Meditation jumps the shark: Headspace sells you nothingness

September 28, 2015 Originally published on SFGate

Leave it to a startup to try and bottle stillness.

Leave it to the eager ogres of capitalism to take something as venerable and miraculously simple as meditation – which is free, which is both excruciatingly easy to learn and the most difficult practice you will never master in your lifetime – and torque it into a pre-packaged, VC-funded “wellness product” that you’re supposed to subscribe to, monitor, track via app, website and social media and then feel vaguely guilty about when you fail, yet another cog in America’s multibillion-dollar feel-good machine.

Too cynical? Maybe. I admit to being viciously suspicious of capitalism’s endless commodification of anything and everything in the spiritual realm, because it’s everywhere, because I’m involved so deeply in it myself, because reconciling profit with spiritual integrity is endlessly challenging for the best of us.

Here is Headspace, the popular “mindfulness meditation startup” – which is a weird thing to even write – co-founded by former monk Andy Putticombe and his marketing partner. Headspace recently landed $30 million in new funding from a batch of VCs and celebrities, all on the promise of luring more corporations into buying its various “mindfulness programs,” i.e.; basic, guided meditations ostensibly designed to deliver the usual array of vague benefits you’ve been hearing so much about: reduced stress, increased fulfillment, more “happiness,” which in turn helps employees work harder and makes the company even more money. See? Everybody wins! Capitalism rules!

Sorry. But it’s tough not to be suspicious. It’s difficult not to compare what Headspace is hawking with, say, the Great American Bottled Water scam – that is, taking something that’s already freely abundant and costs almost nothing, repackaging it with cute cartoons and needless complication, and selling it back to you at a huge markup.

Your core Self. Now in paid subscription form!

Your core Self. Now in paid subscription form!

Do not misunderstand. Guided meditations, led by a skilled teacher, can be tremendously helpful (though it must be noted that there are dozens of other, dead-simple techniques that need no guide or coach at all). The truth is, anyone can learn the basics of meditation in about five minutes flat, and expertly guided practices are freely available all over the Internet (try here, here, here, and here, just for starters). A monthly subscription? A meditation corporation? Come on.

Also, the company’s tagline, “Headspace is meditation made simple”? It’s a lie, and an insulting one, at that. Meditation is already fantastically simple (though certainly not always easy). Headspace just really needs you to believe otherwise.

But perhaps what I find most irksome about Headspace, is that a stable meditation practice ideally drops you into a quiet, intimate place that’s the absolute inverse of a product, a goal, “meditation packs,” paid subscriptions, yet another task you “should” add to your To-Do list. This way misery and frustration lie.

But let’s be fair. I am, you can argue, being a bit hypocritical. After all, I’ve been teaching a popular form of heavily Westernized yoga for upwards of 15 years, meditating off and on for more than a decade, all while freely participating in – and surely capitalizing on – yoga’s wild popularity.

I teach weekly classes, and lead my own branded retreats, immersions, workshops, you name it. I also teach meditation, and frequently introduce deeper spiritual practices and lineage-based philosophies that I’ve studied at length, and that go well beyond mere asana (yoga poses), as passed on to me from my own teachers.

More ironic still? SF’s wonderful Yoga Tree, my home base, was recently purchased by LA’s venerable YogaWorks chain, which is itself partially funded by a VC clan located nowhere near a Himalayan mountaintop.

Translation: a significant portion of my living is drawn from the same feel-good, self-improvement sector Headspace is racing to capitalize on. You might say the only thing separating us is $30 million, and a shameless business plan.

I also recognize that Headspace isn’t exactly the first to repackage meditation for corporate America. As I was pondering this very column, I happened across a wonderful interview with Mirabai Bush, ”one of the people who helped bring Buddhist teachings to the West from India in the 1970s,” who spoke about her experience helping Google’s Chade Meng-Tan create that company’s horribly named but hugely successful “Search Inside Yourself” mindfulness curriculum (later turned into a book), many years ago.

Bush, if I understood her correctly, might be OK with Headspace. Despite the annoying, for-profit subscription model, who’s to say it’s not an adequate “gateway” practice for stressed-out employees who have zero spiritual awareness, who might never feel compelled try meditation otherwise? What harm could it do, really, besides being more that a little disingenuous? Commodification is the American way, after all.

Still, it’s hard not to be exasperated, particularly when Headspace surrounds meditation with insufferable buzzwords like “enterprise solutions,” “subscription models,” “code redemption,” “the product.” It means there’s simply no way they can state the truth right up front: that a truly aligned, successful meditation practice offers a semblance of freedom from our toxic attachments to exactly those kinds of things. You meditate, in short, to get away from the Headspaces of the world.

This is the teaching as I’ve always understood it: If you’re meditating in order to improve yourself, to be a nicer person, to sleep better or, uh, “smile more” – that is, for any sort of external objective whatsoever – as the Buddha says, “You’re doing it wrong.” Not bad, per se, just not receiving the true benefit (same goes for a truly aligned yoga practice, BTW). And as such, almost certain to fall short.

The marvelous spiritual teacher Adyashanti put it this way;

True meditation has no direction or goal. It is pure wordless surrender, pure silent prayer. All methods aiming at achieving a certain state of mind are limited, impermanent, and conditioned. Fascination with states leads only to bondage and dependency. True meditation is abidance as primordial awareness.

Mmm, primordial awareness. Here’s what Headspace won’t tell you: meditation is the anti-thing. It is the non-goal, the blessed dissolution of corporations, websites, paid subscriptions, all states of being. You meditate, in short, to get nothing, to arrive nowhere, to achieve nada. See? It’s already perfect.

Also, maddening. You can see why the Western mind flails at this idea, struggles for purchase. WTF? No goal? No quantifiable “reason” to meditate? Makes no sense. Why do anything at all, if you don’t get some sort of reward or payoff? Why sit still, breathe deeply and repose into the center of my being, if I don’t get happier, like, immediately? Why else even try? What’s the point?

To which meditation quietly replies: Ah, now you’re starting to get it.

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Mark Morford

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