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How 2014 Became the Year of Mindfulness

How did mindfulness go from the domain of Buddhist monks to the stuff of puff pieces and New Age proselytizers?

Mindfulness, yoga, meditation--new miracle cure for modern man?

Mindfulness, yoga, meditation–amazing?

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 practicea “reaction to the changing world situation of Western colonialism and imperialism,” according to Wilson. These movements offered a less ritualistic, more personal form of Buddhisma 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

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  1. The same phenomena occurred in France. They call it “Pleine Conscience” (full consciousness). Christophe André, a psychiatrist, is the most mediatic promoter of this technique;

  2. @soifrane: How do the French and the media regard the phenomena of “Pleine Consciousness” (full consciousness or mindfulness)? Seems like you are saying that the French are “buying” many mindfulness meditation products and sensationalizing MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) programs?

    It’s interesting to hear about the global or individual countries attitudes towards mindfulness and meditation trends. Here in the U.S. the media is lop-sided towards American worldview and we lose sight of the rest of the globe and other views.


  3. Pleine conscience is a niche market. I am aware of it because I am interested in the subject. And I know two people practicing it. What I found most significant is the fact that its main promoter is not “an artist”, a guru or a New Age affiliate. He works as a Doctor for Paris Psychiatric Hospital and has experimented it with patients. He gets invited in mainstream TV channels and has published books. It is very ” neutral politically “, very non religious and non “spiritual”.
    Meditation as a sport, a health technique.

  4. @soifrane: Thanks. If interested, please keep us posted on any interesting developments in the “French mindfulness” (Pleine conscience) movement or sport!

    Meditation as sport? Maybe mental game, discipline, or “exercise”. I’ve written about this good-for-you “exercise” aspect of meditation in my post Three Major Benefits of Meditation

  5. Long time meditator in the Kabat-Zinn, secular mindfulness lineage, and have attended Dharma retreats, as well as a yoga practitioner. Trained physicist and skeptic too though, so I’ve been enjoying your articles…. I enjoy “mindfulness” meditation enough and derive enough value from it that I teach others, but totally agree that it’s far from a panacea, as it’s being sold. I prefer to frame mindfulness as a very useful tool in the self-development/self-investigation arsenal. Mindfulness of my own thoughts, habits and so on has helped in my efforts to make some important changes in my life, and has enriched it from the point of view of savoring. Sitting and watching ain’t always enough, action is required in life too, and that’s often forgotten about in modern mindfulness discussions.

  6. @Daragh: Helpful insights. I’d be curious to learn more about the meditation methods you teach others, how students respond and the practical benefits–outside of the sensational headlines churned out by the media and “mindless”-followers.

    Thanks much for your comments and encouragement.