How did mindfulness, which was originally the exclusive property of Buddhist monks, come today to be quite simply everywhere? In Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture Jeff Wilson examines how mindfulness became domesticated and adopted into American businesses, homes, institutions and schools.
One device Wilson uses in Mindful America to trace the spread of mindfulness is breaking down the movement’s texts into six categories:
- Buddhist texts on mindfulness by Buddhist clergy;
- Buddhist texts on mindfulness by lay people;
- Articles on mindfulness in popular Buddhist magazines;
- Self-help mindfulness texts by Buddhists;
- Self-help mindfulness texts by non-Buddhists;
- Media reports of the mindfulness movement.
The newer developments in mindfulness do not replace the older texts. Wilson notes that the oldest texts are still in use; monks and nuns are still teaching about mindfulness; Buddhists still use sati (mindfulness) to attain nirvana; and people may pursue mindfulness for both this-worldly and or other-worldly ends. But the older texts and uses are today dominated by the newer publications and voices of mindfulness. The earlier forms have been pushed to margins while the discussions, publications, and practices of mindfulness are led by non-monastics, non-renunciant voices.1
The co-authors of the Complete Idiots Guide to Mindfulness are noticeably defensive:
We started out this book telling you that you don’t have to be a Buddhist to practice mindfulness. And then we’ve talked about Buddhism throughout the book! What’s up with that?…People in some religious traditions would have you see this book and Buddhist teachings as a cult or a turning away from God and Jesus. But this comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of the practices of mindfulness and meditation. You do not worship the Buddha when you practice mindfulness; you explore your inner landscape, which includes your mind and your soul. Your mind and your soul are gifts from God or Allah or Spirit–why wouldn’t you want to explore them and open you heart to them as fully as you can?2
Mindfulness is quite simply everywhere. The history of mindfulness, examined in Wilson’s Mindful America, can be traced in the progression from older to newer texts. Sati (mindfulness) is still in use by monastics for achieving nirvana. While non-renunciants, mainstream Americans, can use mindfulness with or without their own God or savior of choice. The newer voices in mindfulness have managed to push the older ones to the margins. Mindfulness continues to spread ever wider into the businesses, schools, hospitals, homes and institutions throughout America.
What was originally for Asian Buddhist monastics is becoming ever more American, secular, and everyday. These processes, argues Wilson, don’t just happen. People choose to use whatever cultural tools are available because of some benefit they believe will come from such choices. Ultimately, mindfulness is neither religious NOR secular, spiritual NOR therapeutic. It can operate and move within one or more of these domains depending on the user. Mindfulness and the movement can draw upon whatever texts, applications, or authorities it chooses. Thus the mindfulness movement uses ancient traditions as proof of its authenticity, uses scientific studies as evidence for its effectiveness, and uses practitioner’s personal experiences or intuitions for support3.
Mindfulness is all things to all people.
2 ibid 57 quoting Ihnen and Flynn, 2008: 263
3 ibid 194-5