We were lying on our backs in the yoga studio, palms up, eyes closed, listening to a meditation guru — a name-brand one, according to the fitness club website — wrapping up the session with a primer in mindfulness. “Imagine a bright, warm light emanating from your belly,” he was telling us. “Now, direct that warm light toward a person you love.”
Good enough, I thought, still sweating. I’ve got some heat to spare.
“Now,” he said, “picture someone who bothers you, presses your buttons. Direct that light of gratitude toward that person.”
Oh, yes, I thought. I am generous of spirit. Annoying Chewer, I shine my divine light on your mouth and declare that I no longer care.
“Now,” the guru said, “think of a tragedy that just happened. And direct all of your gratitude and energy toward the people suffering there.”
And with that, my mind swung back to the present, the rubber mats and too-tight workout gear. If I had suffered a terrible tragedy, the last thing I’d want from suburbanites in an overpriced gym was good vibes and inner light.
Then again, I’ve always been a meditation skeptic. I like yoga, but I’m not sure if I like like it or I just think it sounds easier than spinning. I resist forest baths and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop brand and anything that smacks of “wellness.” I know people who have come back from silent retreats and gushed about their unlocked minds. I’d rather have a root canal, administered by a shark wearing a clown suit, than spend a full weekend with nothing but my thoughts.
But in these days of wellness obsession, it’s hard to ignore the siren call: the ads for mindfulness classes, the piled-up testimonials. Oprah says mindfulness gives her contentment and joy. A World Economic Forum blogger says mindfulness can make you more focused, more creative, more emotionally intelligent, a better performer at work.
Whether that’s all true is an open question. The National Institutes of Health compiled studies about meditation’s effect on a range of health conditions; in general, they’re promising but inconclusive. Still, more and more people are training their minds. An NIH survey found that 14.2 percent of American adults meditated at least once in 2017, compared with 4.1 percent in 2010. It’s a sign of the persuasive powers of Gwyneth and Oprah, perhaps, or of something more depressing: We’re spending so much downtime mindlessly reading our social media feeds we’ve lost the capacity to silently sit and exist.
Now, it seems, our phones are here to save us from ourselves. There are hundreds of mindfulness apps out there, pledging to train our minds into submission. In the spirit of open-mindedness, I decided to download a few: Headspace, Insight Timer, Smiling Mind. (All are free, but have “premium” versions they aggressively try to sell you.) They feature vast libraries of guided meditations, voices talking slowly over calming background music. The narrators mostly seem to be Australian.
Before each meditation, Smiling Mind asked me to rate my state of mind with toggle switches: How happy are you? How content? How aware? It started to stress me out, so I chose a sleep meditation, based on the idea that gratitude will help you settle down. “It’s almost impossible to experience gratitude and anger or fear simultaneously,” an Australian man said slowly in my ear as I lay in bed. Really? Some days, that perfectly describes my relationship with my mother.
Headspace’s “intro to meditation” course was full of primer videos, in which an adorable cartoon brain with legs encounters helpful metaphors. Meditation, I learned, is like watching traffic go by in your mind. It’s like watching the clouds drift past, and ignoring the dark ones. Like training a wild horse to accept a rope.
And, according to the Australian woman who narrates the audio clips, it’s something you can learn in a series of easy three-minute sessions. Sit in a chair. Breathe. Think about breathing. Be aware of your thoughts as they come and go. Be present. Repeat.
It was so easy that I wanted to binge, like popcorn. In the quiet spaces, my mind wandered to commercial possibilities. What if you combined a silent retreat with a book club? I earned attaboys from the app — You have a three-day streak! — plus pop-up notifications. “Want to get away from your family?” the app asked me over Thanksgiving — and I have to admit, I liked having a reason to escape upstairs and listen to an Australian woman remind me how to breathe.
Still, as she encourages me to keep going, reminding me how much work it takes to tame my mind, I wonder: Am I really all that anxious? People struggling with health or grief can surely use presence and breathing techniques. The Thai soccer players used meditation, in 2018, to cope with being trapped in a cave. But many of us new practitioners have ample food and shelter, plus gym memberships. Life is stressful, sure — with taxes and carpools and impeachment hearings — but so much that we’re unable to function, or relax, without the help of a calming Australian voice?
Decades ago, marketers renamed bad breath “halitosis,” branding it a condition that demanded we rush out and buy Listerine. Sometimes, I wonder if our supposed mindfulness deficit is more of the same. It’s not that we couldn’t all use a few moments of hyper-awareness, but we don’t necessarily need an industry around it — at least not in those circles where people have the money and time for a wellness culture. Aside from annoying chewers, things are actually going OK. If I’m mindful of that, will it make a difference?