in New Age Religion

Mindfulness is American Religion

buddhist americanThe mindfulness movement is an American religion, argue historians and scholars of religion.

In A Republic of Mind and Spirit, Catherine Albanese asserts that American metaphysical religion has four characteristics:

  1. a focus on the mind and its powers;
  2. concern with correspondence between the inner and the outer spheres of existence or the macrocosm and microcosm;
  3. a preference for metaphors and concepts of movement and energy;
  4. a therapeutic orientation that conceives of salvation in terms of healing.1

The mindfulness movement relates itself to all of the above metaphysical and religious concepts.

For mindfulness advocates โ€œsinโ€ is failure to operate in the proper mental sphere, that is to be unmindful. In Mindful America, Jeff Wilson argues that from the mindfulness advocates point of view, the evil confronting Americans is distracting devices and dangerous methods (sex, food, alcohol, and work). These temptations that we surround and surrender ourselves to result in ill-health in our bodies, relationships, institutions, and environment. The antidote, the solution to all our problems, is getting in tune with the infinitude of the present moment, being in the now, in the non-judgmental flow of the experience itself.2 In traditional Buddhism this mental state is called nirvana, and believed to be the end of suffering and beginning of salvation.

Despite the claims made by mindfulness advocates that there is no religion involved, the mindfulness movement is an expression of both Buddhism and American metaphysical religion: โ€œit is an American Buddhist metaphysical religionโ€.3 Wilson argues, in Mindful America, that there is overwhelming evidence that the mindfulness movement as a whole is part of American metaphysical religion, even in its most secular and medical forms.


1 Jeff Wilson, Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture, Oxford University Press. 2014. Hardcover. p190
2 ibid p191
3 ibid p192

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  1. Here we are… Back to square one.
    Among the younger generations, not only does God very often have a bad press, or is ignored, but also the word “Religion”. Since the past decades a new category is growing, called the ” unaffiliated ” in opinion polls in the US, “Without religion/sans religion” in France. We also have the spiritual but not religious SBNR.
    For some, religious, religion, have become “dirty words”, names you wouldn’t like being associated with. As they link you to despised religious institutions.
    The word is said to come from latin religare, to relate / to link ( correct me if needed ).
    It could be used in an ” unaffiliated” manner. Although it hasn’t been so for centuries.
    I myself was quite defensive when I read this article. But thinking about it, among the “without religion” there are people into what could be called “non institutional religion”.
    Mindfulness is fast taking shape as an institutional “something” with its courses, its meetings, its clubs of devotees and… devouts, its promoters, its teachers,…gurus bound to become high priests ?
    So, why not calling a spade a spade.
    Mindfulness certainly deals with matters and answers needs traditionnally fulfilled by “Religion”.
    Amen ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Ah, the old debate of religion or not a religion. Like all abstractions, without agreement on definitions, debates are filled with more agenda than insight or clarity.

    So certainly the Mindfulness Movement (MM) has many of the same elements of other established, self-confessed religions, in America. So those who deny that MM is a religion want to distance themselves from something. Those who claim MM is a religion want them in that category for a reason โ€” an agenda.

    There are Christians who deny Christianity is a religion. “Why?” – well, because that would make them similar in negative ways to other groups. So “MM is not a religion” folks are doing the same.

    To me, pointing out the shared qualities is enough without trying to attach the word “religion” โ€” because we all know what is going on.

    Tom Rees recently reviewed an paper showing the belief in Moral Progress can behave like a religion too.

    “Religion” is an abstract word and hugely packed with Christian notions and hard use with all those nuances hiding in the corners.

  3. Thanx for the encouragement to be be more public with my comments. I’ll think about it.
    My problem is that English is not my mother tongue. And I am always impressed and feel shy as a result when I see how most commentators express their ideas.
    BTW my comment was not meant to be funny ๐Ÿ˜‰ You see, that’s another problem. I don’t live in America so I tend to be perceived as alien. Maybe that’s a part of the fun.

  4. Your English is great — don’t worry about it. Just make an about page to share — will be fun!
    I speak several languages and was a foreigner for more than a decade. I understand.

    When you said, “So, why not calling a spade a spade.”
    It had a fun tone, and I agreed !

  5. Eh, the mindfulness craze or fad is a symptom of a society peopled with citizens (including scientists) that don’t think for themselves but need to jump on the latest bandwagon, but I wouldn’t call it a religion.

    If the proposed deal with the government of Brazil goes through and 48,000 TM teachers end up working in the public schools and teach all 45 million public school kids TM, will that make TM the religion of Brazil?

    What about if the superintendent of SFUSD manages to get approval and funding is found so that all San Francisco schools teach TM ala this NBC news show?

    would that make TM the religion of San Francisco?

    I’d argue that in those scenarios, TM wouldn’t be a religion, but just an educational tool.

    Of course, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi claimed that that was all it is anyway. “Enlightenment,” in his eyes, is the birthright of everyone, and it is only due to unfortunate circumstances that people didn’t spontaneously mature into that mode of functioning. TM is just a tool to help that speed up maturation by undoing the damage left by stress that prevents the maturation process from running its full course.

    But yeah, when you realize that mindfulness practices actually disrupt the maturation process that TM enhances in a more subtle way than stress, I’d say that you could call the mindfulness craze in the USA a rather destructive kind of fad. People actually conflateTM with mindfulness, and end up quoting research findings that explicitly excludes mindfulness to justify prescribing mindfulness.

