4 Lies the Wellness Industry Tells You About Mindfulness Meditation, and the Truth About What Actually Happens

Marketers will tell you anything you want to hear in order to get you to buy their product.

I know. I used to be one.

Lately, I've noticed a troubling trend as mindfulness meditation has become the hottest new self-improvement tool in the handbook of the wellness industry. Names such as "Retreat and Renewal", "Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction" and "Mindfulness and Awareness Relaxation Training" pepper the lists of programs offered at retreat centers. Books with phrases like "Finding Peace" or "Reducing Stress and Anxiety" in their titles are cropping up on bookshelves everywhere.

I understand that businesses need to make money, and in order to make money, names and titles need to contain attractive keywords. In fact, I'll bet you're reading this now because you Googled "mindfulness meditation" and the word "lie" jumped out at you. (Either that, or you're one of my subscribers, in which case ... good job!)

But after a point, marketing deteriorates from being attractive to downright misleading, and that isn't cool.

I challenge wellness marketers to start using titles like these:

Retreat and Revenge: Feel Your Anger and Finally Deck That Person Who Pisses You Off

Mindfulness-Based Insanity:  Create and Experience Your Very Own Nervous Breakdown

Mindfulness and Awareness Neurosis Training: Get Intimate With Your Own Smelly Shit 

Reduce Denial With Mindfulness Meditation: Imbalance - Can You Handle the Vertigo?

Guaranteed to scare off those annoying love-and-light New Agers, yes?

Okay, all kidding aside, let's take a moment to debunk some of the lies fed to us by the wellness industry and take a look at what actually happens instead.

Lie No. 1: Mindfulness meditation is relaxing and will make us feel better.

False. It's not uncommon for new practitioners of mindfulness meditation to feel worse, because meditation creates the space for all kinds of unconscious thoughts to float up into our awareness.
Often these thoughts are accompanied by feelings of rage, despair, frustration, or even boredom.

When we practice meditation, we aren't allowed to jump up and check Facebook or engage in our stimulus of choice when things get prickly. We commit to staying right there with those feelings while they tighten our stomachs and burn holes in our psyches.

However, over time we learn that it is possible to sit with intense thoughts and emotions without freaking out. We discover that all mental states are workable, that they really won't kill us. 

Lie No. 2: Mindfulness meditation will make us less anxious and/or make our lives less stressful. 

False. Mindfulness meditation practice gives us an opportunity to set aside some stimulus-free time so that we can observe what's taking up space in our heads. That's it.

Personally, I'm convinced that the root cause of our stress is at least partly biological in nature; our glorified monkey brains (i.e. our nervous systems, not our egoic mind) simply weren't designed to deal with the complexity of modern civilization. All of the meditation in the world won't change that. We need to take action (see this article on simplifying your life) to make our lives less stressful.

Lie No. 3: Mindfulness meditation will make us more compassionate.

False. Unfortunately, it is quite common for practitioners to try and mimic compassion by pretending that they have transcended their feelings – especially anger. This doesn't work. It's like ignoring the pain of a broken ankle or a burned hand; if we pretend that we don't feel anything and just move our injured body around any old way, we make the injury worse. Then we lash out at others because it hurts.

As we've seen above, mindfulness meditation creates an opportunity for us to fully experience our anger, despair, boredom, and fear. Compassion emerges when we allow ourselves to feel our own difficult emotions and make friends with then. Then we can be with the difficult emotions of others without trying to fix them.

Lie No. 4: Mindfulness meditation will help us focus and be more productive at work.

False. Well, okay, maybe not really false false. It depends on how we define "productivity". If productivity means multitasking or constantly scanning for opportunities and staying on top of contacts, events, and activities in an effort to miss nothing”, then mindfulness meditation isn't going to help very much, because it actually takes us in the opposite direction.

When we meditate, we bring our awareness back to the breath over and over again. Eventually we develop the ability to notice when our minds are wandering away from the task at hand, then to let go of those thoughts and return to what we are working on. We actually begin to un-learn multitasking. This is a good thing; studies have shown that "workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers”.

In conclusion

The wellness industry needs to stop presenting mindfulness meditation as an instant fix and inform spiritual seekers what it really is: a serious practice that has the potential to be transformative, but only over the course of years and even decades of dedicated practice, study, and guidance. 

Will honest marketing bring in millions of people? No. But it will attract those who are committed to hanging in there for the long haul, doing the work, and quite possibly changing the world.

Think of them as repeat customers.

This post has been published on Elephant Journal. Come join the conversation! 


  1. Thank you for revealing this! Very well collected arguments. Generally I agree, however in a detail I see differently. In my opinion the root cause of stress is the "monkey mind" itself. It is constantly monitoring our environment, perceives everything from its own viewpoint, interprets most of perceived info as potential or actual danger.

