Mindfulness, Meet Capitalism: The Complicated Truth About the $1 Billion Meditation Industry

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The meditation industry has rapidly expanded in the Western world in the last decade, and meditation has become a trendy daily ritual. Practicing meditation can help people calm their mind, process their emotions, gain more focus at work and stay grounded in the present moment. Meditation in its simplest form, just being, has been around for millennium. However, as this Eastern practice becomes more mainstream in the United States, the practice has also been influenced by the forces of capitalism. In the tech industry, meditation is seen as just another form of biohacking, and you can now buy many meditation gadgets, accessories and apps designed to help track your physiological reactions during meditation.

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I practice meditation and mindfulness in my daily life, and while I’m not an expert, I do wonder if these devices are actually necessary. If meditation is about finding inner peace, can you really find a shortcut just by buying some expensive luxury products? Is commodifying and capitalizing on a practice like meditation counter to its core values? Is the Western world corrupting this ancient practice, or simply adapting it to the modern demands of living in an information society?

I honestly don’t know the answers to these questions, which is why I wanted to write this article. Let’s explore the status of the meditation industry, estimated to be worth more than $1 billion, in 2021.

The History of Meditation

In a nutshell, the precise moment when meditation was created is unknown. However, there are two main theories as to where it came from and when. Some of the oldest records from India around 1500 BCE mention a practice called “Dhyāna” or “Jhāna”, which translates to a “training of the mind”, or meditation. Meditation came from the Veda branch of Hinduism, where many ancient traditions used across India originated.

The second theory is that meditation came from China, and it is referenced in records from as early as the 3rd and 6th centuries BCE. It’s linked to Daoist schools of thought and Laozi (better known as Lao Tzu in the Western world), a famous ancient Chinese philosopher who mentions various meditation techniques in his writings.

In addition, there are a few prominent individuals touted with having brought meditation into the popular consciousness — including the Buddha in India, Lao-Tzu in China and Dosho in Japan. All three are legendary figures in the history of meditation, and no one person or religious movement is responsible for the origin of this practice. Meditation in its earliest form was about ridding yourself of sources of suffering that include jealousy, comparison, greed and other social ills. While none of these leaders can be conclusively established as the founder or creator of meditation, they all contributed to it in their own ways. And while meditation can and should evolve based on the needs of modern human beings, in the Western world, it has taken on a drastically different form that some practitioners believe is at odds with its core principles.

buddha meditation
buddha meditation

Meditation and the Western World

The Western world started becoming aware of meditation in the 1700s after some key Eastern philosophical texts were translated into European languages. These texts included the Upanishads from India that were written between 800 and 500 BCE, the Bhagavad Gita, a Sanskrit text of 700 verses, and the Buddhist Sutras that encapsulate oral teachings from the Buddha.

In the 18th century, meditation was only a topic of discussion by renowned philosophers like Voltaire, who were exploring alternative schools of thought during the Enlightenment era. By the 19th century, philosophers such as Arthur Schopenhauer were producing philosophical works directly influenced by Eastern religions and thinking. The Indian Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda is sometimes credited with introducing Americans to the practice of meditation. In 1893, he gave an influential presentation at the Parliament of Religions event in Chicago, and afterward he conducted many lectures and classes with Americans interested in meditation. Finally, in the 20th century, meditation became a more mainstream pastime in the United States, and at the same time, Buddhism became a more common religion in Western countries.

Meditation’s presence within the United States has evolved with time. It went from a brand new concept to something scientists studied as a remedy for various mental health disorders like anxiety and depression. It went from a pillar of hippie culture and the Zen movement to a clinical practice prescribed by therapists and psychologists. Mindfulness, a type of meditative practice, is a key component of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. And now, meditation has been adopted by Silicon Valley and the tech world at large, where it’s marketed as a solution to the exhaustive expectations of living in a capitalist society, and a way to optimize yourself for even more work.