    That’s religious in nature, I agree.

  6. @soifrane: I agree with you that a more genuine and honest approach is to admit if there’s religious leanings. A fellow yoga blogger did that recently, after a few half-apologetic attempts to deny that yoga lead to Hindu beliefs, the blogger admitted the practice of Yoga is enhanced by embracing Hindu beliefs, rather than denying them. Here’s Iyengar Home Practice’s post and comment:

    You write and articulate excellent in English. I didn’t know it was not your first language.

    These kinds of discussions may counter the overwhelming claims out there from mindfulness movement proponents, media articles, that say mindfulness has nothing to do with religion. I’m not claiming that all mindfulness is religion, but the movement has many similarities with American metaphysical religions.

    I don’t consider religion a dirty word as long as mindfulness movement stops denying that many practitioners relate their practices to Buddhist and Metaphyiscal traditions.

    thanks for your comments

  7. Always observant and incisive comments, Sabio. My agenda in this post is to counter the overwhelming media articles that claim Mindfulness Movement (MM) has nothing to do with religion. See this recent HuffPost article as a typical example-

    “We all know what’s going on”, you say. What do you mean? Do you think MM’s appropriation of Buddhist practices for mainstream consumption are obvious to everyone?

    I posted some counter perspectives to MM. There’s always multiple facets, nuances, and many shades of gray when we dive deep into definitions, symbols and religious traditions. A short blog post only scratches the surface. The interest for me is the questions being raised, seeing where the lead. Which usually leads to only to more questions. Black and white answers put a stop to inquiry.

    Thanks for your comments.

  8. @saijanai: In America, there’s supposed to be separation of church and state, and that means no religious ideologies or practices to be taught in public schools.

    Where the discussion about meditation or mindfulness gets nuanced is:

    How can we measure how much the Mindfulness and Transcendental Meditation (TM) teachings or techniques are “denatured” of their Buddhist or Hindu religious traditions?

    Do you mean to tell me that if someone renames prayer “affirmation” and eliminates the talking to a god part, it’s not prayer, not religious?

    Religious rituals (prayer, meditation, mindfulness) are associated with religion for a reason. These practices were derived from religions, who developed them for practitioners to attain salvation.

    The questions you are raising are exactly why these kinds of discussions are important.

    If prayer is shown to have relaxing benefits, or to reduce ADHD, reduce obesity (or whatever statistics we can correlate to prove some point) should we allow prayer in the American public schools?

    Thanks for your comments.

  9. Seems to me that prayer shouldn’t be banned simply because people object to it being religious. It’s not so much even the fact that it is religious that is the problem: the problem is proselytizing or pushing beliefs on other people. Secularists may claim they have no beliefs to push but that’s an underhanded excuse for doing exactly the same thing, just in the opposite way. Freedom must mean allowing people their privacy, not pushing things. How that is to be accomplished is the difficulty.

  10. But Scott, why do you want to point out MM’s connection to Buddhism?
    (a) To stop it being taught in school?
    (b) You want a more secular practice?
    (c) Academic fastidiousness
    (d) You think the Buddhism in MM is bad
    (e) You think meditation is schools is bad
    (f) You don’t like MM because …

  11. @Sabio Lantz said,: “So those who deny that MM is a religion want to distance themselves from something. Those who claim MM is a religion want them in that category for a reason โ€” an agenda.”

    I don’t necessarily believe that people who deny MM want to distance themselves from something. I have a mindfulness practice but I don’t affiliate with a religion that I know of. I might if I knew where I fit. In my opinion, mindfulness meditations are a tool. It’s no more a religion than prayer is a religion, or yoga is a religion or running is a religion. It can be a tool in the toolbox of a Buddhist or it can be a tool in the toolbox of an insomniac. Is insomnia a religion? I haven’t read the book yet. Maybe “American Metaphysical” is a religion and I just haven’t gotten my membership application yet.

  12. Hey Corvi,
    Arguing about whether something is or is not a “religion” is a waste of time without a definition. And scholars have no concensus on a definition — and rightly so, because it is a contrived abstraction — always carrying bias. Tis unavoidable.

    Here I fumbled creating my own definition:

    But if you don’t want your MM to be religious, that is fine. And if another guy/gal does, that is fine too.

  13. @Sabio: (a) and through my post I wanted a counter-perspective that MM advocates push there’s no “religion”. That yes, many case there’s a religious aspect to MM (aside from it’s Buddhist origins) when practitioners use mindfulness for supernatural or metaphysical ends.

  14. @Corvus: Thanks for contributing to this discussion.

    You bring up some good points. How would you define “religion” in the context of mindfulness movement? Here’s my stab at what I mean by religion in mindfulness:
    1) Buddhist traditions and rituals;
    2) Notions of supernatural powers, energies, entities (such as nirvana, ESP, faith healing or astral beings) or notions of metaphysical systems (including salvation/liberation, freedom from suffering/sin, heaven, hell, karma, mantras, system of chakras).
    3) A combination of 1 & 2

  15. @David R: I never made a claim that encouraged or stated we should outright ban prayer, mindfulness, or religion. What I did say was to keep it out of schools in the U.S.? In the U.S. we have the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that legally mandates separation of church and state. So, not a good idea to bring anything religious, quasi-religious, metaphysical into the U.S. public schools. In the privacy of one’s home or in private places of worship folks can practice whatever traditions or rituals they choose.

    What country are you in? What’s the status of mindfulness movement there? Of prayer? Allowed in public schools?


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