Opinion / Ideas

The Missing Middle of Modern Meditation (and how to fill it)

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Buddhify began as a side-project but thanks to its initial success, I was able to leave my then job and set up our company Mindfulness Everywhere, in order to grow buddhify and make a wider suite of other apps and products alongside it. And from day one, our mission has always been very clear: to create commercially-successful mindfulness products which were innovative, inclusive and authentic, both to our values and to the mindfulness tradition which I care so much about. 

I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved. I’m also very pleased to have seen the growth of pop mindfulness in general and specifically the rise of mindfulness apps, because as these wonderful practices have become decoupled from their traditionally spiritual context and shared at scale, they have started to reach a wider set of people than ever before. 

But there is a problem. After an initial gold rush, the world of mindfulness apps has started to settle down and its shape become more defined. But as someone who cares both about the mindfulness tradition and innovation through technology and design, whether you call it the mindfulness app space, industry, or marketplace, there is a big piece of the jigsaw that is missing. 

Popular yet authentic, human-centred mindfulness

On one side of the space you have well-resourced investor-led companies using whatever conventional startup tactics they can to keep growing and on the other side you have academic and tradition-led institutions and communities who hold the real experience, expertise and depth but are unable to make popular scalable products and experiences due to one or more of a lack of resources, an abundance of conservatism and a fear of technology. And what’s missing in the middle is innovation, creating new ways in which authentic mindfulness is presented, trained and scaled. 

Startups aren’t incentivised to be particularly innovative since the reductive presentation of meditation as a content delivery system suits their investors, and their users who have been well trained into passive content consumers by the likes of Netflix and Spotify don’t know any better. And those on the academic and traditional side of things aren’t incentivised to do any digital innovation or R&D work since they don’t have the skills and resources and even if they do, if they were to make an effective new type of mindfulness product it risks undermining the classes, courses and therapies they have vested interests in.

So this is the missing middle. And it is also where buddhify lives and where Mindfulness Everywhere operates as a company. We bridge these two poles: that of scalable commercial mindfulness products and that of authentic mindfulness experience and expertise. But we can’t do it by ourselves. 

Avoiding a broken future

If things continue as they are and this missing middle is not addressed then we will see the mindfulness world break apart completely into large-scale mindfulness products which lack deep understanding of the practice, ivory-tower academics doing good work but not being heard because its not being integrated into products for the marketplace, and spiritual communities becoming even more niche than they are now as the connections between pop mindfulness and spiritual practice become more and more diluted. 

More importantly, if things continue as they are, everyday people miss out. The only mindfulness they will encounter will be the best marketed mindfulness, not necessarily the best quality mindfulness. And it will be a mindfulness which has been finely tuned to prioritise the needs of the investor than the actual user. And it will be a mindfulness culture which excludes many of the people who need it the most, because if today’s dominant presentation continues, mindfulness will be increasingly perceived as something largely for affluent middle-class white people and mindfulness and meditation will be just one more thing that marginalised people are excluded from. And I don’t know about you but that’s not the world I want to live in.

There are people and communities and markets that are currently not being met, all due to lack of diversity in the mindfulness industry – diversity in all its dimensions: leadership, delivery model, voice, language, aesthetic, messaging, cost & more. It’s high time we fixed that.

The need for a progressive coalition

Ok so how do we fill in this missing middle? The solution is actually quite obvious: to have more inclusive mindfulness products which prioritise the user, while at the same time are commercially sustainable, we just have to set up, resource and run processes and initiatives which are explicitly designed to create them. 

In practical terms, this is the establishment of one or more innovation units which work with target audiences to identify needs, create solutions which blend meditation expertise with good design and new technology to meet those needs, build viable business models around those solutions and then take the resulting products to market. 

It requires a coalition, a collaborative network of meditation, design, technical and entrepreneurial talent, partners with access to the relevant markets and investors who thanks to the social impact are ready to expect less commercial return than a venture capitalist – known as social investors.  

Here at buddhify and its parent company Mindfulness Everywhere, we have the meditation expertise and the design and technical talent and that has been the secret of our success to date. But what has limited our growth has been our limited resources and our limited marketing channels. Which has led to a reality where we are constantly being squeezed and it is a struggle for us to grow in a space dominated by bigger operators who crowd us out. 

Our experience has therefore shown me that the missing middle isn’t going to be solved by one-off scrappy players like us doing what we do. If those of us who really care about the future of mindfulness in our culture want to avoid the loss of a tradition where the most important thing is not the creation of even more wealth for already wealthy people but the creation of freedom and relief in the hearts of people who are suffering, then we have to do something about it because the market is only going one way right now.

The time for social innovation is now

So now is a time for visionaries. We need visionary mindfulness researchers, institutions and professionals to see the problem and decide to be part of the solution. We need visionary designers, technologists and entrepreneurs to define and drive the process. And we need visionary funders and partners to enable it to happen at all. 

Meditation is best when humans are put first and for all the progress we’ve made in the last few years, there are still millions of people out there who would benefit from these wonderful practices, but we have to be ready to do things differently, even if it threatens our very view of what mindfulness is.

And we have to be ready to take a bigger view, understanding the whole system and not just getting stuck in our own particular role and vested interests. The so-called social innovation models which balance human impact and commercial return already already exists in other contexts, so there is no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to the process. All we have to do is do it. 

Because if we don’t, the fragmentation of mindfulness may have gone too far for it to recover. In fact, I give it ten years. 

Who’s with me?

Written by Rohan Gunatillake, creator of buddhify