From community activity centers to the corporate boardroom, ubiquitous images of a serenely seated Buddha can only mean one thing: Spirituality is fashionable again in America. Well, spiritual practices, at least. Between yoga classes in the mainstream and crystal healing workshops on the fringe, meditation stands out with its growing number of converts, counting even the staunchest atheists among its proponents. The popular image of meditation as a ritual of ill-groomed hippies bowing at the feet of ochre-robed Indian gurus gradually has been giving way to one of suit-wearing professionals taking five minutes at the office to ground themselves in their breathing. While meditation still has a veneer of the mystical, it has recently experienced a profound secularization.
Once the exclusive domain of disciplined ascetics and mendicant monks, we now have a veritable industry of pushing meditation for every need: Self-help and wellness experts have commodified it, companies have adopted it as a way of increasing worker productivity, and medical professionals tout its efficacy in relieving stress. Clinically bona fide and newly free from religious baggage, “mindfulness” now circulates widely. Contemporary mindfulness practitioners use the term as a catch-all, to describe anything from a particular meditative technique to a general attitude towards life. We are now awash in a world of “mindful living,” “mindful working,” “mindful eating,” and, puzzlingly enough, “mindful sleeping.”
We have to ask ourselves, however, what we lose by separating the term “mindfulness” from its roots in over a thousand years of Buddhist philosophy and religious practice. Examining its Buddhist roots, we find that mindfulness once came freighted with a radical social message, which demands that we confront the insignificance—even the non-existence—of our individual selves, and consciously negotiate our intercalated relationships with other sentient beings. These insights push back on the contemporary “self-care” approach to mindfulness, and point to a way to adopt the social project that lies at its core.
Ancient Tradition or Modern Technique?
In Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture, Jeff Wilson traces the history of the mindfulness movement in the United States, as it evolved from its roots in South Asian Buddhism to the generalized meditation practice we know today.
“Mindfulness” is a translation of the Pali word sati, which itself has a rich history of translation behind it. In modern Hinduism, it refers to a diverse body of ancient texts, including works of orthodox philosophy and epics like the Mahabharata or the Ramayana. In this context, scholars typically translate the terms as “that which is remembered,” referring to the texts’ capacity to archive culturally significant ideas or events.
Wilson locates the first translation of sati as “mindfulness” with Thomas William Rhys Davids, a British Orientalist and the founder of the Pali Text Society, one of the most influential groups in translating South Asian Buddhist texts. In 1910, Rhys Davids cemented the use of “mindfulness” in his seminal translation of the Satipatthana Sutta, which served as the authoritative text on sati. The Sattipatthana Sutta advocates a particular form of meditation that focuses on awareness of the breathing body, the aim of which is to gain vipassana, or insight into the impermanence of all things, including the self. This was to become the most popular understanding of Buddhist meditation as it moved around the globe. As the other authors of the Pali Text Society followed suit, “mindfulness” came into the English Buddhist lexicon.
While meditation holds a prominent place in the Western conception of Buddhist practice, historically it has not been a widespread practice among all Buddhists. Meditation was primarily reserved for monks (and in rare cases, nuns) who had to devote themselves to years of scriptural study and moral training before learning basic contemplative techniques. In time, however, even the monastic community began to de-emphasize meditative practice. As Wilson notes, “By the 10th century CE, the techniques for applying mindfulness to gain insight (vipassana) had mostly died out.”
It wasn’t until the 18th century that the direct progenitors of the modern mindfulness movement arrived on scene. First in Burma, then in Thailand and Sri Lanka in the following century, a marginal number of monks tried to re-establish vipassana meditation as the center of Buddhist practice. Wilson takes care to underscore how radical these movements were: “As they developed they often became allied with other…reformist streams that sought to revitalize monastic discipline, …adapt to evolving scientific knowledge, and make Buddhism relevant to practitioners in colonial and postcolonial settings.”
