That Exercise You’re Doing Might Not Actually Be Mindfulness: Filtering Through the Noise

BL00 - How Do We Filter Through All the Mindfulness Noise-High-Quality

By Clif Smith

It’s clear to anyone who has picked up a magazine or newspaper or has perused any social media feed in the last 5 years that mindfulness is hot right now, and I must admit, it is one of the reasons why I got the deal to write this book [which launches April 20th]. Just searching the term “mindfulness” on Google yields 264 million results! Unfortunately, many of the items the search results point to aren’t actually mindfulness related practices. Many results are the outcome of savvy marketing and search engine optimization to get you to buy a product or sometimes even to buy into a worldview.

It’s staggering seeing so many products, activities, exercises, social movements, and meditation techniques in the world today that just 15 to 20 years ago didn’t carry the mindfulness moniker alongside them but now seem determined to prove they were in the mindfulness camp all along.

Executive presence courses have become executive presence and mindfulness courses. Yogic breathing exercises are now passed off as mindfulness exercises. Yoga teachers claim to be mindfulness teachers. Plain old mayonnaise has become mindful mayonnaise. Money and attention tend to lead to this style of marketing or “we’ve always been xyz” type claims but with something as impactful as mindfulness can be, it is quite counterproductive because people looking for the benefits of mindfulness may not be learning actual mindfulness practices. If you want to reap the benefits of mindfulness, it behooves you to do genuine mindfulness practices.

I spend a great deal of time on the road delivering keynotes, workshops, and other training to a variety of clients interested in mindfulness. These events are often held in large hotels, sprawling conference centers, or the occasional private villa in an exclusive resort catering to high-net-worth individuals or c-suite executives. There are often multiple corporate events running concurrently at these venues, and as I’ve roamed around them, I’ve had the opportunity to step into a few other “mindfulness” sessions (which are now a part of many large corporate events). I’m sad to report it seems as if any exercise that involves closing one’s eyes or breathing can be passed off as mindfulness and because most people do not know what it really is, the person in the front of the room can say (or sell) whatever he or she wants with impunity.

Following are some examples of event titles I’ve seen at different corporate events or have seen on event materials and agendas claiming to be mindfulness in their titles or descriptions:

“Mindfulness Session: Laughing Yoga”

“Today’s Mindfulness Class—Yogic Breathing”

“Learning from Near-Death Experiences”

“Mindful Social Action”

“Floating Yoga”

“Connecting with Crystals”

“Sound Bathing”

“Guided Visualizations for Relaxation”

It might be surprising to you, given all the deliberate conflation of mindfulness with these types of activities that none of the aforementioned is actually mindfulness. It’s not just the purveyors of various non-mindfulness-related techniques, perspectives, and exercises that slap on the mindfulness label to get in on the action or to co-op the mindfulness movement for their own purposes; it’s also consumer products. Take 5 minutes to do a basic internet search on mindful products and you’ll not only find mindful mayonnaise as mentioned but also mindful pistachio nuts, mindful skin cream, mindful salt, mindful soap, mindful tea, mindful essential oils, and, of course, mindful coloring books.

Let me make a quick disclaimer here. I’m not saying any of those activities, exercises, products, and so on are bad or that they are not beneficial in some or even many ways. I’m merely saying they are not mindfulness. So, the question that might be arising in your mind right now is, “If none of these things is mindfulness, what actually is mindfulness?” Well, I’m glad you asked.

Excerpted from Mindfulness Without the Bells and Beads: Unlocking Exceptional Performance, Leadership, and Well-being for Working Professionals, Wiley, available April 20, 2021.

Clif Smith, a US Army veteran, former diplomat and intelligence officer, is the author of Mindfulness Without the Bells and Beads: Unlocking Exceptional Performance, Leadership, and Well-being for Working Professionals, (Wiley). He also serves as Ernst and Young’s (EY) foremost advisor on mindfulness and is an internationally recognized leader for bringing mindfulness into the corporate world. The views expressed by the author are his own and not necessarily those of Ernst & Young LLP or other members of the global EY organization. Follow Clif here: LinkedIn Twitter Facebook Instagram Web

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What actually is mindfulness to you? How do you filter through the noise? Share in comments below.

15 comments

While I agree there are many things marketed (especially devices) that are not actually mindfulness, you don't explain why these things aren't.
Is coloring mindful? Sure if you do it mindfully, with full attention and presence. Same with a sound bath.

