Becoming Buddha on the Go​

This paper explores the way secular meditation practices are used within contemporary Western societies. For this, the digital service Headspace is taken as an example.

Image by Headspace

Jasper Steggink is an anthropologist living in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Currently working for Namasté Foundation.

3,000 words

Buddhist Ideologies in a Western Society

This paper explores the way secular meditation practices are used within contemporary Western societies. For this, the digital service Headspace is taken as an example. Headspace, a Buddhist-derived secular meditation practice, is immensely popular. I argue that its popularity points towards a need within Western society. This need will be examined for a) the individual and b) mayor corporations, depending on who uses the service. I show that in order for the service to be functional in contemporary Western society, the Buddhist ideologies are altered, leaving out the moral. The consequence of this is that: a) personal use of the app might only result in individual gain (as opposed to social gain), and b) the use of Headspace within companies might result in employees uncritical of the status quo. Both lose sight of the Buddhist ideology of creating a better world for all sentient beings, even though the meditation practices in Headspace are derived from this Buddhist ideology.

Contemporary Buddhist media, and media in general, have become increasingly focused on mindfulness-based meditation as a cure-all solution to mental problems as well as boosting individual functioning. Many of the claims are ‘scientifically proven’ and deem mindfulness-based meditation as a tool applicable to a wide range of everyday concerns. Even though this form of meditation has Buddhist origins, the everyday goals that are strived for by using this tool are not themselves Buddhist (Mitchell 2014, 86). One of the companies that managed to successfully commodify this secular practice in a Western market is Headspace.

Headspace is a digital service that provides guided meditation sessions and mindfulness training which users can follow online or via a mobile app (Headspace 2017). The service was founded in 2010 by Rich Pierson and Andy Puddicombe. Puddicombe joined a Buddhist monastery at the age of 22. At the age of 28 he took full ordination at a Tibetan Monastery in the Himalayas. After coming back to the United States Puddicombe joined forces with his associate Rich Pierson, a branding specialist, to make meditation accessible to as many people as possible, in which he succeeded (Headspace 2017). In August 2014 Headspace had around 1,3 million users worldwide and has been growing ever since (Laurie and Blandford 2016).

Headspace can best be described as a very welcoming introduction to meditation. The digital service tries its very best to make meditation and mindfulness accessible to its audience and uses a secular approach to do so. Even though the service has its origin in Buddhist ideology, no Buddhist symbolism is found in the service. This observation is in line with Stig Hjarvard’s notion of the secularization of society, where he points out that social activities that once belonged to religious institutions are being replaced by media, in this case Headspace, and are made secular activities (Hjavard 2008, 10). Like many other mindfulness-based meditation programs it promises the user to and “get the most out of its day” presenting the user with specialized training sequences to improve their health, career, focus and fitness (Headspace 2017).

Buddhist ideologies for a Western audience
Headspace sells its digital service via two routes: 1) to regular customers, through individual subscriptions, or 2) to mayor companies, through mass-subscriptions for the employees of the company (Headspace 2017). Since the practices of Headspace are exercised by a broad audience and applied by big companies, the use of the services, and the ways in which it transforms Eastern (mostly Buddhist) ideologies to fit a Western audience, points towards a need within the Western society. This paper explores the ways in which the secular meditation practices are being used and what needs it might fulfill. By doing so the uses and needs can be compared with the religious Buddhist ideologies which the secular practices are derived from. This is done by exploring the ways in which Buddhist ideologies are transformed into practical applicable tools for a Western society (chapter 1), by searching for what is lost during this transformation and by analyzing what this transformation points towards. This is done for both the individual use of Headspace (chapter 2) and the use of Headspace by mayor corporations (chapter 3). For this, the following question is central: What does the conversion of Buddhist ideologies within Headspace tell us about the use of secular meditation practices within contemporary Western societies? This question points towards what Klassen calls “religion in popular culture” in her book Religion & Popular Culture (Klassen 2014, 22), since there are Buddhist derived practices (the religious), in the digital service Headspace (the popular culture). Critically exploring the ways in which Buddhist ideologies are used within Headspace gives us a better understanding on how Buddhism is influenced by Western culture and vice versa (Mitchell 2014, 88).

Figure 1: A meditating Headspace character. Image by Headspace

Even though the service has its origin in Buddhist ideology, no Buddhist symbolism is found in the service.