As this modernization project was underway, Buddhism came to the West in multiple waves. The first Buddhist teachers to arrive in Europe and the Americas in the early-to mid-20th century hailed from East and Central Asia, where meditation practices had evolved away from traditional vipassana for over a millennium. Central Asian Buddhism, for example, adopted elaborate visualizations of Buddhist deities, while East Asian Zen emphasized solving nonsense riddles to short-circuit logical thinking. At the same time, a group of Western-born teachers who had studied Buddhism in Asian monasteries brought meditative techniques to their home communities. Many of these teachers trained under vipassana reformists. Drawing on the modernist impulse, these teachers presented Buddhism as a religion of meditation, free from the traditional deity devotion practices of the laity, but grounded in core Buddhist beliefs of impermanence.
While Rhys Davids and other members of the Pali Text Society were careful to delineate mindfulness from other Buddhist concepts, the popularity of the term was convenient for East and Central Asian Buddhist teachers to deploy in explicating their own belief systems. As a result, “mindfulness meditation” expanded to include meditation practices from the later traditions, such as Japanese Zen and Tibetan Dzogchen.
It only took a couple of decades after the first Buddhist missions for mindfulness to move away from Buddhism itself. A key figure in this diffusion was Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist who founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979. Zinn saw the potential of meditation in aiding in stress reduction. In order to tailor the practice to its new clinical setting, he produced a new language for meditation that all but entirely evacuated it of its religious content. In effect, Zinn designed a treatment-oriented, secular approach to meditation. To underscore its clinical utility, he named his eight-week program Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), and after a 1993 PBS interview with Bill Moyers to coincide with his book Healing and the Mind, Kabat-Zinn and MBSR became famous overnight.
MBSR, according to Wilson, was a pivotal development in the secularization of Buddhist meditation. Without the trappings of Buddhist doctrine or monastic discipline, anyone could be a meditation teacher once they had completed a certification course. As Wilson writes:
Mindfulness was now a basic part of the spiritual vocabulary of North America: authorized by science, endorsed by Oprah, marketed by Buddhists, appropriated by self-help gurus, it appeared in such a tidal wave of publications and applications that it seemed that everyone was doing mindfulness, in every conceivable situation, without any need to announce one’s commitment to Buddhism to do so.
Evolving from an academic translation to a clinical franchise, by the 21st century, mindfulness morphed into an industry.
The Perils of “McMindfulness”
While many Buddhists celebrate the wide dissemination of meditation, some practitioners worry about the occlusion of the movement’s religious origins. Barry Magid and Robert Meikyo Rosenbaum collect a number of critical essays from American Buddhist teachers in What’s Wrong with Mindfulness (And What Isn’t) that address the serious pitfalls of ignoring the complex philosophical foundations of the practice.
The primary goal of most Buddhist meditative practices, and indeed of Buddhism itself, is to pull apart the very notion of a self. The Buddha, it is well known, taught that nothing is eternal, and that any state, quality, or category is subject to change. This includes any concepts, such as material wealth or social organizations, and objects, such as the body or the physical universe. Nevertheless, sentient beings are compelled by fundamental desires, be they biological, social, or otherwise. According to the Buddha, suffering arises from our inability to reconcile our desires with universal transience: We suffer because we don’t have what we want, and when we receive what we want, we suffer from the anxiety of losing it. In order to escape suffering, then, we need to escape the delusion of a stable, unchanging self. Meditation techniques like vipassana were developed as a way to facilitate this process.
However, the contributors to What’s Wrong with Mindfulness point out that by adopting only the elements of this tradition that appeal to mass audiences, secular mindfulness programs may result instead in affirming the self.
Rosenbaum, for instance, observes that many clinical and self-help mindfulness programs focus primarily on awareness of practitioners’ immediate bodily sensations, whereas the Sattipatthana Sutta instructs meditators to reflect as well on the repulsiveness of the body and its eventual decay and putrefaction. Rosenbaum explains that aversive practices are supposed to reinforce the “fragmentary nature of all materiality,” but by limiting meditations to simple breathing exercises, meditators only become aware of their living bodies, not their eventual death.
Marc R. Poirier, in his contribution to the volume, critiques the workshop model of meditation to argue that mindfulness has become yet another “product” to be marketed and acquired. There is, of course, an immediate irony in commodifying a practice that sees desire as problematic. Poirier castigates the transactional nature of these programs, especially when they advertise meditation as guaranteeing specific results. Promoting specific health benefits or anodyne slogans of “become more present in the every day” ultimately reinforces the notion of self by reinforcing individual desires, which, in the Buddhist framework, only continues the stream of cause and effect that leads to further suffering.
