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The Rise of the Mindful Museum

Whose peace of mind benefits when we meditate at the art museum?

Early one November morning, I sat in the second row of the Museum of Modern Art’s Roy and Niuta Titus Theater, tucked away in a basement previously unknown to me. The lights were dim, Mark Rothko’s Untitled (1968) shone goldly on a projection screen, and 120 visitors murmured in reverence. Meditation teacher Manoj Dias, half-smiling like the Buddha himself, appeared enthroned on a plump little cushion and backlit by the Rothko. Terminally handsome and relaxed, Dias—a former marketing and finance professional—helps “people around the world trade mania for pause,” including the people at Lululemon and Mercedes Benz, according to his website. We were prepared to become mindful together.

Few spaces in American life today are exempt from the gentle-but-firm dictates of mindfulness. Your corporate employer schedules meditation trainings at the office. Your favorite celebrity promotes the practice as a means to assuage troubles ranging from social anxiety to body shame. The CEO of your second least favorite social media platform rhapsodizes about his Vipassana meditation retreat to Myanmar amid the Rohingya genocide. A “mindful meatitation” event pops up at your local Applebee’s, sizzling moistly. The practice has become a phenomenon of busy bourgeois life, one that’s long since oozed beyond its Buddhist, Hindu, and Taoist origins

The museum’s culture of promotion grinds against our collective peace of mind.

Now it has found its way into the hallowed halls of the art museum. Once a month, MoMA invites visitors who hate sleeping to scan its galleries in contemplative silence at 7:30 a.m. Then a guide leads a sixty-minute group meditation. MoMA inaugurated this Quiet Mornings program in 2016, in partnership with Flavorpill, a company that promotes something extremely peaceful-sounding called “hyper-curated event recommendations and invites.” Other museums—from the Brooklyn Museum and the Rubin in New York, to the LACMA and the Hammer in Los Angeles, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia—offer their own mindfulness programs.

Always a site of contemplation, the art museum has lately seized on this wellness trend, explicitly branding itself a respite from our frenzied, mediated lives. It has become a kind of temple, a cultural arm of the corporate workplace that mandates meditation to improve employees’ coping skills. Together, they capitalize on the benign glow of an enlightened lifestyle. Participants leave dosed with loving-kindness and nonjudgmental attentiveness. Only the mindless would repudiate these gifts! So we worship, but we also feel uneasy. The museum’s culture of promotion grinds against our collective peace of mind.

The population has been growing alarmingly mindful for decades now. In the 1970s, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts, adapted Buddhist principles to develop his mindfulness-based stress reduction method. “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally,” wrote Kabat-Zinn in his 1994 book Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life, a bestseller that continues to be a touchstone of the mindfulness movement. “This kind of attention nurtures greater awareness, clarity, and acceptance of present-moment reality.” Others in the medical profession began using mindfulness techniques to treat ailments as serious as anxiety, depression, and ADHD, while the self-help community embraced its ethic of positive thinking; in the 2000s, it started popping up on the agenda of tech conferences and economic leadership forums. Mindfulness has become a kind of secular enlightenment, untethered from forbidding supernatural concepts like past lives and karma. These days, even many overtly spiritual practices find themselves draped in its neutral robes.

The message of mindfulness is simple: Experience originates in our mind, so if we’re aware of our mind, we can change ourselves—and better serve others. Amid modern life’s array of toxic pleasures and numbing distractions, many people ache to realize that aim. I confess that I’m among them. I meditate daily. I have attended Buddhist classes filled with golden statues. I have consulted countless apps and YouTube videos, and I feel queerly vindicated that the medical and psychotherapeutic communities embrace its discourse and its proven health advantages. Even if they didn’t, though, I’d still practice. It gives me a rare sense of peace.

But, of course, all this peace comes with a price. In recent years, a wellness-industrial complex has entrenched itself, with mindfulness meditation as a whole generating $1.2 billion in revenue in 2017. Headspace, which hit a million subscribers this June, making it the largest of more than 1,000 meditation apps, posts an annual revenue of $50 million alone. Mindfulness has also become a mainstay of the modern office, especially since the financial collapse of 2008. Apple and Google sponsor meditation sessions for their employees. LinkedIn buys its staff bulk subscriptions to Headspace. As workplaces demand that their employees hustle harder in a more precarious world, mindfulness has emerged as a means to manage stress and increase productivity. Since its import to America, it has been oddly well-suited at making the individual citizen responsible for mitigating the suffering and loss that our necrotic social structures have induced. So how peaceful can it really be?

At the MoMA Quiet Morning in November, a pair of PR flaks coaxed applause from the audience and praised each other. Flavorpill’s Sascha Lewis told us “how important art is and the MoMA and these cultural institutions” before we began our mindfulness training to the accompaniment of live viola and piano players. Dias explained that he practices in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism, one important concept of which is compassion. He spoke of metta, the Pali word for “loving-kindness,” and related a parable in which the Buddha sends a group of monks into a forest where they become scared by ghosts and use metta to protect themselves.

