my posture. Muse can work out how deeply I’m breathing. A small red sensor can measure my heartbeat, and I can concentrate to try to lower it. With Muse I feel more in control of my brain and body. I notice myself correcting my posture when I sit. When I feel the edges of my being crinkle with an anxious thought, I breathe deeper.

Anxiety dislocates. Depression weighs heavy. Mindfulness, with its non-judgmental present-centred awareness, returns you to the present moment. You watch as negative ideas arise, and you don’t grab at them. You are not your thoughts. If you release them, and watch them without passing judgment, you see that they pass. The shit floats down the river, we sit dry on the banks.

I don’t know when everyone around me seemed to start meditating or to have integrated some form of meditative practice into their lives, but in recent years that seems to be the case. It’s well noted that millennials are one of the most anxious generations in history. Most of the things our parents’ generation considered ‘the good life’ are woefully out of reach, and a number of scholars are now arguing that the baby-boomer generation that birthed us also bankrupted our future. We work longer hours, for stagnant wages, in jobs that are at constant risk of being automated.

American millennials have over a trillion dollars in student loan debt, and government estimates in the UK say we could also hit a trillion pounds in the next 25 years if we continue on current trends. It’s no wonder that burnout is so prevalent among this generation that the World Health Organisation started classing it as an official medical diagnosis.

Given what’s happening to us in our workplaces and schools, it’s unsurprising that these same organisations would latch onto mindfulness techniques to try and stem the bleeding. Mindfulness is the perfect fixative. It’s backed by countless studies – there are ones which show how mindful meditation can change your anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the frontal lobe, which is associated with self-control, ones that show that it can reduce stress and help with stress-related conditions like high blood pressure or irritable bowel syndrome.

The mindful revolution isn’t just pushed by institutions looking to mollify our problems. We download apps, we go to retreats, we buy meditation headsets. We actively seek it out not just to fix ourselves but also to improve ourselves. Who doesn’t want to be a better employee, a better lover, and a better person more generally?

For as long as there have been humans, there have been meditative practices. As Garten tells me on the phone, “there’s been 7,000 years of meditation and Muse is just the latest iteration of that”. If you look into the critical literature of mindfulness, you find that a lot of the most ardent critiques come from practicing Buddhists. They charge that mindfulness isn’t honest about the epistemic debt it owes Buddhism. In his study of British mindfulness proponents, the scholar Matt Drage found that many of the most successful ones were actually dedicated Buddhists who actively downplayed their spiritual ties.

Kabat-Zinn likes to talk about how mindfulness asks nothing of its followers in terms of subscribing to any particular belief system, selling it as a secular toolkit for the modern world. This is despite the fact that he himself is a practising Zen Buddhist who adapted the techniques from extant practices from that tradition. As one group of scholars argue, it’s the height of “new-age solipsism” to contend that a spiritual practice is not owned by a particular culture or tradition, but that it belongs solely to the self.

This can then lead to an inherent tension. In Buddhist traditions, of which there are many, mindfulness is typically grounded in the doctrine of Anattā – the metaphysical denial of the self. This doctrine contends that there is no such thing as a self or an individual basis for identity, like a soul. But mindfulness, in constantly reaffirming the primacy of the present moment, subtly reinforces a self-centred locatedness.

As Ronald Purser, one of mindfulness’ most ardent critics, argues, “locatedness subtly reinforces an achievement and self-orientation, as we are constantly in a mode of self-surveillance, checking up on ourselves, gauging our progress and ability (or, more often than not, inability) to ‘be present’”. Sometimes, I catch myself during the day wondering whether or not I am present in whatever I am doing. But it’s always me that is doing the wondering, and I’m aware that this active wondering is actually taking me further from the present moment.

This dislocation can have profound effects on certain people. Willoughby Britton, the director of the clinical and affective neuroscience laboratory at Brown University, runs a clinic for people who have suffered adverse psychological effects from meditation. Last year she published the largest study on meditative experiences “that are described as challenging, difficult, distressing, functionally impairing, and/or requiring additional support”. “I’m seeing a lot of casualties,” she told Vice magazine.

Various Buddhist traditions have cautioned that meditation must be carried out carefully. In the Zen tradition there have been practitioners warning of ‘Zen sickness’ and Hakuin Ekaku, a Zen master, worried that people could fall prey to ‘dead sitting’. In Chan Buddhism, the Song dynasty monk Duhui was concerned about the ‘malady of meditation’.

