“Breathe. Be Aware. Find your purpose.”
Master Wang repeats the mantra over and over again as I sit cross-legged at his Live Zen Center on a chilly Thursday evening in Beijing. On the floor in the middle of the room is a candle. Next to it, a still bowl of water. Later in the lesson, we’ll focus on both (the water isn’t actually still, I am to learn, but constantly changing, like the universe; the candle too, represents change, as well as a token of the present). But for now, the Zen master, my two fellow meditation students and I have our eyes closed, trying to find the ‘purpose’ that Master Wang keeps alluding to.
I can’t speak for my companions, but I am struggling. Far from discovering purpose, I am, to be perfectly blunt, bored. But while the session might not cut it for me, meditation is exploding in popularity. Classes now come in all flavors: mindfulness-based stress reduction, transcendental meditation and many more. From therapy couches to Silicon Valley (Google offers an internal course called “search inside yourself,” while eBay offices have dedicated meditation rooms), everyone seems to be jumping on the Zen-wagon.
In China too, meditation schools, courses and ‘experiences’ have mushroomed, particularly in first-tier cities. But with the advent of wellbeing apps, you no longer need to commit to collective teachings. Since launching in 2010, meditation app Headspace has been downloaded by three million users in 150 countries, including China, at roughly RMB80 a month. Adult coloring books – which have been linked to art therapy, easing mental pain and the ability to focus on the present – have also become a huge fad around the world. After its release in China in June, adult coloring title Secret Garden sold three million copies in three months, with Beijing dubbed the “adult coloring-in capital of the world” by its publisher, Laurence King Publishing.
Among the buzzwords of modern wellbeing, ‘mindfulness’ is now one of the most common. In encouraging people to pay more attention to the present, the practice helps promote self-improvement, according to Fionn Wright, a lifestyle coach at Octave Living Room, Shanghai’s first holistic urban wellbeing center, which opened its doors in October.
“Mindfulness is a way for people to get back in touch with their inner values and have a more organic approach to life. It’s a way to improve and better understand the world,” he explains. “We are all conditioned by society, accepted norms and rules in the way we see things. Mindfulness helps us understand what it is that we’re actually seeing, what we are actually thinking. It’s an empowering tool – not a set direction everyone should follow but, rather, a technique which differs from person to person.”
With life in today’s China wrought with stress, competitiveness and soaring individualism, it’s easy to see why so many have embraced the practice. We all want to be different. We are 20 pounds overweight; we are in debt; we can’t believe we slept with that guy; we can’t believe we didn’t. We want to change ourselves, yet find it incredibly hard to do so alone. Unlike other forms of meditation, mindfulness comes across as a viable, balanced method of self-development. It’s not preachy – well, not excessively so – nor does it rely on spirituality or divine intervention. Mindfulness purports to be about your body and mind, and offers a way to remove them from the stresses of daily life.
"We are 20 pounds overweight; we are in debt; we can’t believe we slept with that guy; we can’t believe we didn’t"
Although re-appropriated by the West – the US in particular – the concept originates from Buddhism. The word ‘mindfulness’ – a synonym for ‘attention’ from the 16th century – was given its current meaning in 1881 by a British magistrate living in colonial Sri Lanka. It is an approximate translation of the Buddhist notion of sati, the first of seven factors of enlightenment. Although not exactly accurate (a more precise translation for sati would be “memory of the present”), the definition stuck.
A hundred years later, as 1960s American counter-culture began embracing Eastern influences, mindfulness had become an American brand. In the 1970s, a molecular biologist in New England and a long-time meditator in the Zen Buddhist tradition, Jon Kabat-Zinn, stripped away notions of enlightenment and religious underpinnings from the term. Instead, he defined ‘mindfulness’ as “the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” He created the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine at the University of Massachusetts medical school, helping the mainstream popularization of mindfulness.
But now, decades later, this Western practice (with Buddhist characteristics) is making its way back to Asia. Secular China is its main stronghold in the continent, and the removal of religious connotations has made it particularly appealing to audiences here, argues Eric C. Hendricks, a post-doctorate researcher in sociology at Peking University and Utrecht University whose work focuses on self-help.
“Mindfulness – some aspects of it in particular – could be seen as a New Age extension of the self-help movement, which is [already] a huge industry in China,” he says. “Many mindfulness gurus talk about the competitive advantage of meditation, presenting the practice as a way to get ahead in life. Those teachings have little to do with the Buddhist ethics, of course, but they resonate really well with people in China.”
The country is indeed infatuated with self-help, although this is a relatively recent phenomenon. The Chinese term for the ‘self-help’ – 心灵鸡汤(xinling jitang), or “chicken soup for the soul” – only emerged in the 1990s alongside the publication of the well-known self-help book series of the same name, the translations of which were incredibly well-received in China. The subsequent rise of self-help in modern Chinese culture has been nothing short of spectacular. Today, ‘chicken soup’ has developed a number of its own subgenres: motivational chicken soup, women’s chicken soup, and trauma chicken soup.
The sector’s popularity in China is, Hendricks argues, a product of its time.
“The boom of the self-help movement is a direct consequence of the ideological and spiritual vacuum left by the end of Maoist socialism,” he states. “Many Chinese people, from the lower to middle and upper classes, are struggling to come to terms with the shifts in society – their wealth and the lack of a religious guidance. This explains why self-help has entered the realm of both the high- and low-brow, and it’s ubiquitous in every medium. People in China nurture the romantic idea that the self can be helped, because they were raised in an environment that didn’t offer them such assurance.”
