Some dude in a city. May or may not be young and boujee. Courtesy of unsplash.com

Meditation is having, like, a revival among the young and the boujee.

People love talking about millennials like we’re a single boy scout troupe and not millions of people covering vast geographic, cultural, socioeconomic and political tracts. So instead of making sweeping generalizations about millennials as a group, I thought I’d make some sweeping generalizations about a particular subgroup of millennials that I know well: the white-collar urban-dwelling millennials.

There’s one thing about these young professionals I know for certain: we love being in a constant state of stress. I wrote about this before: years of mental conditioning taught us to continually compare the worst in our lives with the best of the lives of others; that the only way to get ahead is to continue berating ourselves for our shortcomings like a stern father, bringing guilt to moments of idleness, beating ourselves up for not doing enough — never enough.

To deal with this, the young professional class, like most other classes, used to turn to religion. And I don’t mean 200 years ago — more like a couple of decades. A 1985 New York Times piece argued that a ‘growing number of upwardly mobile young professionals are religiously observant’. Religion, the piece suggests, was then an important anchor for young professionals ‘in a city [New York] where it is easy to be carried away by a career’.

But today that is no longer the case. According to Pew polls, millennials are the least likely to have a religious affiliation out of any generational group. In 2015, only 40% of millennials felt religion is very important and a mere 27% actively practiced. And although they didn’t break it down by collar color, it seems fair to assume this is at least as true of young professional millennials as it is of the broader cohort.

But curiously, this does not translate to (or originate from) a decline in spirituality. In fact, when answering questions like do you feel a sense of spiritual peace and well-being? or do you think about the meaning or purpose of life? Millennials scored roughly the same as other generations: overwhelmingly, like, duh. Amidst this growing spiritual vacuum, meditation emerged as the trendy vehicle of choice for the young and the restless. There a few reasons for that.

  1. We are stressed as fuck.

Although young professionals like to pretend otherwise, the Western meditative tradition does not begin with us. Millennials discovered meditation like Columbus discovered America: not really, and not without butchering a bunch of the content. Obviously it’s been around for thousands of years, but it was introduced to the US in the early 20th century by a couple of dudes and went truly mainstream in the 1960s with good ol’ Maharishi Mahesh Yogi teaching the experimental generation to reduce their acid-fuelled heart palpitations by sitting still for like a minute. And they loved him for it.

The Maharashi with some white dudes sitting still for like a minute

The rise in popularity of yoga — with it’s strong meditative dimension — and millions of trips to Indian ashrams by white-cloth-laden Westerners looking for themselves (and the nearest bathroom) brought meditation into mainstream culture. But, while meditation has been somewhat popular in the West for the last few decades, it seems to particularly resonate with today’s young professionals.

The American Psychological Association’s 2015 report Stress in America found that millennials tend to experience more stress than preceding generations. We often prioritize work over taking care of our mental selves. It’s very important for us to make it clear to others how busy we are, how long we spent at the office, how we are operating on literally 4 hours of sleep, dude. Despite all of this (or, more likely, because of it), we have higher rates of job dysfunction in comparison to other generations, according to a recent study by Bensinger, DuPont and Associates.

It’s hardly surprising more stress leads us to be the most likely out of any generation to turn to meditation for stress relief. But that’s only part of the story, because we wouldn’t turn to meditation for stress relief if it’s benefits weren’t well known or well researched.

2. Meditation is secularizing. Real quick.

The scientific community has recently become more interested in studying and understanding the impacts of meditation, constructing fact-based narratives of what meditation can offer that go beyond a vague sense of ‘spirituality’.

In this spirit (ha!), meditation is being linked to a bevy of physical and emotional benefits, from lower blood pressure to the regulation of stress-marking hormones like cortisol to increased productivity and even reduction of the severity and duration of the common cold. Sharon Salzberg, a best-selling author and meditation instructor with four decades of experience captures the attractiveness of meditation to young professionals well:

There’s been a whole secularization of the movement, and you now hear about it in a medical context and as stress reduction more than anything, like the mental gym. It can be off-putting to walk into a room with statues that you may not be able to relate to. So why not create that environment where people can drop things that are causing them stress, and do it in a contemporary way that doesn’t freak people out? It meets a lot of needs.

Similarly, in his 2013 book Faithful Generations, author John Mabry brings the example of Ben, a young professional for whom meditation is practical, not religious. For Ben, “meditation … is merely a calming thing. It’s something I do when I’m annoyed, angered or frustrated. It’s a way to ground myself and bring myself back to focus. I don’t pray, I don’t seek guidance or ask for things that I know won’t happen from a god”. That’s the modern meditative geist of young professionals.