At the deepest level critics argue that mindfulness, in not being honest about its epistemic roots in Buddhist traditions, allows people to observe the presence of their non-self, but doesn’t provide the necessary philosophical or spiritual framework to contextualise that understanding. For Buddhists, life is so imbued with suffering that one should attempt to transcend the self and not be reborn into this painful world altogether. Mindfulness uses the same tools but repurposes them to cope with the suffering of the world today. You don’t transcend suffering; you learn to deal with it.

It’s this tension that has seen mindfulness rebranded in some circles as McMindfulness – “its therapeutic function is to comfort, numb, adjust and accommodate the self within a neoliberal, corporatised, militarised, individualistic society based on private gain”.

It’s funny, to read about mindfulness. On the one hand there are the evangelists for whom it is the ultimate panacea. There is, it seems, no deficit that mindfulness cannot cure. If we could all be more mindful the world would be a better place. We’d get over our egos, our anxieties would be anxious of us and our depressions would be miserable about how fucking awesome we are. We’d work harder, fuck longer and still have time and space left over to hold compassion for all the suffering in the world.

On the other hand, there are the doomsayers. Mindfulness is a conspiracy. It’s a zombie apocalypse – “it’s not the revolution of the desperate or disenfranchised in society, but rather a ‘peaceful revolution’ being led by white, middle class Americans” interested in maintaining the status quo. It’s Google imploring a room to close their eyes while housing-rights protestors are manhandled offstage (house prices have doubled in San Fran since that incident, FYI). It’s cultural appropriation. It’s metaphysically problematic.

I am sceptical of anything that can profoundly alter your life and only requires ten minutes of work a day. I agree with the critics who argue that mindfulness is not, and should not, be sold as a one-size-fits-all panacea. Mindfulness, whether its proponents agree or not, does contain metaphysical assumptions about the self which has profound spiritual implications. These need to be made clear for people who are about to try and interweave it into their lives. This isn’t a radical expectation; any course of medication has side-effects, it’s no different just because this happens to be mind-medicine. Being upfront and more honest about the underlying assumptions of mindfulness would enhance its effects, not diminish them.

For some perhaps mindfulness is a gateway to deeper spiritual practice. Maybe you start with Muse and eventually you lose the headset and embark on something deeper and less instrumentalised. Power to you. I worry though that we are so stressed and the demands on our time are so great that we get stuck here. We put on our headset, we tick off our nightly meditation, and then we go straight back into the chaos.

My friend says that meditation is the kindest thing we can do for the world. Clear your mental garbage, he says, and don’t bring it out to pollute the rest of us. In his worldview, the airplane is coming down. We affix our psychological mask before we reach out to help others with theirs. But I think that might be too simplistic a metaphor. Our selves are too multifaceted and complex for us to ever affix our masks – the self is like a Cubist painting, multi-dimensional and fractured and constantly shifting. Try finding the mouth on a Picasso as you hurtle to earth in a ball of flames. You could spend a lifetime – and never find time to reach out and help anyone else.

Mindfulness does help millions of people. Practising non-judgmental observation is a valuable skill. Learning to hold compassion and break habitual reactions to our emotions will only serve us well. There were times this summer when I would catch myself throughout the day and realise I was overly focused on something on my to-do list that I had no hope of getting done that day, or ruminating on some clunky thing I’d said to someone that might have hurt them. I’d breathe, I’d take stock of the world around me and that particular worry would pass.

There are over 100,000 people using Muse now, according to the founder Garten. It’s already being used in four languages and they’re in the process of translating it into Japanese. Clearly there isn’t a shortage of people who buy into the idea of tracking their meditations and setting themselves defined goals. It says a lot about us, this small grey headband that I discovered over Instagram.

I enjoyed the split seconds after the gong would sound on the app, the silence in the room and the feeling of the weight in my hands. Even just finding silence in a world of so much noise felt like a small victory.

There’s a middle ground, between the doomsayers and the evangelists. I think both sides under-estimate our inherent tendency towards laziness. The vast majority of people start a meditative practice and then give up. You become aware of the idea of the present moment, and you see all the ways our modern world rips it from you. You gain a bit of compassion and strengthen your ability to observe non-judgmentally. You try not to instrumentalise everything. You use your phone slightly less, let the sun kiss your cheeks more because you’re looking up and not down all the time. You see that you aren’t your emotions, at least, not always.

It’s possible, I think, to see that mindfulness can be beautiful when it works for people and also to marvel that our economic system has conjured a four billion dollar industry out of our inherent ability for silent introspection. You can hold these two ideas simultaneously, allowing them to rest there on an outstretched palm, and not judge them. 

The world is infinitely complex. In the face of this complexity we are often rendered impotent and this is existentially devastating. This summer the Amazon burned, and hurricanes flattened the Bahamas. I turned on my meditation headset and closed my eyes. I listened to a rainforest, I heard winds.