From Monastic to Domestic Mindfulness

Central_Asian_Buddhist_MonksTracing the spread of mindfulness from Buddhist monks to everywhere in America

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:

  1. Buddhist texts on mindfulness by Buddhist clergy;
  2. Buddhist  texts on mindfulness by lay people;
  3. Articles on mindfulness in popular Buddhist magazines;
  4. Self-help mindfulness texts by Buddhists;
  5. Self-help mindfulness texts by non-Buddhists;
  6. 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

Lord_Buddha-by_SegarThe 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.

Notes

1 Jeff Wilson, Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture p42

2 ibid 57 quoting Ihnen and Flynn, 2008: 263

3 ibid 194-5

5 comments

  1. 2bidule22

    In the last decades, discreetly, someone has sought to spread “mindfulness” all around the world. Originally from Burma, S.N. Goenka eventually created a network of teaching centers covering many countries. I ignore the number of people who have taken 10 day courses there. The Vipassana technique, introduced in a non-religious manner, has thus spread and bore fruits without high profile campaigns. Only by the dedication of its followers and the benefit it has provided to those who’ve practiced it. Without fuss, in simplicity, it has touched the depths of many and spread who knows how. The fact that it doesn’t need a formal religious commitment either to rites, to a doctrine or to a master makes it “easy” and appealing.
    The mindfulness movement may owe a lot to Goenka’s inspiration.
    Or those successes are just the sign that they are in tune with “l’air du temps”
    (The air of time? Present day’s mood ?)

    (BTW I am Soifrane: I changed my WordPress account)

  2. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    @2bidule22: What makes Goenka and the method of Vipassana distinct from the mindfulness movement as a whole in France?

    “l’air du temps” – Agree. Seems that “mindfulness” is an idea who’s time has come for various cultural reasons.

    Thanks

  3. 2bidule22

    Vipassana Goenka is done at their own centres only. They have only 5 centers in Western Europe, two of them in France, not in Paris or main towns, in the countryside. I suppose there might be some other Burmese Buddhist places where they organise courses but you really have to search… Vipassana is never mentioned in mainstream media. It is quite confidential, for people who already have an interest in Buddhism or spirituality.
    Mindfulness is more like Yoga classes. It is promoted in some magazines, it is not presented as something Buddhic/Oriental, but just as a technique.
    Your neighbours can do mindfulness. They won’t do Vipassana.
    I bet it is about the same in California.

  4. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    @2bidule22: Thanks for the insights into what you see happening in France with vipassana.

    In the U.S. I find vipassana mentioned quite frequently as a subset of mindfulness meditation practice. I don’t hear of Goenka often though. Don’t forget California is the home of the counterculture from the 60s, when Eastern religion was counterculture. Now Asian religion is mainstream here.

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