“To study the self is to forget the self.”
—Dogen Zenji, 13th century Buddhist philosopher

“May you build your own spiritual business bravely and honestly.”
—Chris-Anne Donnelly, 21st century Dream Builder and Brand Catcher

I own a pair of bright purple Nike Airs. To anyone who has known me for a long time, this might seem peculiar: up until the recent past, my aesthetic has tended towards brogues, velvet and being accidentally overdressed.

Also up until the recent past, I was dating a girl who referred to my Nikes as “your off-brand shoes” – ‘brand’ as in aesthetic, because these totally didn’t fit my usual look at this point. Cute, right? I thought so. But something about it bothered me, so bear with me as I figure out why.

We in the West are an increasingly image-driven, representation-driven individualistic society. I identify as a cisgender, bisexual, millennial, left-leaning, environmentally-conscious English-Australian woman. I also identify as an illustrator, and as a writer. You can discover all of this through my various social media profiles. This is my personal brand.

But who, or what, actually am ‘I’?

As a keen (though sometimes slack) meditator, I am quite interested in Zen Buddhism. Again and again, in the wide variety of guided meditations I listen to, the underlying message is “stop labelling and just let go.” Cliché perhaps, but wow, it feels good to let go. Meditation has taught me that my thoughts are just thoughts; my feelings are just passing feelings. My feet are on the floor, and the magpie song outside is beautiful – no, it’s not beautiful, it just is. I am not perfectionistic or overly-cynical or socially awkward or vertically-challenged. I just am.

To paraphrase Dogen Zenji, I believe that mediation is about forgetting yourself through finding yourself. Indeed, as teacher Susan Murphy Roshi says, ‘zazen’ (literally, “seated meditation”) “is a focused investigation of the nature of ‘self’.” Letting go of your perception of yourself by becoming actively aware that you are just a body; just matter, just part of the world.

That is, I am not just a cisgender, bisexual woman (and all those other descriptors), I’m just me. Yes, I am those things, and they are real, but I am much more than that, and also – paradoxically – much less. I am much more because I am also a daughter, a sister, a cousin, a friend, a lover, an employee, a student, and so on. I am much less, though, because when it comes down to it, I am literally just one small mortal human in an enormous universe that will outlive not just me but my progeny, my community, my country and – by the looks of it – my species.

It’s hectic, and Zen Buddhism suggests that it is this knowledge of our unavoidable mortality and our (false) intuition that there is a ‘self’ at your core that forms the root of human suffering. However, Zen also aims to transcend this suffering by accepting and celebrating that we’re not the centre of the universe, that we are just one small part of it, and that this is actually a good thing. As spiritual teacher Tara Brach suggests, “when we let go and let be, our energy flows freely. We reconnect with our natural aliveness.”

But enough of the ‘spiritual bullshit’. What does sitting on a cushion and listening to birds have to do with my Nike Airs?

It goes back to the question of branding. When I was meditating the other day, I found myself caught up in a swirl of familiar self-deprecating thoughts about how inconsistent the content of my illustration Instagram account is. This is because just before I sat down to meditate, I posted a recent sketch. Did I post that last post too early in the day for my followers? Was it too experimental in contrast to my other posts? In other words, was it inconsistent with my personal brand?

And then – damn it – the meditation ended. I tried to hold onto the last of the simulated Tibetan singing bowl sounding from my phone and keep my self-essence transcended into the surroundings. But the meditation was over, so I was free to go ahead and check how many likes that last post had garnered in the last 20 minutes. Not many! Self-essence transcends into the uncomfortable sensation of dopamine levels plummeting.

Maybe those last comments are a little self-pitying, but they’re warranted, because according to creative strategist Nicolas Cole, I’m not actually going to have a job in two years’ time if I don’t have a strong personal brand. And if I haven’t posted anything on Facebook for a while? Cole says, “We make decisions based off what we see, and if all we see is an outdated presence online, we’re going to assume that person is outdated.”

Uh-oh.

According to digital strategist Shama Hyder, “the question is no longer IF you have a personal brand,” it’s whether you “choose to guide and cultivate the brand” or, dispiritingly, “let it be defined on your behalf.” Hyder advises that “once you understand how you wish your brand to be perceived, you can start to be much more strategic about your personal brand.”

Aptly, Hyder is the CEO of the award-winning company Zen Media.

Remember how I was worrying about consistency in my illustration? That’s another thing: yes, brands can change or evolve, but ultimately their essence is fixed. Brands are constructed, calculated, and consistent, molded into certain aesthetics, informed by certain beliefs or ideologies and – at least in the West – centred around the individual, whether that’s the individual buying or the individual selling.

