Seeing into the heart of things isn’t an instrumental goal like selling cars or winning divorce cases.

So one might be surprised to learn that it is a possibly $4 billion business marketed to entities like New York University’s business school, where “increasing numbers of businesses, Fortune 500 companies, and CEOs consider mindfulness essential to successful management.” Goldman Sachs, Monsanto and General Mills have touted their mindfulness programs. To say nothing of lesser names like Reebok, IBM, and Papa Gino’s pizza.

Yes, it’s everywhere, even at the World Economic Forum.

Google helped mainstream mindfulness but had to rename it “Search Inside Yourself.” We are told, Apple’s Steve Jobs (1955–2011) “trained his own brain” via Zen mindfulness. Cover stories in the New York Times and other mainstream venues puff the practice to smaller firms.

So what does the public hear?: A popular 2015 book centred on an eight-week program, You Are Not Your Pain, reveals a simple eight-week program of mindfulness-based practices that will melt away your suffering. As if. British TV personality Ruby Wax, having gained a masters in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), sees it as a way to self-regulate our brain state, “taking our ‘mental temperature’ to see when we are at our tipping point.” And, of course, there are the gadgets and the apps. Including a headspace app, as meditation turns ultra-trendy.

It all seems a long way from the traditional Eastern sage’s intentionally uncluttered life. Can one really have mindfulness and clutter too?

Mindfulness has also found its way into law (“a happier, saner law practice using meditation and mindfulness”) There is even Happiness 101 for Legal Scholars in which we are urged to see a connection between being happy, being ethical, and being mindful.  

Stop, wait. The three qualities listed above are not consistently related. Mindfulness does not always lead to happiness. It is not intended to. It is intended to lead to greater awareness of (possibly unhappy) reality, so as to deal with it with increasing compassion. Just as we suffer, so do all.

Traditional mindfulness proponents struggle to make their voices heard above the hype. British expert on Buddhism Terry Hyland, a critic of McMindfulness as obscene and monstrous mutations” of Buddhist practice, notes that

McMindfulness strategies which are linked to the sale of products in the pursuit of materialist gain are in contradiction of the Buddhist ethical precepts linked to right action, right view, right effort and right livelihood and, as such, constitute an overt misuse of mindfulness.

Author and practitioner Arnie Kozak offers

The Buddha had a more nuanced and expansive view of mindfulness. Mindfulness with a capital “M” is ethically grounded attention. To be mindful is to give something our full attention with the absence of clinging desire or aversion. The attention also includes a sense of what is beneficial for one’s self and the people around them. If you were doing something destructive, you couldn’t be mindful, even if you gave it your full attention.

Meanwhile, mindfulness started playing out as all such fads do, with the familiar media stories. In 2015, we heard about “The 5 Most Important Things We Learned About Mindfulness This Year” (even more benefits!) and the “5 things people get wrong about mindfulness” (including: It’s not Buddhism).

Not to worry. If consumers thought it was a serious religion, they probably wouldn’t be so interested. No surprise, mindfulness-this and mindfulness-that has also been part of the worst terminological abuse in psychology in 2015.

Finally, a Guardian books columnist asked in early 2016, “Do we really need more guides to mindfulness?” No. We need to revisit first principles.

Next: Part 3: Why pioneers are disillusioned with the “mindfulness” scene even as schools embrace it

See also: Part 1: Responding thoughtfully to the mindfulness fad

Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger, and co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...