Why There’s No “Mindfulness Movement”

Inside Mindful Blog #3 from James Gimian, the Executive Director of the Foundation for a Mindful Society, on why mindfulness needs people in the trenches.

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In my last blog about “follow the signs,” I talked about how at the Foundation we spend a lot of time watching the mindfulness momentum to figure out the trends.

Note that I use “mindfulness momentum” rather than “mindfulness movement.” Momentum describes the groundswell surge of irrepressible engagement with mindfulness present in all parts of our society, whereas “movement” connotes an organized or planned effort.

While we certainly have leaders and inspiring voices, the momentum of mindfulness surging through the world is coming from so many different places that it’s very much like the ground elder that’s taking over my wife’s garden. It has a strong root system, invades new territory with ease, and you just can’t stop it.

Of course, this momentum also gives rise to things we lament, like the inevitable commodification and backlash. We cringe when we see that everyone and their sister is now a mindfulness “expert.” We support the critiques about overhyping the science and the lack of standards. But mindfulness will have to pass through the way station of commodification to arrive as an established part of society.

And to remember the goodness and benefit of mindfulness all we have to do is visit the stressed 6th grader at Robert W. Coleman Elementary in inner city Baltimore, the burned-out physician in Rochester, the traumatized fire jumper from California, and hear their stories about how mindfulness has helped them.

While we celebrate each of these important, inspiring examples, at the Foundation we’re also stepping back to see the big picture. This enables us to focus our efforts on emerging projects that bring that benefit to the many, to help mindfulness “scale up”—Projects like Mindful Cities, the Annual Survey of Mindfulness in America, and Mindfulness Retreats for Educators. All of which you’ll hear more about soon.

The challenge is that these projects aren’t money makers, they don’t fit the media economic model.

And that’s why, as a non-profit, the Mindful Foundation does fundraising drives and talks with inspired donors and philanthropists. We’re interested in bringing the benefits of mindfulness not just to the converted, but to address systemic challenges in our society. Not just to the “clan,” but into the trenches.

This issue also surfaced at the most recent “gathering of the clan,” the Mindfulness in America conference in NYC, hosted by our friends at Wisdom 2.0. They do great work and have brought important conversations forward. This conference had many of our beloved leading voices, a gathering of dear friends, and some fresh new voices (most notable to me were Anderson Cooper and David Simas). Mindful was a top line sponsor.

But like so many conferences, it was more about the traffic, about drawing a crowd: lots of like-minded, predominantly white middle-aged folks gathering to share inspiration and congratulations. It featured serial, one-directional communication—sages from the stage—and left no time for questions, discussions, or for people to meet and talk with each other.

Perhaps the most irritating element was the tech sector speaker who was on the stage more because he was a tech legend than because he had anything insightful to share about mindfulness. And the irony was not lost on many when this person who made many millions in the tech field told the working-class stiffs like me in the audience to only use their smartphones from 9-5 pm. It was like a crack dealer telling people not to get high for a few hours a day because their product was addictive.

But then came the highlights: a panel that included Amishi Jha and Rhonda Magee. When Amishi talks about her research on managing attention, she talks about helping inner city school kids excel, and helping community and relief workers be more resilient. And when Rhonda talks about her mindfulness work in social justice, it’s about healing the deepest wounds in our society. Now that’s some serious trench work.

I was very grateful that Rhonda and Amishi helped us get real. They brought us back to the trenches, where mindfulness practice meets the emotions, and where meaningful change can happen. That’s what the Mindful Foundation exists for, and these signs read full speed ahead.