The more people become brands (see Kim Kardashian, Kanye, literally anyone else with more than five thousand followers on Instagram), the more they can gain capital, because a successful product is aimed at a niche market that specifically wants one thing. You’re not going to sell dog toys in a boutique furniture shop. The more people become brands, the more they become products – and demand never stops for certain products. Pressure’s on!

However, in meditation, one is encouraged to remember that everything is impermanent. “All fixed ideas and sense of ‘self’ become ‘forgotten’,” says Roshi.

So it’s funny that so many tech gurus and business CEOs rave about meditation, which is fundamentally not-for-profit. Although in its capitalist transmutation, it is.

High up in the linguistic echelons of the ‘personal brand’ is another buzz word: mindfulness. The mindfulness business occupies a nearby position to personal branding in our 21st century lexicon. And it’s a very lucrative business indeed, attracting over $260 million in investments since 2012 according to researcher Hannah H. Kim (whose 2018 ‘Executive Summary’ questions if it is becoming more ‘McMindful’ than mindful).

Well, taking a 3,500 year old collectivist Eastern religion and plonking it into individualistic America was never going to be a smooth transition. In fact, corporate mindfulness often enthusiastically endorses the very opposite of what its distant Zen Buddhist roots intends.

Invested in by business and tech giants alike (Google, Apple, Microsoft all included), the main goal of corporate mindfulness seems to be increased employee productivity – justified, of course, under the guise of decreased stress levels. As hedge fund manager David Ford expresses in an interview with Bloomberg News about meditation’s profound benefits,“I react to volatile markets much more calmly now.”

The profit of meditation in this context is the perfectionism of the self, the productivity of the self, and the nobility of the self. Because it’s all about being a better person, right?

Kick those goals! Work hard, play hard! Up your game!

This language – straight from the boardroom – also demonstrates the increasing, insatiable gamification of our society in all its aspects. Driven, inevitably, by social media.

It’s not just that you have to ‘up your game’ in the office; there’s increasing online pressure to ‘up your fitness game!’ ‘up your avo on toast game!’ and even – somewhat distressingly – ‘up your parenting game!’ #couplegoals, #pregancygoals, #bootygoals. Hashtag, hashtag, hashtag.

It’s a profoundly more 2.0 game than the 20th century “life is a game” adage – it’s a game where not only celebrities (like in the good old days) but everyone has the stage, and everyone is trying to get to the top. Gaining the most likes, the most followers, the most social and financial capital in all categories. Even your knitting can be turned into a side-hustle. Even my shoes can be off-brand.

Enabled by social media, we’re becoming social validation-craving businesses – but what we’re marketing is not a product but ourselves.

The app I get my guided meditations from shows me strangers who have meditated at the same time as me. At the end of each meditation, it is constantly persuading me to “Thank a Friend for Meditating with You” or, on the home screen, remarking bluntly, “You Don’t Have Any New Messages,” prompting the very social comparisons and self-consciousness that drove me to download the app in the first place.

The reason that I started meditating a few years ago was to get away from inauthenticity and to feel some kind of truth, some kind of connection; some sentiment along the lines of “it just is.

As someone who deems it necessary to have an online presence for the sake of my career, I feel increasingly that there is a conundrum posed by these two ways of being. Moreover, the more these opposing views appear to merge, the more dangerous and uncanny, it becomes. It feels as if there might, one day, be a point where I could actually substitute my true human self for a personal brand that cares only about the superficial validation that money and pixels can bring. I mean, some people are doing it already.

In the words of Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Bodhi, “absent a sharp social critique, Buddhist practices could easily be used to justify and stabilize the status quo, becoming a reinforcement of consumer capitalism.”

I have a lot more to say, but as I look skeptically at the Nikes on my feet, I’ll end with this piece of wisdom from director David Lynch:

“The thing about meditation is: You become more and more you.”

But which? You? or You?


Camilla Eustance is a writer and illustrator based in Melbourne, Australia. She is currently the head copywriter at Vanity Projects and Sergio Mannino Studio (NYC), and has previously written for Forbes, Broadsheet and Scout Jobs by Broadsheet. Her artwork has been published in various online and print publications including Voiceworks, The Suburban Review, Stylo, Maggie Journal, and Farrago. She has had commissions from clients such as the University of Melbourne, Vanity Projects and RedSea Pictures and has exhibited in multiple venues including The 1897 Gallery, Cafe Carolina, Laundry Bar and at Alter’s ‘Æxhibition’ 2018. You can find her at @camillaeustance__ & camillaeustance.com.