Marketing Mindfulness

As part of global interest in wellbeing, the topic of mindfulness has been applied to a myriad of human pursuits. In discussions of health, child-rearing, marriage relations, professional development, you name it, mindfulness appears to be quite the buzzword these days. But it is of course much more than that. Mindfulness, at first a central tenet of Buddhism, has become a marketing angle that tells a billion-dollar story, all in the service of a multitude of businesses.

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Yet it is important to remember that however ancient it may be, Buddhism is a religion with ever-changing and evolving traditions. Buddhism has been transported, established and re-defined in a variety of cultures, from its start in India, and onwards into Tibet, China, Japan, to Southeast Asia and points beyond. At each stop, the recipient culture has adopted and then adapted the principles of Buddhism to suit local traditions and needs. 

Mindfulness practices such as meditation are not intrinsically Buddhist; gnostic Christians, for example, also practiced mindfulness, as do various religious orders.  But in the commercial realm, the issue is that the commodification of mindfulness, that is the re-purposing of Buddhist imagery, ideologies, and practices, is to commandeer them in a narrative geared to further the goals of a for-profit corporation or get rich quick scheme.

An example: Buddha Brands. A company that sells vegan non-GMO coconut-based snacks which, while in dubious taste, is on its face, not a bad thing. But wait, it gets worse. On the Buddha Brand’s ambassadors page, the site states that “Our Buddha Brands brand ambassadors are part of our extended team of coconut lovers”, followed by a short introduction for each ambassador currently at work pushing the brand. Every profile on the site includes similar descriptions of the ambassadors’ health consciousness, having a passion for fitness or simply loving coconuts. This becomes an issue since it is the very commodification of a centuries-old tradition by and for people who have not the slightest respect or interest in the precious cultural heritage of Buddhism. 

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If the shoe were on the other foot, it is as if the tablets of Moses or the words of the apostles had been re-jiggered to tout toothpaste or antifreeze.  And let’s put such an effort into the culture of, say, China. If a Chinese brand were to so advertise, naturally a number of native Judeo-Christians would take offense.  As all of us are “selling” one thing or another, we need to be aware of the peril of making of the sublime something commercial, and thus, ridiculous.  

Buddhism at its core belongs to no one but rather is a belief system that can be applied to all sentient beings, regardless of background or culture. Buddhism posits the existence of many universes and essentially transcends the world we experience. Such a ‘Buddha-nature’ that one can access to reach enlightenment permeates time and space; it does not, in fact, represent one’s love for coconuts, no matter how sustainable the plant may be. By Buddhism’s very nature, it is all-encompassing, embracing all beings of each universe, but the employment of these ideas to position packaged concoctions as “mindful”, and to promote senseless consumption of them, is where we begin to see a farcical irony. 

There is an old zen saying about the nature of the practice– to “chop wood, carry water”.  This humble expression captures the everyday nature of mindfulness in all activities. One would assume that selling a coconut drink would be among such activities.  So it is not the mundane nature of the product associated with mindfulness that grates on the senses, but rather the depredation of the mindfulness concept to serve as a marketing gimmick.  While those people dedicated enough to practice mindfulness would grant that it is big enough to contain multitudes, one would hope that most will recognize that there is more to the concept than selling material items.


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