Meditation and McMindfulness: A Brief History of the American Wellness Industry

By Elspeth Sweatman

Like the characters in Small Mouth Sounds, many of us turn to mindfulness as way of connecting with ourselves and our surroundings. But mindfulness in America today seems a contradiction in terms; it is not only a means to help us relax and recharge, but also a business powerhouse, raking in an estimated $4.2 billion a year. This juxtaposition of relaxation and commerce, however, has only appeared in the last 50 years.

Edward Chin-Lyn as Rodney in Small Mouth Sounds.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Mindfulness first arrived in America in the 1840s, as Buddhist Asian immigrants poured into California in search of gold, and East Coast academics became enamored of the religion and the esoteric man at its center, the Buddha. For these academics, mindfulness was just another aspect of Buddhism to be studied, not practiced in its own right. However, as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, increasingly stringent laws brought Asian–US immigration to a standstill and rising ethnic tensions curtailed interest in Buddhism.

After World War II, the position of mindfulness changed dramatically in the United States. Many colleges and universities established religious studies departments, educating each new generation about Buddhism. The US government relaxed the immigration laws, opening new channels of communication and outreach between America and Asia. And young adults, disillusioned by the Korean and Vietnam wars, turned to Asian culture for solace and guidance.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that mindfulness and Buddhism began to diverge. Buddhist monks teaching in America, as well as American-born Buddhist practitioners and psychologists, all saw ways to apply mindfulness to the stresses of suburban life and modern medical practices. They started to market mindfulness as a way to increase concentration and productivity, reduce stress, and deal with chronic pain and mental illnesses.

With the turn of the millennium, the mindfulness industry received a boost from the resurgence of another industry in America: self-help. As Americans sought to improve every aspect of their lives, from clean eating to decluttering to breaking bad habits, mindfulness practitioners were ready with suggestions and support. Mindfulness’s increasing exposure caught the attention of big business; Target, Aetna, Hearst Publications, eBay, General Mills, and Ford incorporated mindfulness training into their programs to boost the happiness and productivity of their employees.

The Abbot of Watkungtaphao at the Sirikit Dam in Thailand, 2009.
Photo by Tevaprapas. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Mindfulness is now an activity that more and more people are taking up on their own. With all the books, apps, websites, and instructional YouTube videos available at the click of a button, mindfulness can now be done anywhere. But will these changes result in mindfulness becoming more firmly entrenched in our daily routines, or will it send us, like the characters in Small Mouth Sounds, to escape our gadget filled lives in the silence of a meditation retreat?

Small Mouth Sounds runs until December 10 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. To read more about the history of mindfulness, order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

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