Making Buddhism practices secular

Headspace is said to be among the most downloaded meditation apps (Laurie and Blandford 2016, 3). One could argue that its popularity is because the secular approach attracts a broad audience, since the secular approach makes it usable for both religious and non-religious people. But how can Headspace show its target audience that it uses time tested Buddhist ideas without referring to the religion from which the ideas are derived? In order to explain this notion, this chapter looks at the signs and icons used in the app. In this chapter I argue that this silently referring to Buddhist ideologies can be done only because it uses the remains of deeply engrained Orientalist stereotypes that paved the way for Headspace’s secular presentation. For this, the works of Jane Iwamura (2011) and Scott A. Mitchell (2014) are used.

Employing Edward Said’s notion of Orientalism (Said 1978), Iwamura shows the ways in which American media stereotypically portrays mystical Asian wisdom through an icon: the so called Oriental Monk (Iwamura 2011, 6). this icon is often seen in fictional works such as films like The Karate Kid (Avildsen 1984), where an old teacher, Mr. Miyagi, teaches his young student the ways of karate, or the more recent Kung Fu Panda (Stevenson and Osborne 2008), but the icon also represents ideas about actual people like the Dalai Lama (Mitchell 2014, 83) or Thích Nhất Hạnh. The use of this icon alerts the viewer that the message told is of ‘Asian wisdom’. Scott A. Mitchell’s article Buddhism in Popular Media (Mitchell 2014) used the idea of Iwamura and adds the Tranquil Meditator to the collection of icons representing Asian ideas. The Tranquil Meditator, either male or female, dressed in Western style of clothing, seated in lotus position, eyes closed and with an expression of extreme calm and serenity, is an icon signifying an improvement to one’s life that can easily be obtained through relaxation meditation. Just like the Oriental Monk, this icon is also visible in film and advertising, promoting a wide range of products like water bottles, luxury spa resorts and meditation programs (Mitchell 2014, 84). The explicit use of these icons, both the Oriental Monk and the Tranquil Meditator, within Western media created a familiarity with stereotypical Asian ideology for Western audiences. This familiarity paved the way for Headspace’s method of conveying Buddhist ideologies. This gives Headspace the opportunity to convey the same message the Oriental Monk and the Tranquil Meditator stand for, without the blunt use of these stereotypical icons.

Use of icons in Headspace
Headspace uses illustrated characters to get the message across. And, as opposed to the stereotypical icons of Iwamura’s Oriental Monk and Mitchell’s Tranquil Meditator, Headspace’s characters are much more abstract. Figure 2 shows a promotional image of the digital service’s website (see figure 2). This image displays seven characters, one being depicted meditating with headphones on. The choice of skin-color and the neutral clothing style reveal no distinct ethnicity. Notice that character meditating is sitting on a chair and not in lotus position. The subject is not situated in a monistic style environment, with fellow meditators, but rather enjoying its mindfulness-based meditation session individually, while being out there, in a place that could be anywhere. All while its gaze is calm and happy.

The character’s gaze is the only resemblance to Mitchell’s Tranquil Meditator. It is as if the “Asian wisdom” stereotypes are so deeply engrained, that all that’s needed to convey the Buddhist ideology is the characters tranquil gaze. All other aspects of Mitchell’s icon; the ethnicity, the seating position and the mystical environment, are stripped away to make the character more easily identifiable with, creating a more accessible product. But what stays is the promise that is represented through the character’s gaze. When the audience uses Headspace, they are promised that they will attain a particular kind of this-worldly nirvana. Practicing mindfulness meditation, the user will free itself from all the stresses caused by the fast paced, modern world. Nor is the user burdened with existential or metaphysical issues that might arise while meditating. By using this product, the user will singlehandedly create a situation where he or she will ‘just be happy’. Using this form, thus removing the religious references, the clothing, the lotus position and a monastic style environment, makes Headspace meditation safe for cultural consumption (Mitchell 2014, 86), showing the target audience that there is nothing queer about meditation.

Figure 2: A promotional image of Headspace. Image by Headspace

Headspace and the post-Durkheimian dispensation

As described in the introduction, the popularity of the individual use of Headspace points towards a need within the Western society. In this chapter I argue that this need is the search for the “authentic” life, as described by Charles Taylor (2007), placing Headspace in the midst of the post-Durkheimian dispensation. I will also argue that, to address this need, the digital service has to present itself as secular, removing the Buddhist ideologies, but by doing so, it loses its moral and ethical standards. What the loss of moral implies is deepened in chapter 3.

