How did mindfulness go from the domain of Buddhist monks to the stuff of puff pieces and New Age proselytizers?
Mindfulness may have reached a peak in 2014. “Mindfulness”—understood today as a state of being aware in the moment, and honed through regular practice of meditation and breathing exercises—is widely believed to confer benefits both spiritual and material. In just a few minutes a day, it’s said to help practitioners cope with practically every facet of modern life, from everyday stress and anxiety to life-threatening illness and depression. It’s penetrated many of our major institutions, from hospitals and schools to the corporate world.
Originally published in The New Republic
In February, “The Mindful Revolution” made the cover of TIME. In April,“Nightline” co-anchor Dan Harris’s guide to mindfulness, 10% Happier, reached number one on The New York Times bestseller list. Soon after, Arianna Huffington, the HuffPost blog diva, extolled the benefits of mindfulness in her self-help memoir, Thrive. Countless medical studies garnered sensational headlines about the miraculous benefits of meditation and mindfulness. Trouble is, few readers look beyond the puff and headlines to discover that the media’s claims of the mindfulness revolution are misleading and can not be a panacea for modern man’s neuroses.
Before the term “mindfulness” caught on, the idea was sometimes translated as “contemplation” or “meditation.” The de-coupling of mindfulness and meditation from their roots has been underway since long before 2014. As Buddhism scholar Jeff Wilson documents in his new book Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture, mindfulness and meditation were not, traditionally, a part of the regular practice of ordinary Buddhists; two thousand years ago, they were mostly the concern of ordained monks, and even for them, mindfulness constituted just one component of a larger (and all-consuming) process of striving for enlightenment. Somewhat ironically—given mindfulness’s reputation as a self-esteem booster—it was part of a project to escape the self and renounce the material world.
In the nineteenth century, small groups of Buddhists in East Asia began to revive the practice—a “reaction to the changing world situation of Western colonialism and imperialism,” according to Wilson. These movements offered a less ritualistic, more personal form of Buddhism—a kind of spirituality that was attractive to visiting Westerners.
The same occurred with Hindu yoga practices during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The gurus from India, like the illustrious Swami Vivekananda, came to the West in 1893 to spread the “science” of yoga meditation. Modern Yoga, the methods practiced today, is a fusion of Neo-Hindu, New Thought, and Western occult practices. (Read my posts tracing the founders and history of Modern Yoga). Practitioners of meditation, yoga, and mindfulness can greatly benefit from studying the actual heritage and history of modern yoga and mindfulness that is practiced today.
I strongly recommend–if you are serious about your practice of mindfulness, yoga, and meditation–that you venture outside, at least momentarily, the teachings of gurus and yogic schools and review the research of scholars and historians in the field. There are many excellent books and resources available for serious students. Growth and progress also come by developing our minds and challenging our cherished beliefs.
There has been some push-back, too. In The Spectator last month, Melanie McDonagh reminds of us its Buddhist roots and criticizes its preponderance in secular environments like public schools. In The Atlantic this summer, Tomas Rocha argues that, for people of a certain disposition, meditation can be dangerous. He tells the story of “David,” who went on a meditation retreat so life-changing it totally threw him off track: After experiencing what he describes as an “orgasm of the soul,” he turned down law school, stopped talking to his friends and spent years—and most of his savings—traveling back and forth to Asia, unsuccessfully seeking to recreate that feeling. If 2014 was the year of mindfulness, 2015 might be the year of the backlash.
Read entire article 2014: The Year of Mindfulness, Religion of the Rich | The New Republic