Vivek Haldar

Mindfulness sells

Wired takes a deep look at the rising uptake of meditation and mindfulness in Silicon Valley tech companies, and comes away somewhat discomfited at the way ancient Eastern philosophy is being remarketed for the privileged technorati. The whole piece is worth reading. I can certainly second the trend with my own observation.

The West has always had a fascination with Eastern philosophy. Remember the whole psychedelic phase of the Beatles? It has seemed like an exotic gateway into a realm not usually part of Western discourse and life. And especially once people’s material needs were well met in developed countries, they naturally turned towards more spiritual questions.

Today, you see it most in what I like to call “yoga culture”. Every yoga instructor has their own hour-long unique pill of exercise, poses and pop spiritual advice. As an Indian the very first thing that strikes me as amusing about it is the rampant mispronunciation of Sanskrit and Hindi words and pose-names. It reaches a peak when someone decides to recite an entire shlok in an Anglicized accent. All this is neatly ensconced a high-end retail environment. There is the constant undertone that buying these $80 yoga pants will make you a better yogi and nudge you along the path to self actualization. This strategy has worked wonders for Lululemon Athletica, rocketing them to the nearly the top of retailers ranked by sales per square foot per quarter.

It’s the same point the article makes: that being more mindful is a means to becoming a more productive worker, not an end unto itself. Somehow it’s hard to shake the feeling that all this eastern philosophy is an elaborate ruse to just sell us more stuff, spiritual or physical.

But there is a genuine need though. People feel stressed and anxious and beleaguered, and want to find a way through it. Like the doctor said to Don Draper, “people will do anything to alleviate their anxiety.”

To me the reason it all feels fake is that it’s all happy and pleasant. In Indian mythology, the idea of awakening or enlightened is inextricably tied to penance and suffering. Getting there is painful and hard work. The journey of every mythical hero has a phase where he or she realizes that to break through the barrier before them they need to go through a period of deep introspection and pain. The Hindi word is tapasya. (The two most common places for doing this are the woods, or for the really next level, the Himalayas. The Himalayas are to every other mountain range what a Ferrari is to a Ford Focus. You really have to see them.)

When you strip all that hard work and pain away, it loses all it’s potence. It becomes just another feel-good drug, putting you on just another cycle of suffering.