“Mindfulness” is everywhere in publishing—and in American society. Its roots are in Buddhist religious practice around meditative attention—focusing on fully inhabiting the present moment without attachment to external experiences or inner emotions and thoughts. But it is also grounded in modern scientific research into the mind-body connection. Thus “mindfulness” has become fertile ground for books across multiple categories, including health, spirituality, popular science, and self-help.
Religion and spirituality publishers—even those who publish successful mindfulness books—are concerned that “mindfulness” could lose its moorings or become just a breezy invitation to bliss out. Most tell PW they see the value in authentic mindfulness even as they worry about its misuse.
Gardener. Woman. Twenty-Something. Athlete. Parent. Child. All of these have appeared in the last decade on book covers with the word "mindful" on them. It could be dangerously close to buzzword territory—as science and religion are joined by marketing in laying claim to “mindfulness.” In his 2019 book “McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality (Repeater Books), Ronald Purser, a professor of management at San Francisco State University said, “Void of a moral compass or ethical commitments, unmoored from a vision of the social good, the commodification of mindfulness keeps it anchored in the ethos of the market.”
Jennifer Yvette Brown, executive editor at Sounds True, said, she's "delighted that mindfulness has become a household word in the 21 years since I studied Buddhism at Naropa University,” which is named for an 11th-century Buddhist sage. However, she adds, “My concern is that the overuse of the term renders it meaningless, open to criticism, and too easy to dismiss as a self-help gimmick." In 2022, the Colorado-based publisher will publish Mindfulness Meditation for Pain Relief: Guided Practices for Reclaiming Your Body by Jon Kabat-Zinn, drawn from his earlier CD and audio of the same title. Kabat-Zinn is a medical researcher and student of Zen Buddhism whose books and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) courses have pioneered the mindfulness category for decades.
The term mindfulness can be “very fraught,” agreed Lil Copan, senior acquisitions editor at Broadleaf Books, particularly if it has been “diluted in its origin” in Buddhism. Christian authors often want to avoid acknowledging the Buddhist roots of mindfulness as a practice, connecting it instead with Christian contemplative practices they trace to the early church, or merely using “mindfulness” as a substitute for words like “presence” or, in the Quaker context, “quietude.” Still, Copan said that even amid concern about using the term, mindfulness is “such a good word. It does so much work that I can’t think of another word in which you aren’t saying 30 words or long sentences to get at what most people think of as mindfulness.” Broadleaf Books publishes a number of Christian authors, like Steve Weins’ 2020 title Shining Like the Sun: Seven Mindful Practices for Rekindling Your Faith.”
Shambhala Publications has around 900 titles currently in print on the subject of mindfulness, beginning in 1969 with Meditation in Action by the Tibetan Buddhist master Chögyam Trungpa. “Despite the term’s ubiquity and popularization, its promise remains mostly misunderstood…and largely untapped,” said Nikko Odiseos, president of Shambhala. However, he said, “despite the term’s use, misuse, and perhaps overuse, mindfulness continues to offer enormous potential for those willing to do the work in applying the practice to a secular discipline.”
At Leaping Hare, a U.K.-based imprint of Quarto Group, the use of the term is shifting from introducing mindfulness as a way of thinking to showcasing it as a way of approaching practical life skills, from swimming to gardening to crafting. Over the past 10 years, Leaping Hare has published 26 titles on mindfulness, and future books will be practical, illustrated takes on similar topics, said Monica Perdoni, commissioning editor at Leaping Hare. The most recent book in the series, Fiona Buckland’s Thoughtful Leadership: A Guide to Leading with Mind, Body, and Soul, takes on the topic without putting “the M-word” on the cover.
“The word is definitely becoming more mainstream and part of the popular language,” said Perdoni, “but I guess that’s inevitable when things become popular and there are apps and shopping categories where mindfulness is alongside homeware.”
Some readers are eager for the practical aspects of mindfulness like help with productivity and focus, relaxation and stress management, and healthy habits including diet and exercise. But others springboard from encountering the term when learning, say, to knit, to diving more deeply into the spiritual practice and provenance of mindfulness.
“That’s our reader,” said John Hays, v-p and director of sales and marketing at Inner Traditions, which is based in Rochester, Vt. “That five percent of people who are introduced to mindfulness in a more simple way will move on and want to know more and make this a lifelong practice.”
Often it’s the experience and expertise of the author that makes the difference between a mindfulness book that is authentic and helpful, and one that uses the term as “a buzzword,” as Georgia Hughes, editorial director of the northern California-based New World Library puts it.
“[Mindfulness is] not necessarily an easy thing to do,” said Hughes, “So people that have studied the philosophy and worked with people to help them have much more authority and trustworthiness than [writers who counsel] ‘just breathe.’” Hughes does not want to “make science into a religion” but she says it is valuable that people can see that “what has been working as a spiritual practice can now be used and backed up with scientific evidence, which helps bring it to a wide audience.” Among New World Library's titles is One-Minute Mindfulness: 50 Simple Ways to Find Peace, Clarity, and New Possibilities in a Stressed-Out World by psychotherapist and former Buddhist monk David Altman.
Science and psychology are a way into mindfulness for those who want their spiritual practices to be grounded in research and scientific evidence. “The encyclopedia of mindfulness practices has expanded,” said Brenda Knight, associate publisher of the Mango Publishing Group. Many books, like the two Mango titles The Mindful Woman: Gentle Practices for Restoring Calm, Finding Balance, and Opening Your Heart and the forthcoming Gutsy: Mindfulness Practices for Everyday Bravery, are written by psychologists who advocate for evidenced-based wellness practices, often through the lens of their spiritual traditions.
Still, Peter Turner, associate publisher of Red Wheel / Weiser — whose recent titles include Mindful Living Journal: Journaling Practices for a Sacred and Happy Life by the yoga teacher and Ayurveda practitioner Katie Rose — says mindfulness may be a broad publishing genre, but its Buddhist origins deserve honor and attribution.
Mindfulness “is a specific reference to a foundational practice that lies at the heart of the Buddhist path,” said Turner, who was previously publisher and CEO of Shambhala. “Certainly, in Buddhist practice, the goal of mindfulness meditation isn’t stress reduction or alleviating some health condition. It’s about waking up to the true nature of existence—though it does have those health benefits as well.”
Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer and is coauthor of two books about yoga and health.