Yet, mindfulness seems to offer that very assurance. In its most authentic form, research suggests that some techniques can provide significant psychological and physiological benefits. Mindfulness training has been shown to reduce the risk of relapse in recurrent depression by a third – encouraging data considering the World Health Organization has warned that mental health problems will become the biggest burden of disease in developed countries by 2030. A recent meta-analysis of 209 studies concluded that interventions based on mindfulness showed “large and clinically significant effects” in treating anxiety and depression – effects, crucially, that were maintained through follow-up sessions.
If done with real conviction, one hour of meditation, like the Zen workshop I undertook at the Live Zen Center, can indeed help reduce stress. As the Shanghai lifestyle coach, Wright, had told me: “people just need to find what works for them.”
And so, after the breathing, the search for Master Wang’s purpose and my failed attempt to focus on the candle, I sit down with Wright at Octave for a one-on-one mindfulness practice.
Housed in a modern-looking building of glass, wood and concrete in the heart of Shanghai’s former French Concession, the project is an ambitious one. The brainchild of businessman and entrepreneur Chavalit Frederick Tsao and his brother Calvin, the center offers integrated programs that focus on physical health, mind-body alignment, thriving relationships and life purpose. Its core philosophy is to help people ‘actualize their possibilities’ – which sounds a little too hippy for me – but the courses are refreshingly free of New Age mumbo jumbo. They span yoga, weight management, family therapy, mind coaching, life coaching and acupuncture, forming what the center calls a ‘Mindful Journey Program.’
Wright begins by asking me to focus on the first thing that comes to mind, and to be aware of the physical feeling it triggers. Countless visions follow – imaginary lists, boxes to tick, hypothetical situations. But, crucially, I’m the one leading the session. Wright simply encourages me to talk, pay attention and link my trains of thought to the tension gathered around specific areas of my body.
This form of meditation is far from the bliss one might imagine. Instead of clearing the mind, it accepts thoughts and feelings without following them; letting them exist while returning again and again to breathing. The experience is not exactly comfortable, but it makes me feel better: less anxious, less angry.
In the weeks that follow, Wright sporadically contacts me to check how I am doing (in a genuine rather than sanctimonious way). He reminds me to focus on myself, and the ‘list’ of things that cause me stress, which comes as a welcome prompt in my day. With time, I find myself becoming more mindful of my feelings. I am, by nature, averse to proselytizing, but I begin to see how this can be so helpful to many. Mindfulness is not a catechism, an ideology, a belief system, a technique or a philosophy. It is a way of being, on your own terms, and I can get on board with that.
But whether this reflects the wider mindfulness industry is a different matter. While Octave’s approach is therapeutic, the HSP Body and Brain Training Center, a mindfulness ‘academy’ from South Korea (also recently opened in Shanghai), offers something altogether different.
Standing for ‘happiness,’ ‘smile’ and ‘peace,’ HSP’s courses and workshops aim to promote these three aspects through integrated exercise for body and mind. The method – also known as Dahn Yoga – was started by South Korean educator Ilchee Lee in 1985 and is now found in thousands of centers worldwide. Nora Lee, the Shanghai school’s chief practitioner, tells me that it’s an educational and experiential approach to mindfulness that blends ancient Eastern philosophy with modern sport science, “with the intent to unlock your brain's natural potential.”
“At one point we’re asked to ‘thank our knees’ and ‘pay respect to our eyes”
I must concede that she’s absolutely right on the experiential part: the one-hour session is a mix of high-intensity exercises resembling yoga and martial arts, stretches and breathing techniques. It’s exhausting, in a good way, although at times a little odd (at one point we’re asked to ‘thank our knees’ and ‘pay respect to our eyes’). But overall, an energetic session.
The educational aspect emerges once I sit with Lee to discuss signing up for a batch of lessons (which I don’t take up).
“The routines we do follow five steps,” she explains. “We first want to awaken your body. Step two is to unlock your brain and help you work on yourself. Learning to release negative emotions comes after that, and then we teach about integrating the mind to reach your goals. This takes three to six months. Finally, step five is brain mastering, which is a lifetime condition.”
Although I’d enjoyed the session, this sales pitch makes me a little wary of the HSP approach. The five steps (and the three- to six-month timeline) all sound a little too forced. Lee keeps talking about the “positive energy” that HSP will help me release. Maybe she’s right, but mostly it feels like she’s trying to sell me a package, a quick fix for eternal happiness.
And this is the very problem with the marketization of mindfulness. What has buying six months of classes got to do with the ancient art of meditation? And what does going into a meditative workshop in pricey Lululemon gear have in common with the Buddhist ethic of non-attachment to material goods?
The man who redefined the term in the 1970s, Kabat-Zinn, recently warned of a “sort of superficial ‘McMindfulness’ is taking over, which ignores the ethical foundations of the meditative practices and traditions from which mindfulness has emerged, and divorces it from its profoundly transformative potential.” He’s almost certainly right.
While I probably can’t afford to go to Octave every week, Wright’s approach was effective because it made me aware in a practical, simple way, devoid of any props – no staring at candles or thanking my body parts. But the apps, the training centers, the coloring books – they are all trends that the mindfulness industry has planted its flag on.
It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suppose that, in a world of constant stress and distraction, sitting still and relaxing for a while might do some good. But can’t we just learn the method from the word?