The Pew poll cited earlier also found that 73% of millennials who meditate at least several times a year look to ‘reason’, ‘common sense’ or ‘science’, rather than ‘religion’ for ‘guidance on right and wrong’ (and as before, it seems fair to assume that this conclusion applies at least as much to the young professional subcategory).

But there’s another reason we are so into it: meditation has been rebranded and repackaged to fit both the form and content that we’ve come to expect.

3. It relies on modern technology (and we love that shit).

Modern meditative practices speak to us in our own language: Tech. The poster child for white-collar meditation is Headspace, a Silicon Valley darling. Andy Puddicombe, its co-founder, was a keynote speaker at SXSW, and Google and LinkedIn pay for employee subscriptions. It has been immensely successful beyond the Valley too: Headspace’s user base quadrupled in 2016 and since 2012 the app has been downloaded 11 million times.

Headspace offers guided meditation with a simple, calming interface that sends gentle British-accented instructions right into your ears. It’s approach is secular: “We like to think of Headspace more as a gym membership for the mind,” Puddicombe told The New York Post. “There’s no chanting, incense or sitting cross-legged for hours”.

That the gym-meditation comparison comes up often is telling of its appeal to young professionals, equipped as we often are with pricey gym memberships or, if not that, at least an in-built understanding of the importance of physical well-being. The absence of the traditional trappings of meditation in the app makes it easier for us to make the connection between the regular physical exercise we know is good for us and this new type of mental exercise.

Finally, the format of Headspace and meditation apps like it is tailored to the busy young professional lifestyle, allowing for a quick 10 minute hit in the morning to be chill AF for the rest of the day (or that’s the promise, at least).

4. It’s tailored to fit our culture

‘Birthday Sex’ is a sensual, dub-influenced Jeremih song that almost every young professional knows well. When it plays on a night out, people tend to get into it, even if it’s not their birthday and their odds of having sex that night are slim.

So many may find it a strange way to start a meditation session but Jesse Israel, the organizer of one trendy meditation group in New York called Medi Club, knows his audience well. They cheer and they laugh and they celebrate the birthdays in the room as they begin their practice. Of course, far from all young professionals would be into that but it’s reflective of the understanding that it is up to us to make meditation our own.

Mr. Israel also wrote a Medium post explaining his philosophy. The intro to it is such a caricature that it sounds like I made it up to make the point of this article (it’s real, I swear).

I’m 30. I stay out late and party. I start my own businesses. I use emojis and ride a skateboard. I go through a lot of break ups. I travel a ton. I get exhausted, I get excited, I get sad, I get inspired… and I meditate twice a day.

All of these bells and whistles have a very clear audience, and it ain’t Grandma Kazimirov.

The explanation of modern meditation’s benefits is couched in our language too. A young professional-filled meditation session that a WSJ reporter attended started with a preamble: ‘We may be more empathetic with our roommates, our partners, our parents. We may be more mindful and relaxed if we have sex tonight. We may be more conscious when we send emails or post images on Instagram’.

Yeah. Meditate so you can apply the Clarendon filter without stressing about whether it’s the perfect filter (it’s not). Perfection in imperfection, dude.

And speaking of Instagram, as a cohort that draws inspiration for what life should be like through the rose-tinted filters of Instagram models and ‘lifestyle influencers’, it is hardly surprising meditation is so in right now.

Supermodels Gisele Bundchen and Alessandra Ambrosio are big fans and make sure to let their combined 20 million followers know (#meditation, #goodvibes #namasteAF). Dedicated accounts are popular too: instagram account spiritualgangster, which offers advice on secular spirituality, yoga and meditation, has almost half a million followers. It offers its followers such nuggets of wisdom as ‘when you stop and look around, life is pretty amazing’, which is much easier to say when the photo it’s referring to is a an azure blue pool overlooking an ocean.

‘Fuck That: An Honest Meditation’ is a video with that combines the familiar soothing voice of guided meditation with popular jargon to put the stressed millennial at ease, like she’s at brunch with the girls… but also meditating.

Breathe in calmness…

Breathe out bullshit

Meditation is increasingly popular among young professionals for the same reason the Fuck That meditation video is: it speaks our language and references our culture, its blasphemy makes it hip and also secular, and, of course, it’s on YouTube (viewed 10 million times), so that we can listen to it on the same aluminum rectangle that makes us feel inadequate as we scroll through the endless sunsets and poolsides of instagram feeds.

But hey, it works for us so — for now — just look inward, and visualize the end of this article.

A Damn Optimist | Newslettering @ damnoptimist.substack.com