Indeed, Poirier argues, without a rigorous philosophical and ethical framework to ground meditation, self-help programs can actually cause harm, especially when instructors don’t have the proper training and experience. He writes, “Many beginning practitioners will…experience insights or rushes of psychological turmoil that an inexperienced instructor may be ill-equipped to address or perhaps even to recognize…especially if they view what they are doing as a business, not a professional commitment.”
There is, however, an even more insidious face to the marketplace appropriation of meditative practices, as institutions can use mindfulness as a tool to generate complacency, especially in the workplace. Poirier points out how corporate mindfulness programs train employees to “recognize and accept inner thoughts and feelings rather than ignore or repress them” in order to “intuit” customers’ desires and design products to satisfy them. While being able to accept feelings non-judgmentally may seem like freedom from suffering, this is a false sense of openness, Poirier argues, as it repurposes awareness towards the specific goal of finding creative ways to satisfy customers. He reminds us that Buddhism is about accepting dissatisfaction, whereas corporate mindfulness programs ironically use acceptance to eliminate dissatisfaction.
Poirier quotes Ron Purser and David Loy, two ordained Zen teachers and academics in management and religion respectively, to emphasize the danger of this commercial appropriation:
While a stripped-down, secularized technique—what some critics are now calling “McMindfulness”—may make it more palatable to the corporate world, decontextualizing mindfulness from its original liberative and transformative purpose, as well as its foundation in social ethics, amounts to a Faustian bargain. Rather than applying mindfulness as a means to awaken individuals and organizations from the unwholesome roots of greed, ill will and delusion, it is usually being refashioned into a banal, therapeutic, self-help technique that can actually reinforce those roots.
Mindfulness, it would seem, has become an accomplice to the very things it sought to defeat.
Reclaiming Mindfulness as a Social Movement
As secular versions of mindfulness continue to diverge from Buddhism, we are left wondering whether we lose more than the Buddha in the process. Unfortunately, this tendency to “hide the Buddha” has led us to also lose sight of the egalitarian social vision within which mindfulness was born. By openly engaging with its explicitly religious aspects, we can rediscover the moral direction mindfulness provides its practitioners.
At its core, Buddhism houses a radical social critique. The Buddha’s denial of a stable self also applies to the artificial distinction between the self and other sentient beings. Any harm done to another sentient being is harm done to the self. If our goal is to end our suffering, then we must act to end the suffering of other sentient beings. The Buddhist path thus becomes a practice of strict ethical conduct.
Regardless of lineage or tradition, all Buddhist teachers would all agree that meditation practice is meaningless without a strong adherence to moral precepts. This ethical imperative stands in stark opposition to modern image of a solipsistic practitioner who engages in meditation as a form of “self-care.” Mindfulness not only melts away the self; it demands engagement with the broader world.
The social mission at the roots of mindfulness also demands a practice located in community. While Zen has come to connote solitude and refuge from the rigors of modern life, it is not actually practiced alone, but in a Zendo, alongside fellow practitioners. Japanese, Burmese, or Tibetan, Buddhist monks meditate as a group in their monasteries.
By reintroducing the social dimension at the heart of Buddhism, we come to realize that mindfulness is not about simply passively being present, but about making active choices. As mindfulness moves beyond its Buddhist past, its practitioners need to ask, “About what are we mindful?” The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh puts it another way: “Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?”
This said, the future direction of mindfulness practices needn’t be merely a re-entrenchment of Buddhism’s religious foundations. After all, Buddhism itself is also transient, and will one day decay and disappear. Even the Buddha himself likened his teachings to a raft—once you’ve crossed the stream, you are to abandon it.
Daniel M. Choi is an associate editor at The Brooklyn Quarterly and faculty in the Critical Writing Program at the University of Pennsylvania. He received his Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from Princeton University, where he developed a quantitative approach to study animal behavior. His current research focuses on mixed methods approaches in behavioral science, the rhetoric of expert cultures, and interdisciplinary pedagogy. You can follow him on Twitter @dmh_choi.