Many companies conduct mindfulness and meditation workshops to help their employees de-stress and stay focused during the workday, yet these capitalist institutions haven’t necessarily adopted other core principles of Buddhism and Eastern philosophy. Purists like myself have a problem with that.

meditation class, meditation and western world
meditation class, meditation and western world

Is the ‘Meditation Industry’ an Oxymoron? The Commodification of Meditation

Meditation has become more popular than ever due to the public’s desperate need to find calm, peace and balance in a world that increasingly feels like it’s gone completely insane. There’s nothing wrong with the desire to find some quiet inside your own brain. However, in a capitalist society, where there’s demand, there’s a supply, and an inevitable deluge of products. The problem with the capitalization of meditation? Peace and calm aren’t so easily commodified. You can’t buy inner peace.

It’s worth stating that there are many products out there that genuinely do help with meditation, and in my mind aren’t counter to the core values of the practice itself. These are accessories like meditation cushions, adult coloring books and even meditation apps. Mindfulness and meditation is a very individual practice, and whatever you need to get to a more balanced place is ultimately worth it. There are also studios, retreat companies and retreat centers that all make money by creating spaces for meditation, and I don’t think there is anything fundamentally wrong with that. However, if the source of the desire to meditate comes from a place of wanting to optimize oneself for capitalist gains, raise your status in the eyes of others or simply to numb emotions, then the origin of the practice has been severed from your version of it.

David Forbes, author of Mindfulness and Its Discontents: Education, Self and Social Transformation, has nicknamed the West’s interpretation of mindfulness as “McMindfulness” — a numbing solution to cope with an exhausting capitalist society rather than a way to alleviate suffering. A society that’s built on constant productivity in order to prove self-worth, instead of self-development or helping others, has offered meditation as the very pricey solution.

Forbes explains in a piece entitled “How Capitalism Captured the Mindfulness Industry” for The Guardian that “Meditation apps monetize mindfulness; Headspace’s revenue is estimated at $50m a year and the company is valued at $250m. These enterprises cater to Big Business, with which it has had a long history. Silicon Valley has a ball producing profitable, hi-tech, marketable mindfulness apps as ‘brain hacks’ for which there is no evidence they are helpful.”

I have to admit I also find the tech world’s obsession with “biohacking” through meditation to be a bit of an eye roll. Sure, calming things like anxiety does help you focus at work, but posing meditation as a way to “hack” your way to performing better than everyone else seems counter to its original purpose. Despite this fact, more and more devices, apps and other tech “innovations” are emerging as the trend grows, trying to capitalize on the public’s curiosity. We’ve even reviewed some of these meditation devices on Spy.com in the past.

Biohacking, Wearables and Mindfulness

The tech world has been enamored with meditation for a while now. In a 2013 Wired article, author Noah Shachtman explains how engineers, entrepreneurs and creators across the tech capital of the world are “taking millennia-old traditions and reshaping them to fit the Valley’s goal-oriented, data-driven, largely atheistic culture. Forget past lives; never mind nirvana. The technology community of Northern California wants return on its investment in meditation.”

He also noted that “Many of the people who shaped the personal computer industry and the Internet were once members of the hippie counterculture. So an interest in Eastern faiths is all but hardwired into the modern tech world. Steve Jobs spent months searching for gurus in India and was married by a Zen priest.”

“But in today’s Silicon Valley, there’s little patience for what many are happy to dismiss as ‘hippie bullshit.’ Meditation here isn’t an opportunity to reflect upon the impermanence of existence but a tool to better oneself and improve productivity,” wrote Shachtman. And their subsequent inventions reflect that shift in ideals. Despite that article being written almost 10 years ago, Silicon Valley’s relationship with meditation and the trappings of Eastern religions remains unchanged.

With meditation headsets like Muse and Flowtime, the tech world is creating new products to help you sit and be. Muse headbands track your brain activity and sync it up with sounds of the weather to help you cultivate calm during meditation sessions. Flowtime tracks similar information so you can review your meditation “performance” after each session and see how you’re improving over time.