Improving individually
Headspace users are most likely propelled by their ‘pursuit of happiness’; finding balance and alleviate the stresses caused by the modern world. Within the digital service one can alter the program and add packs of meditation-based practices, specifically designed to either improve their health, become happier, improve their focus for work or study or boost their sporting performances (Headspace 2017). This concept broadens the audience of the service, providing a variety of users with ways to get the most out of themselves, and by doing so, making “the good life” more easily reachable. Perusing a new understanding of ‘the good’, amounting to an individual search for pleasure and fulfillment, and the ability to adjust a space to fit to individual needs and affinities are traits of the culture of “Authenticity”, as Charles Taylor calls it in his book A Secular Age (Taylor 2007, 473). A culture with an understanding of life in which people have to realize their humanity individually. Thus, finding purpose in life and living according to that purpose, not giving in to conformity, not following a model imposed on us by a higher authority, whether that is a church, a previous generation, a political organization or society itself (Taylor 2007, 475). Adding to this the notion of attaining a particular this-worldly nirvana individually through the use of Headspace (see chapter 1), the digital service fits perfectly in one of Charles Taylor’s ideal types: the post-Durkheimian dispensation (Taylor 2007, 487).

The loss of moral
The post-Durkheimian dispensation is derived from Durkheim’s argument that all religions can be understood as true once it is seen that what they represent is actually society (Durkheim 1995). Durkheim describes religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them (Durkheim 1995, 46)”. This definition implies that religious practices (as Buddhism) are social practices. The religion is the keeper of the moral and ethical standard. The search for an individual and authentic life, as Headspace users might search for within the post-Durkheimian dispensation, goes against the idea of a single moral community. Thus, making Headspace an individual and secular practice, removing the communal side of Buddhism, also removes its moral.

“The ‘Western Buddhist’ meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way for us to fully participate in capitalist dynamics while retaining the appearance of mental sanity”

“Feeling stressful? Try mindfulness meditation.”

Following the notion of Headspace as a signature business within the post-Durkheimian dispensation, aiming for individual improvement, away from religious groups but simultaneously losing its moral, this chapter explores the ways in which Buddhist ideologies needs to be altered in order to fit in the Western capitalist society and it shows how mindfulness programs can be used by mayor corporations to keep power divisions in place.
Headspace’s success stories were heard by mayor companies like Google and Linkedin. These companies started using the digital service to improve the wellbeing of their employees. Headspace claims that Unilever, General Electric, Spotify and United Airlines also “look to Headspace to improve their business outcomes”, stating that “happier and healthier employees have been shown to be more productive, resilient and creative” (Headspace 2017). Imagining Buddhist derived ideas and practices as a tool to create a more productive workforce in a highly competitive market seems strange, even though multiple articles show that Headspace and capitalism are a match made in heaven (Seeger 2016, 721; Reb, Narayanan, and Ho 2013, 2).

Distinction between secular and religious mindfulness
Before continuing a distinction must be made between Buddhist-derived secular practices, like Headspace, and Buddhism as religion. Not in order to classify the ‘fake’ from the ‘real’, but to avoid confusion on how the same practice, namely meditation, can be done with different motivations, striving for different goals. Namely, “clinical” mindfulness-based meditation programs like Headspace, and many others, aim for empirically measurable goals catered to improve the health, career, focus and fitness of the individual, whereas Buddhist mindfulness meditation is always socially engaged, based on moral or ethical standards (Mitchell 2014, 86; Purser and Milillo 2015, 18). This distinction is deepened out by management scholars Ronald E. Purser and Joseph Milillo in their article Mindfulness Revisited (Purser and Milillo 2015) in which they quote David Forbes’s essay Occupy Mindfulness (Forbes 2012) to illustrate the point:

“My concern is that mindfulness may fall victim to its own success. Mindfulness is not about stress reduction, maintaining a steady state of bliss, helping an individual act with more control or an organization run more smoothly and efficiently. Even after we’re de-stressed and feeling great, we still need to ask: how do we live now? We’re in control and are more efficient, but toward what end?” (Forbes 2012, 2)