My definition of mindfulness is choosing to focus your attention on a chosen object (or activity/experience) with a mindset of curiosity and kindness, which means nearly anything can be done mindfully. "Things" are not mindful in and of themselves.

I get that you are promoting your book but even just including your definition of mindfulness would help me to feel I learned something from this article other than you wrote a book.  

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Claire Rhode Staff

Hi Jennifer, thank you for your comment! While I can't speak for Clif's exact definition, we at Mindful Leader are huge fans of Jon Kabat-Zinn's definition, "the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally." I like your point that things aren't mindful on their own and it is in how we approach them that we can find mindfulness.

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Claire - I agree. This doesn't even present a cogent argument. It is just clickbait.

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seems rather half empty and without author's definition and criteria for mindfulness, what is his criteria for excluding or including... of course mindfulness has become a "catchword" for all sorts of things... not sure how this article helps to clarify or strengthen anyone's practice or understanding, discernment... disappointed ... 

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Claire Rhode Staff

Hi Lawrence, thank you for taking the time to comment. We at Mindful Leader do agree that mindfulness has become a catch-all term for a lot of different things. You're right that we need to help clarify and will consider this for future articles. 

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Disappointed Reader

Well that was disappointing. Nothing here. I give it a 0% for complete lack of content. Is this what I should expect from Mindful Leader -- no content at all? Next time I won't click the link in the email, thank you.

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Claire Rhode Staff

Hello! Thank you for your comment and for taking the time to read the article. We do try to maintain a high level of quality in our content and appreciate your feedback on this one. I hope that you will be willing to read another article in the future, if one appeals to you. We feature articles from close to a hundred authors across various topics in the mindfulness field. 

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clickbait for an ad for a book. i'm sorry  i fell for it. i have higher expectations for Mindful Leader. 

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Claire Rhode Staff

Hello! Thank you for taking the time to read and to comment. We are sorry to hear that you found this article did not meet your expectations. We try to maintain a high standard for all of the articles we put out and value your feedback.

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Cathryn Lokey

Bummer. Nothing of substance here. It seems like you are another of those “selling” something in the name of mindfulness. Not really any credentials to speak of either. There are great books out there written by well-established researchers and leaders in the field, such as Dan Seigel, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Ellen Langer. Won’t be wasting my money on this one.

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Claire Rhode Staff

Hi Cathryn, thank you for your comment! At Mindful Leader, we're fans of Dan Siegel, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Ellen Langer as well. Clif has been involved in the corporate mindfulness world for years and has a valuable and different perspective. Even though his work may not resonate with everyone, we feel that it is worth taking a look at.

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I appreciated what the author did say. This was literally a personal overview and observation of what is being marketed today. 

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Claire Rhode Staff

Hi David, thanks for your comment! We are glad to hear you found the article interesting. 

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Claire, I do applaud you for leaving all the negative, constructive criticism up and taking the time to mostly non-defensively, non-reactively, kindly respond ... and .... you have not acknowledged that mindful leader put out a seductive title that got people to read what is... at least in the way this is excerpted... a very arrogant, ..."I spend a great deal of time on the road delivering keynotes, workshops, and other training to a variety of clients interested in mindfulness. These events are often held in large hotels, sprawling conference centers, or the occasional private villa in an exclusive resort catering to high-net-worth individuals or c-suite executives. There are often multiple corporate events running concurrently at these venues, and as I’ve roamed around them", ... condescending, judgmental, self-promoting ... and evasive in that the author condemns without telling us what he would do different  ...he does not  tell me us his special way that he gets corporate types who might night normally be interested in mindfulness to become interested and then once interested how you teach them to practice and how you suggest they teach interest others ... that is the useful half full side that is absolutely 100% nowhere, not one word stated... maybe way between the lines someone can glean that .. but as a long time practitioner and someone of at least average intelligence I cannot... thanks, sorry to run on... with metta, Lawrence 

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Claire Rhode Staff

Hi Lawrence, thank you for taking the time to come back and comment again and for your kind words. This is all excerpted from Clif Smith's book, including the section you quoted where he gives context for his own experiences seeing programs passed off to leaders and executives as mindfulness even when they may not be. In this piece, his intent was to point out that not all programs or products marketed as "mindful" are actually mindful and that consumers should be skeptical, not necessarily to share what he does. 

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