    1. You make a very good point. I would label what you're talking about the Buddhist "ego". It would be interesting to find out when exactly the ego evolved in our species. I certainly wonder about its evolutionary advantages sometimes!

      However, I don't necessarily see the monkey mind or the ego as a problem. It's just an ego, and it does its little ego thing.

      That said, learning to identify the stories the ego tells us about the world decreases the amount of complexity we have to deal with. Instead of seeing the bear coming at us and thinking "OMG, it's a bear! Bears are scary! It's going to eat me! What should I do?" we simply see a large furry object coming toward us, scream bloody murder, and hightail it. :-)

    2. Hi, I am sorry I was not aware your answer. Also I see my name is not appearing. I am Zsolt Toth.

      I admire you so I wouldn't go into argument about the definition of ego vs monkey mind (MM). (Except if you want to discuss this topic)

      The problem is that the MM convinces us that we are alone against the world outside our skin. The other problem is that we can not easily see the falseness of this thought, because the MM continuously interprets things, thinks. (This process is basically simplification and categorization.) Many of us thinks that we are this thinking process.

      One of the possible methods to reveal this cheating is practicing meditation, trying to calm down the MM, experiencing that there can be periods without thinking.

      Then we might be able to experience that there is an awareness before the thoughts. At a first glance this does not seem to be a something. Because it is always there. This awareness is different from the thoughts.

      This is where my MM currently is. All following explanations, thoughts about this awareness is interpretations of teachings of Christianity or Buddhism. (I only know this two sufficiently)

      So my problem with the MM is that while it does what it is supposed(?) to do, it hides the cause for the biggest conceivable relief in the universe.

      Take care

    3. Ah! I might have known it was you, Zsolt! You always have the greatest points :-)

      You know, my teacher said something really great a few weeks ago. She said meditation is not about enabling us (as in, our true selves or our Buddha nature) to see the ego/monkey mind; it's about enabling the ego to see itself.

      Ain't that a mind bender?

      In any case, yes, I agree it is possible to begin to create space around the monkey mind. And as we give the monkey mind room to move, it stops freaking out like a trapped bird and begins to settle down. Then, yes, once we aren't so distracted by its banging around, we can begin noticing the space around it, which is very peaceful.

      That's the theory, anyway. Have a good one!

    4. Oh, but anyway, I was talking more about our sympathetic nervous systems than our monkey minds. Confusing terminology; my bad.

  2. Dear Catie, I am in trouble trying to define the difference between 'ego', 'monkey mind' and sympathetic nervous system. Maybe the last two are the same.
    Indeed, your teacher's words are real mind benders. The ego sees itself, that is easy. "I am separate from others". Maybe she meant: the ego seeing itself as an illusion. But how might an illusion see itself as an illusion?

    Take care

  3. Hey, Zsolt ~

    I used the phrase "monkey brain" in the article, and I now realize that this might have been confusing. Lemme see if I can clear things up:

    "Monkey brain": In this case, I'm referring to the physical brain that evolved in the human species -- you know, the squishy stuff between your ears. Which really isn't that much fancier than the brain in, say, a chimpanzee.

    "Sympathetic nervous system" The part of our physiological nervous system that controls our fight/flight/freeze response to stress, overstimulation, or trauma. It works in tandem with our physical "monkey brain".

    So yes, "monkey brain" and "sympathetic nervous system" in this case basically mean the same thing. Our brains and nervous systems simply aren't equipped to deal with the complexity of modern civilization.

    "Ego": To Freud, the thing that acts as the interface between us and the world, as in Id, Ego, and Superego. To Buddhists, the mask of illusions and stories that obscures our perceptions of what actually is, and causes us to believe that there is a separate self to which our experience happens. The two definitions of "ego" aren't actually that different from each other.

    "Monkey mind": To Buddhists, our thoughts that jump around like an untamed, out-of-control monkey. Which you know all about.

    And yeah, it's all illusion trying to understand other illusions, but my monkey BRAIN just isn't capable of understanding that I'm just an illusion.

    That help?

  4. Dear Catie, Thank you for the precise summary!
    Illusion in my understanding is a thing looking to be something else. Like a rainbow. There are the water drops and the sun light and the eye and the brain(?) which makes us see an arc in the sky. Which is not there. It is something else, and what we see is only in our mind.
    Similarly with the ego. There is the body, the perception, the brain(?) and we see ourselves as a separate entity. While the physical things are there we perceive an ego which is not there.
    My monkey brain resolved this illusion issue this way:)
    I am not convinced that the brain does the thinking. I think it is more like a radio, transferring perceptions and receiving insights. Of course it does a lot for survival, and those functions also look like thinking, and this causes a lot of confusion:) Does this make sense?
    Take care Zsolt


What do you think? Leave a comment below!