Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture

mindful americaHow has the mindfulness movement shaped current notions of meditation, spirituality, and Buddhism in the West? How has Asian religion been adapted for mainstream America? I finished reading an intriguing book that explores the phenomena of the movement of mindfulness in America. The author, Wilson, is a Buddhist and religious studies professor. Mindful America is the first comprehensive, critical examination of the practice of mindfulness in America.

Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture
Jeff Wilson, Oxford University Press. 2014. Hardcover.

Mindful America is an exploration of the mindfulness phenomena, concerned with large-scale trends that can be observed within the movement, and the forces behind these trends.

Wilson argues that mindfulness over the last three decades has gone from an obscure Asian religious technique to a widely touted panacea and a serious money making industry. Today, mindfulness is touted as a cutting edge technique said to produce everything from financial success to mind blowing orgasms.

This 260 page book is well-researched and easy to read for the lay person. Wilson’s treatment of his subject, though, is often predictable and formulaic. Sometimes his critiques of the movement’s advocates seem repetitive chapter to chapter. Nevertheless, he weaves hundreds of interesting facts, quotations, and sources from the mindfulness movement and addresses six questions.

Mindful America explores six questions under these chapter titles:

Chapter 1 Mediating Mindfulness: How Does Mindfulness Reach America?

In this classic presentation [of the Satipatthana Sutta] mindfulness is taught to the monks, not the general Buddhist community, and it is clearly associated with traditional transcendent monastic concerns, such as nirvana. Mindfulness meditation is to be pursued as a way to disengage from clinging to the everyday world of suffering and turn toward a rigorous discipline, resulting in breakage of the cycle of rebirth. p21

Diligent mindfulness produces high-level trance states known as jhana (Sanskrit = dhyana). p21

Chapter 2 Mystifying Mindfulness: How is Mindfulness Made Available for Appropriation?

mindful_mints02For foreign religious practices to be successfully appropriated by mainstream American society, they need to be rendered spiritual and personal to best fit into the prevailing trends in religious orientation…Hinduism is appropriated as yoga, Islam as Sufi poetry, Daoism as tai-chi, Japanese folk healing as reiki, and Buddhism as mindfulness.

The historic authority over these practices of Asians, Middle Easterners, and other groups coded as non-white in American society must be dissolved so that white Americans can claim authority over them, an authority that issues from the fact that these are now self-evidently universal, spiritual, or medical practices available to all comers, which new constituencies have a right to use, and to sell, as they wish. p61-62

Chapter 3 Medicalizing Mindfulness: How is Mindfulness Modified to Fit a Scientific and Therapeutic Culture?

Buddhist monks were supposed to preach, chant, and performed blessings. Too much meditation was believed to cause mental illness. And, anyway, the proper Buddhist methods for dealing with psychological issues, sickness, and other health impairments were exorcism and chanting, not mindfulness…

[Ordained Theravada Monk Henepola Gunarantana explained in his book Mindfulness in Plain English:] “Meditation is intended to purify the mind. It cleanses the thought process of what can be called psychic irritants, things like greed, hatred, and jealousy, which keep you snarled up in emotional bondage.” p76

Buddhist practice has been removed from the realm of religion and professionalized to become the property of psychologists, doctors, scientists, and diet counselors, to be engaged in by clients rather than believers, who are not expected to take refuge, read scriptures, believe in karma or rebirth, or to become Buddhist. p103

Chapter 4 Mainstreaming Mindfulness: How is Mindfulness Adapted to Middle Class Needs?

033009onetaste09VW.jpgAt the heart of OneTaste is Orgasmic Meditation (OM), a form of mindful clitoral stimulation that OneTaste devotees practice daily, either in a group setting or at one of the OneTaste centers, or at home if they have taken OneTaste workshops. As the OneTaste website states, “Practitioners experience benefits similar to other mindfulness practices such as sitting in meditation, as well as the well-known benefits associated with orgasm”. p122

[In] the Satipatthana and Mahasatipatthana Suttas…the Buddha tells the reader to think of one’s own body as a rotting, oozing corpse eaten by worms and disintegrating into its component parts. Mindful-eating authors never quote these passages. p118

Chapter 5 Marketing Mindfulness: How is Mindfulness Turned into a Commercial Product?

Here’s nine of the many commercial mindful “products” discussed in the book:

  • mindful-mayo-originalMindful Horsemanship: Daily Inspirations for Better Communications with Your Horse (sport)
  • Tennis Fitness for the Love of It: A Mindful Approach (sport)
  • OneTaste: female orgasm through the practice of Orgasmic Meditation (sex)
  • The Heart of Buddhist Meditation (religion)
  • The Mindful Brain (science)
  • Mindful Therapy (therapy)
  • Mindful Knitting (hobby)
  • Mindful Mints (breath freshener)
  • MindfulMayo Dressing and Sandwich Spread (food)

Chapter 6 Moralizing Mindfulness: How is Mindfulness Related to Values and Worldviews?

In mindfulness movement writings the present moment becomes both savior and heaven: the vehicle for salvation and salvation itself. As Thich Nhat Hanh asserts in You are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment: “The only moment in which you can be truly alive is the present moment. The present moment is the destination, the point to arrive at”. p174

…Mindful civil religion does not call for mandatory participation in mindful activities, radical changes to the economic structure, aggressive or combative politial struggle, or class warfare. Rather, for many it is apparent that mindful capitalism will be sufficient, as will mindful politics, mindful consumption, mindful work, and so on. p183

We might call this secular religion, one devoid of the supernatural and the afterlife yet operating as a deep well of values, life orientation, and utopian vision. p185

Those who do attach morals to or derive values from their mindfulness practice are often people with a connection to a religious tradition, especially Buddhism. p185

My posts inspired by this book:

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