We meditated on that idea. Dias instructed us to concentrate on our breathing and the sounds of the room, and then to direct thoughts of loving-kindness toward a person of our choosing. As often happens when I meditate, my mind ambled to my email inbox and my grocery list and my personal failures past and present. Still, I kept returning to my breath. After about ten minutes, I started to feel settled, but by then it was time to finish. Lewis returned to the mic with an imperative that filled me with psychic dread: “Have a beautiful day, and practice some loving-kindness on the subway, at work, wherever you need that little hit.” It wasn’t a terrible thing to say, but it revealed the queasy central conceit of Quiet Mornings: that we museumgoers were in need of personal improvement, and the museum was here to fulfill it—with a little help from Flavorpill. This mixture of benevolent condescension and lifestyle branding is the prototype for mindfulness offerings today. What role the Rothko served remains unclear to me.

Other museums concentrate more directly on meditative traditions, several of these with support from the mysteriously funded Hemera Foundation. The Rubin’s mindfulness program is a solemn affair situated in the museum’s saffron-hued basement theater. On a mid-December afternoon, our guide, Tracy Cochran, a teacher at the New York Insight Meditation Center, sat before a projection of an ornate silver bowl traditionally used to melt yak butter during spiritual ceremonies. This gave the audience a relevant art-object to contemplate. “Contemplate,” we learned, derived from the Latin templum, means “to enter the temple.” Cochran also had parables. The mythic antecedent of St. Nicholas, she told us, was a group of indigenous Finnish shamans who delivered psychedelic mushrooms to families through their chimneys, inviting them to “experience some connectedness to a vibrant, living world.” Reeling with this delightfully weird new knowledge, we followed Cochran in a simple breath meditation—punctuated by the snoring of one visitor—in which she asked us to channel the hallucinating Finns.

This mixture of benevolent condescension and lifestyle branding is the prototype for mindfulness offerings today.

All this imbued the exercise with a sense of higher purpose, something sorely lacking at the MoMA event. But the same structure that gave it meaning also belied its call to cosmic connectedness. The Rubin’s program, like the afternoon sessions at the Hammer in LA and the ICA in Philadelphia, is explicitly “designed to fit into your lunch break”—a regulating beat in the rhythm of labor. The workplace has outsourced to the museum its desire to maintain placid, productive employees. We may self-select to sit together for a time in the mindful museum, but we are ultimately separate, each availing ourselves of a circumscribed solution to our social and personal ills.

At Adidas: Art & Yoga, the Brooklyn Museum’s collaboration with the athletic-wear giant, the mindful museum persists in its confused vision. This monthly event claims to offer yoga, mindfulness meditation, and a tour of “specially selected contemplative objects.” At a recent installation in December, there were no eager Adidas staff to be found, nor any contemplative objects—specially-selected or otherwise. In the sunny, high-roofed atrium of the Beaux-Arts Court, some 230 visitors, clad in Lycra, followed a yoga teacher’s instructions, which echoed inaudibly for sixty minutes.

We posed like warriors and reverse warriors. We saluted the sun. Having somehow never done yoga before, I flopped like a toddler in gymnastics class on my museum-issued mat, returning again and again to a doubtful downward-facing dog pose. At long last, our instructor permitted a few minutes of rest and breathing—presumably the mindfulness portion of the program—before we were permitted to file out through the museum. Too unfocused to be affecting, Adidas: Art & Yoga may be the logical endpoint of the trend, where museums gesture ever more vaguely at some mindful notion, eager for branding and the boring authority the term promises.

Still, you can imagine an alternative place for meditation in the museum. An artist might speak about the fruits of their meditative practice, or a practitioner might help us see a famous work anew. And it’s true that meditative principles have converged with art-making and exhibition for centuries, from the Himalayan artifacts on display at the Rubin to John Cage’s silent compositions and Nam June Paik’s TV Buddhas.

Cage, in particular, was serious about applying mindful principles to his work. “Our intention is to affirm this life,” he wrote, in the introductory remarks to a 1956 dance performance that he created with his partner Merce Cunningham, “not to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.” This is a meditative posture, a radical acceptance that embarrasses the self-interested sanctimony of today’s museum mindfulness events. So often now, we look to art as a “necessary” antidote to life as it is. It’s no wonder to see meditation deployed in the same instrumental way.

Another artistic precedent more precisely anticipates the workings of today’s mindful museum: In the mid-1970s, when charismatic American converts to Hinduism like Ram Dass were introducing meditation to the mainstream, MoMA held an event called Sounds in the Cosmic Egg: Meditational Atmosphere in the Summergarden, the promotional materials for which were a ransom letter of charming propaganda. Its “meditational environment” included the tone of a tamboura and an agenda of “helping individuals develop a balanced integration of spirit, mind, and body.” Close your eyes and you can smell patchouli, hear a droning “om,” and feel blousy fabrics billowing against your skin. Tragically, no recording of the proceedings remains. But a familiar social conjunction does: the Summergarden was underwritten by the Mobil Oil Corporation, a reminder that wherever we undertake practices to liberate our minds and bodies, capital will always be close at hand.

At its best, the mindful museum might awaken in us a dim memory of a more collective way of being. As Cage wrote, not every contemplative act needs to improve creation—but together we can do better with the creation we’ve inherited. The new temple, though, asks only that we publicly perform our wellness, that we be productive even in our moments of rest. Here, we’re not a congregation but a collection of atomized parts, each striving for an individuated peace.