The mindblowing expense of mindfulness

Meditation

Is there a link between vibrators, colouring-in books and Buddhism? Eva Wiseman unravels our obsession with passivity

There was a period in the late 1990s when it became fashionable to have a vibrator. To have a vibrator, and to talk about having a vibrator, and to give vibrators as gifts, and to display them on shelves as art, daring the BT man to comment on it, exposing his hatred for women. Looking back now, it seems as though the ground was humming beneath our feet, the curtained houses alive as if infested with wasps. After Sex and the City dedicated a whole storyline to the Rampant Rabbit, female orgasms were in the news, were the news.

Except that in order to take part in the conversation, you had to have bought the kit. The vibrator, the “toys”, the suspenders – in the designer lingerie shop where I worked, customers were encouraged to buy bras that made them feel sexy and therefore empowered – an overdraft of sexuality. Women were allowed to enjoy sex, it seemed, as long as they paid for it.

I mention this as my desk piles with the bestselling mindfulness colouring books. “Filled with templates for exquisite scenes and intricate, sophisticated patterns, prompting you to meditate on your artwork as you mindfully and creatively fill these pages with colour”, they invite you to “take a few minutes out of your day, wherever you are, and colour your way to peace and calm”.

Since 2012, when the app Headspace launched (“a gym membership for the mind”), it’s been downloaded by 3 million users at £7.95 a month. At the end of September, the Barbican debuts the first “mindfulness opera”, an immersive four-hour performance that includes a gentle yoga session.

As mindfulness becomes a trend embraced by companies and schools, as well as the rest of us civilians frayed by anxiety, I wonder how many of us really believe that, like orgasms in 1998, we can buy inner peace. At the end of the Huffington Post’s recent guide “Mindfulness for Mindblowing Sex”, the author adds: “Want to be a more mindful lover? Want a more conscious connection? Like this article and share with the object of your affection. Please leave a comment.”

The difficult thing about meditation – a word so imbued with hemp you can almost hear it telling you it doesn’t own a TV – is that you don’t have to pay for it. All you need to meditate is a quiet space in which you can be alone. Which I think, to our busy ears, sounds a bit suspicious. How can it be of worth today if it doesn’t have a price? Hence its rebranding as mindfulness – a multimillion-pound business concerned with training the brain, using it to quiet the pressures of Instagram or to lose weight rather than with finding nirvana. Where meditation suggests something wrong with you that needs to be fixed, mindfulness suggests something very, very right – you’re ambitious, successful, DTF. And proud to tell anybody who will listen that you’re working to be even more so.

My friend John will only eat quiche if you call it pie. Poor John, unable to come to terms with the subtle joys of a warm pastry case, so insecure in his masculinity that he needs it rebranded before he can allow himself to enjoy it, even at a leisurely picnic, with prosecco. Meditation is the quiche of mindfulness.

The thing itself, this ancient Buddhist practice, sounds all right, really, doesn’t it? Observing your thoughts, gaining perspective, being better at being you, etc. But there’s something so offensive, so limp about the way it’s marketed, and even more, the way we have leapt at it. Why are we so keen to turn ourselves off? Why are we so desperate to stop thinking? And why are we so keen to pay for it? I’m sure most of us could benefit from meditating for a few minutes a day, but rather than buying tools to teach us mindfulness, can’t we simply work out the method from the word?

Quite apart from the mindfulness colouring books, which join adult ball ponds and Shoreditch’s cereal café as evidence of our slow slide back into our mothers’ wombs, the end result of this paid-for passivity is surely a world where, rather than noisily trying to change the world, we are all content within our own heads, earbuds in, credit cards aching, eyes closed.

Email Eva at e.wiseman@observer.co.uk or follow her on Twitter @EvaWiseman

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Eva Wiseman, for The Observer on Sunday 13th September 2015 06.30 Europe/London

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010