By Dana Gornall
“Look at the stars. It won’t fix the economy. It won’t stop wars. It won’t give you flat abs, or better sex or even help you figure out your relationship and what you want to do with your life. But it’s important. It helps you remember that you and your problems are both infinitesimally small and conversely, that you are a piece of an amazing and vast universe. I do it daily—it helps.” ~ Kate Bartolotta
While standing in line at the grocery store, my eyes caught sight of a magazine cover resting alongside the soap opera magazines and the celebrity tabloids.
The Power of Mindfulness was titled in big bold letters across an image of a Caucasian woman with her eyes closed and a serene look on her face. My interest piqued, because my life is currently saturated in goals to be more mindful, articles about mindfulness, and books lining my shelves about, you guessed it, mindfulness (or some variation thereof).
Picking up the glossy cover I check out the price: $12.99. Shoving it back to its spot on the shelf between the tabloids and soap opera magazines, I scoff. I could probably buy a real book about mindfulness for less than this magazine and get a lot more information. This was just pretty pictures.
Still, a small part of me just wanted that magazine. Cheers to the people responsible for the layout and marketing; the images stuck in my head and I wanted to be that woman on the cover with a serene look on her face.
Isn’t that what it comes down to? We want to be that person who doesn’t get out of sorts when things get out of hand.
The fact is, I have spent hundreds (thousands?) of dollars on books that teach some form of mindfulness, meditation, or another path toward self-help. I have gone to meditation classes, meditation groups, read and edited thousands of articles, all for that brass ring of serenity I keep striving for. Will I ever reach it? Is it possible?
I receive email after email inviting me to meditation retreats, yoga retreats, meditation classes, stress reduction workshops (with a mindfulness slant) and each one comes with a fairly hefty price tag. While I understand the need to pay an instructor for their time, I also begin to wonder how commercialized this idea of mindfulness has become.
Historically—and still today—Buddhist monks typically survive off of donations (also known as dana) whether that be of food, shelter, cash, or anything that supports their livelihood. Understandably, this is not ideal for non-monastic people who can also offer mindfulness training. We all have internet bills, car payments, and many have families to support (Sorry, Billy, I don’t have money for your pay-to-play fee at school, but here is a bowl of oranges).
Yet, the small voice inside my head—the same one that also really wanted to buy that pretty magazine—wonders if the cost of mindfulness isn’t getting just a bit out of hand.
When people are pressed for an opinion, most are hesitant to truly give it. No one wants to make waves. These are our peers, our teachers, and a lot of them are the celebrity mindfulness teachers charging the hefty prices, and we don’t want to rock any boats. Also, many of those being asked are also trying to earn some sort of a living by teaching mindfulness or meditation, so how can we call the kettle black?
Adding up the cost of traveling to a retreat, staying there, buying food, and then the price for the workshop itself, can total thousands of dollars. And that’s just for a one-weekend stay or a 10-day standard Vipassana retreat. Then there are days one might need to request off from work or childcare that may need to be arranged. Local retreats can be a little easier on the wallet, but there are still costs incurred with those as well and often meals that are included in the price.
Is it really necessary to attend one of these retreats to get a dollop of serenity in one’s life? Is enlightenment precluded if we don’t hire a teacher or a mentor or a coach of some sort to aide us through this path?
And what exactly is the cost of enlightenment? Is there a price tag on it or is it that brass ring set up somewhere out of reach, and why do many of us keep climbing over top of our paychecks to reach it?
I realize these words may come across a little harsh. I myself have shelled out plenty of money in hopes of understanding myself and my mind a little more. I continue to do so and carry book after book around with me everywhere hoping to get a better method—a better format—to attain just a smidgeon of that promised equanimity everyone raves about.
But I do wonder where the boundaries lie between a responsible fee for such training and commercialization of an age-old passage to understanding the mind. I wonder if this is just another fad, a trend, that will pass with time along with the keto diet and blending spinach with our fruit for breakfast.
Thinking back to those glossy photos of the Caucasian woman with her eyes closed and the serene look on her face, I’m reminded of all of the other magazines promising us all the things we want whether it be the perfect makeup technique to look 10 years younger, or the exact crunch routine to give us those six-pack abs. And that’s when that little voice speaks up yet again and suggests that perhaps it can all be so much simpler than that.
Has mindfulness become a business? Is Coca-Cola or Pepsi going to start sponsoring Buddhist retreats? Will we lose anything in the training by becoming more commercialized? Could I be completely off base and wrong?
Regardless, I know many of us all want a small piece of that serenity, and we are so willing to jump through a variety of hoops to attain it.
This whole concept reminded me of a zen story I once heard:
A Zen master, Ryokan, lived a life of simplicity in his hut near the mountains. When he was away one night, a thief broke in only to find nothing worth stealing. Just then, Ryokan returned. “You have traveled far to visit me,” he told the burglar. “I cannot let you return empty handed. Here are my clothes, please accept them as my gift.”
The baffled thief took the clothes and vanished.
Naked now, the master gazed at the moon. “Poor man,” he sighed, “How I wish I could give him this glorious moon.”
And I can’t help but wonder, in all of the hoops we continuously unearth and jump through, if we aren’t missing out on the moon.
Editor: John Lee Pendall