Muse 2 Meditation Headband

muse 2 meditation headband, meditation industry
muse 2 meditation headband, meditation industry

Buy: Muse 2 Meditation Headband $219.99

Flowtime Meditation Headband

Flowtime meditation headband
Flowtime meditation headband

Buy: Flowtime Meditation Headband $198.00

Meditation apps such as Calm and Headspace work with meditation teachers, psychologists and experts across the space to create daily guided meditations to help with everything from focusing at work to sleep. Some entrepreneurs have gone so far as to create dedicated biohacking labs with float tanks that sync up with your brain waves and promise to stimulate “creative drive.”

Absolutely none of this is necessary.

Nice to have? Sure. Interesting to experience? Perhaps. Convenient? In some instances, and if you can afford it. However, none of these products or services are necessary to meditate and reap the numerous benefits that it can provide for your brain. All that’s necessary is a comfortable place to sit or lie down.

Expensive meditation gadgets are like any other tool. They can be useful, or not, depending on how you use them.

I have not personally found these types of products to be helpful in my meditation practice, but I definitely don’t want to judge people who do use them. I hope they do help people who are seeking a greater sense of calm, peace and self-knowledge. Ultimately, that’s what really matters.

What Works For Me? Whatever Helps Me Sit and Be

If you want to make your meditation space more inviting so you’ll actually stick to that daily mindfulness goal of yours, I’ve picked out a few of my favorite products that have helped me. None of these are hacks, and none of them will hand you the mental space you’re craving on a silver platter. They’ll just make the daily chipping away more comfortable.

Walden Meditation Cushion + Mat Set

Walden makes a great meditation cushion that cushions your behind as well as your feet, knees and ankles so you can sit for longer periods of time. The bolster supports your hips for a more aligned spine and better posture, while the medium-density foam mat underneath provides a barrier between you and the floor. Both of them are moisture-resistant on the outside and the buckwheat hull fill is heavy and supportive without being uncomfortable to sit on. This cushion comes in a wide range of colors and medium and large sizes as well.

walden meditation cushion, meditation
walden meditation cushion, meditation

Buy: Walden Meditation Cushion + Mat Set $245.00

Lotuscrafts Meditation Cushion

You also don’t need to spend a few hundred dollars on a meditation cushion, and can easily pick up a simpler one like this from Amazon. The cushion is about 15 cm high which is just enough to support your base and make sitting up straight easier. This one is also filled with buckwheat hull and can be adjusted to your ideal height by adding or removing filling. The cover is removable and washable, and it comes in a bunch of colors.

Lotuscrafts meditation cushion
Lotuscrafts meditation cushion

Buy: Lotuscrafts Meditation Cushion $29.95

Essential Oil Diffuser

Essential oils come in calming scents like lavender, eucalyptus and tea tree, and I love diffusing some into the air before and during my meditation practice. This diffuser comes with a bunch of essential oil included and has timer settings so you can set it to turn off when you’re done. The essential oils come from high-quality plant sources around the world and come in amber 10ml jars designed to prevent sun degradation. All it takes is a few drops and some water to power, and there are seven different lighting modes to choose from.

pure daily care store essential oil diffuser, meditation
pure daily care store essential oil diffuser, meditation

Buy: Pure Daily Care Store Essential Oil Diffuser $39.95 (orig. $69.95) 43% OFF

Mala Beads

Mala beads are traditional meditation beads that come strung 108 to one string and help you count your breaths while you’re meditating. You move your fingers from one bead to the next with every inhale and exhale, and it gives you something to focus on rather than letting your mind wander. This string is made with natural black agate and come with a tassel at the end that can mark the beginning and end of your meditation. There’s also a small charm halfway around the necklace so you can track how far you are.

mala beads for meditation
mala beads for meditation

Buy: BALIBALI Mala Beads $13.99

Tao Te Ching (The Book of the Way) by Lao Tzu

Here’s a recommendation from Spy’s Site Director Tim Werth, who believes this ancient book will be more helpful as you practice meditation than an expensive headset or wearable. The Tao Te Ching, also known as The Book of the Way, is a book of teachings by Lao Tzu, and it has been a source of wisdom for the world for over 2,000 years.

tao te ching book cover
tao te ching book cover

Buy: Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu $11.95

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