The Monetization of Mindful Meditation

The soft crash of waves echoes in your ears. A cool breeze touches your skin. The scent of lavender and sandalwood fills the air. Floor to ceiling screens project a setting sun hovering above a tranquil ocean. A yoga mat cushions the contours of your back. 

The words of your instructor transport you to an ocean oasis, describing the sensation of your feet sinking into the sand. You focus on the depth of your breath, allowing the air to fill your stomach; your chest; your throat. The instructor pauses behind you, massaging your temples and scalp.

The hum of crystal singing bowls reverberates throughout the space. Her words bring you back to the present: “We at the Peace Room thank you for being a part of this guided meditation today. Peace and love.”

Clients of The Peace Room file out of the local studio, one of many privately-run meditation businesses that have sprung up across North America.

Interest in meditation has skyrocketed, giving rise to a booming new industry. The United States saw an increase in the use of meditation by adults from 4.1 percent in 2012 to 14.2 percent in 2017, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

In a consumer-driven society, entrepreneurs are capitalizing on this trend. The U.S. meditation industry generated $1.2 billion in revenue in 2017 – a figure that is projected to increase to $2.08 billion by 2022, as stated in a 2017 report by Marketdata Enterprises, a U.S.-based consultancy firm.

As interest in meditation becomes mainstream, traditional methods of meditation are being cast aside in favor of modern approaches designed to appeal to the modern day consumer. Smartphone apps such as Headspace are selling the practice of meditation as a solution that can improve the user’s quality of life in merely a few minutes. Also stated in Marketdata Enterprises' report, meditation apps and online courses reap over $100 million in revenues per year.

With meditation becoming a profit-driven industry, critics have raised the question: Does abandoning the traditional roots of meditation reduce its benefits?

Headspace has left a substantial footprint in the modern meditation industry. Branding their work as “Meditation made simple,” Headspace claims to offer the benefits of traditional meditation in just minutes a day, whereas; traditional methods often consist of two to three hours of meditation daily. The app records an annual revenue upwards of $50 million, according to a 2017 article by Forbes.

Apps like Headspace are ideally suited to the fast-pace of modern life, supporters say. For Morgan Marta, fourth-year Carleton student, this is precisely the appeal of on-the-go meditation apps.

“No one today has time to sit straight for an hour or more just meditating. I listen to (guided meditation) in the morning while I brush my teeth,” Marta said.

The notion of meditating for just a few minutes will help with issues such as stress or anxiety is setting clients up for disappointment, Dr. Alia Offman, a registered psychologist in Mindfulness Integrated Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (MiCBT), argues.

Offman combines the benefits of mindfulness meditation with cognitive behavior therapy for the treatment of mental health disorders such as anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The offer of spending a couple of minutes using an app (to make a significant difference) is misleading,” Offman said. "There is an investment that people need to make. This goes beyond smartphone apps and a quick-fix.”

In her practice, this means eight to 10 sessions with a client, as well as an hour of daily practice on their own time, Offman explained. 

“[Meditation originated] from the idea that to reach a religious goal you needed to withdraw from the distractions of society,” Noel Salmond, a professor of religion at Carleton, explained. Salmond identified spirituality as a historic element of meditation, but stated, “Meditation is becoming a gross commodification of traditional practices . . . it’s being stripped of its explicitly religious connections.”

Offman warns of the danger of this secularization: “If we completely remove (meditation) from its Buddhist teachings, then all we’re doing is paying attention to our breath . . . it becomes a technique versus a way of living your life with full embodiment . . . That in itself does not increase your wellbeing.”

For Salmond, the benefits of secularization outweigh its deficiencies.

“It’s too (optimistic) to think people will adopt the whole traditional Buddhist mythological hue of the world. To require them to do so in order to practise meditation is a bit too much," Salmond said, adding this separation of meditation from its religious framework as removing a barrier that dissuades individuals from engaging in the practice.  

Catherine Hull, co-owner of The Peace Room meditation studio, is striving to do exactly that. In the interest of making meditation more inclusive, The Peace Room does not include any spiritual influence in their sessions.

“From a branding and marketing perspective, we know that (the religious element) threatens or makes (consumers) less likely to come in. Ultimately, we want to inspire people and motivate them to meditate," Hull said. 

The meditation studio opened on Dec. 3, and within less than a week, they have already seen several hundred bookings and classes filling up, according to Hull. Salmond attributes the rise in popularity of meditation in Western society to “people realizing that our society is so goal-directed… and that comes at a price. Meditation is kind of an antidote to that.”

Targeting beginners of meditation, Hull emphasizes “it’s not about replacing (traditional methods) … We’re trying to bridge the gap for people who are intimidated by meditation.” The Peace Room uses brainwave entrainment music, crystal singing bowls, projected images, aromatherapy and human touch to reinvent meditation; “It’s these aspects combined with meditation that really differentiate us and provide a holistic healing experience.”

Dr. Catherine Collobert, a member of the University of Ottawa's Academy for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies, said in Buddhism greed is seen as a poison to the mind. 

Offman adds making profit off of meditation is problematic, and although the motivation behind the fee is important, the incentive must be to relieve the suffering of others more than anything else. 

Hull disputes the notion that commercialization contradicts the true essence of mindfulness meditation.

“We’re a business. We have to be profitable or we can’t reach our goal of . . . raising consciousness worldwide. Money is not the root of all evil; it can be used for good, and that’s what we’re trying to do," Hull said.