As argued in the previous chapter this distinction shows that in the process of transforming religious Buddhist practices to secular tools as used in the Western society, morality is left out, especially when meditation is practiced in social seclusion. This does not mean that Headspace conveys an incorrect message. Rather, through the eyes of a Buddhist the way Headspace conveys messages is merely imperfect. It teaches its user Buddhist techniques but discards its moral and ethical standards. You could argue that this is done in order to avoid any overly religious or dogmatic principles, but consider that stripping mindfulness from its ethical standards, it runs the risk of becoming a tool for exploiting employees and “maintaining the status quo rather than effecting transformative change” (Purser and Milillo 2015, 4). From a Buddhist perspective, mindfulness training is aimed not to become physically or emotionally fit, this is mere a by-product, but aimed to develop compassion to all sentient beings, either friend or foe, colleague or competitor, counteracting the delusion of a permanent, independently existent self (Purser and Milillo 2015, 9). Bluntly put: properly practicing Buddhist mindfulness meditation would make employees question the competitive system they are functioning in. Thus, removing the moral makes the employees (conveniently) ignore these structural inequalities caused by Western capitalism.

Stress as an individual problem
As seen in the first chapter, Headspace promotes itself as a method for personal self-improvement, implying that the individual can develop inner peace regardless of its environment. For corporate organizations this implication is ideal since it shifts the responsibility of coping with organizational distress away from the employer and to the individual employee (Purser and Milillo 2015, 16). “Feeling stressful? Try mindfulness meditation.” As stress becomes an individual problem, programs like Headspace can be offered to help employees work with increased focus in an overly hectic or even toxic environment (Purser and Milillo 2015, 16), instead of changing the situation they’re in. Slavoj Žižek goes one step further in his article From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism (Žižek 2001) in which he writes: “The ‘Western Buddhist’ meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way for us to fully participate in capitalist dynamics while retaining the appearance of mental sanity”, while being tempted to use the Marxist cliché: “opium for the people” (Žižek 2001). The latter can be applied to corporate mindfulness programs if its most important functions are aimed towards individual achievements and leave the user uncritical of the status quo.


This paper explores what the conversion of Buddhist ideologies within Headspace tells us about the use of secular meditation practices within contemporary Western societies. Where the introduction shows us that the fact that Headspace is immensely popular, it popularity points towards a needwithin Western society. This need is either coming from: a) the individual (chapter 2) or; b) mayor corporations (chapter 3) which Headspace caters towards.

In chapter 2 I argue that the individual need might be to seek happiness and/or balance to alleviate the stresses caused by the modern world in an increasingly individualized society. Removing the Buddhist moral and ethics from Headspace is necessarybecause within the post-Durkheimian dispensation conforming to a higher authority you may or may not believe in “seems not just wrong, but absurd” (Taylor 2007, 489). Whether this higher authority is a church, a political organization or, in this example, a non-secular meditation practice. Thus, in order to fulfill the individual need for coping with the stresses caused by the modern world or the individual search for happiness, Headspace is successful because it leaves these ethics out of the digital service. The result being that Buddhist moral is removed once transformed to a secular practice.

In the third chapter I argue that, with its socially focused moral removed, the service runs the risk of becoming a tool used by mayor corporations to keep power divisions in place, which might be a need of these organizations. This is because the app focuses solely on individual functioning regardless of its environment, instead of improving said environment, making the user uncritical about power structures. Using mindfulness training as a way to cope with organizational distress also shifts the responsibility of coping with organizational distress to the individual employee (Purser and Milillo 2015, 16).

In both instances, being the need of the individual or the need of the corporations, I’d like to stress that Headspace, as a secular mindfulness practice, is neither wrong or incorrect in its portrayal of Buddhist ideologies but, as mentioned in chapter 3, merely imperfect from a Buddhist point of view. The consequence of this is that individual use of Headspace might only results in personal gain and the use of the digital service within companies might results in employees uncritical of the status quo. Both lose sight of the Buddhist ideology of creating a better world for all sentient beings (Purser and Milillo 2015, 18), even though the meditation practices in Headspace are based on this Buddhist ideology. Thus, the observations as described in chapter 2 and 3, together with the imperfect representation of Buddhist ideologies, creates a conflict with the Buddhist ideologies it’s been derived from. Knowing this, individuals ought to be mindful of the way secular meditation practices are applied in contemporary Western society.

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