July 15, 2014 - NewYorker.comMeditation for StriversPosted by Jacob Rubin
During a trip to the United States in the nineteen-seventies, the Tibetan scholar, translator, and lifelong meditator Lobsang Lhalungpa found himself in San Francisco’s financial district. Struck by the hordes of rushing bodies, he stopped, turned to his guides, and said, “I don’t see any humans here.” This was before A.O.L.
Now, in mid-2014, a spate of recent articles and self-help books advocate the kind of mindfulness that Lhalungpa practiced, not only as a means of improving one’s health and well-being but as a way to get ahead in one’s career. Two of these books—Arianna Huffington’s “Thrive” and the “Nightline” co-anchor Dan Harris’s “10% Happier”—have remained on the Times
best-seller list for months. A recent Bloomberg News article reported on the increasing use of meditation among hedge funders to maximize performance (some call themselves corporate samurai and ninjas). How did strivers everywhere come to appropriate a twenty-five-hundred-year-old philosophy of non-striving?
A clue lies in “10% Happier,” which positions itself as self-help for those suspicious of the genre. Harris depicts himself throughout as a no-nonsense high-achiever who winces at having to cover religious events for ABC News. Seeing him, at the book’s end, as a happy (or ten per cent happier, as he brands it) practitioner of mindfulness is meant to amuse the reader, like finding Alex P. Keaton in lotus position.
The studiously constructed character arc also serves the book’s broader goal. If even Harris, a hard-nosed skeptic, can find use in it, so can you. He states his mission explicitly in the book’s preface: “Meditation suffers from a towering PR problem.… If you can get past the cultural baggage, though, what you’ll find is that meditation is simply exercise for your brain.” It’s clear from Harris’s conjured associations (“pan flutes,” “granola,” “crystals,” “Age of Aquarius”) what kind of cultural baggage he’s referring to: hippies, the sixties. This is Buddhism’s P.R. problem: it is still salted by its last wave of contemporary popularity, when it was widely presented as a more ancient form of tuning in and dropping out.
As he begins mindfulness meditation (also known as Vipassana meditation), Harris finds that quite the opposite is true. In this practice, one sits in an erect position for a designated length of time while focussing on a particular point of breath, whether in the nostrils, stomach, or chest. When thoughts arise, one is meant to observe these thoughts without judgment and return gently to the breath. Harris recommends starting with a modest length of time (five or ten minutes) and then trying to sit for longer. The “mindfulness” refers to the nonjudmental observance of thought.
As Harris soon discovers, sitting still in this way is exceedingly hard to do. Its sheer difficulty makes it resonant with the values of capitalism. It requires “genuine grit” and “can give you a real advantage.” He approvingly quotes a Georgetown professor who has helped to bring mindfulness training to the Marines: “There is nothing incense-y about [meditation].” Harris’s metaphors are practical, hygienic, often financial. He compares it to brushing one’s teeth. Meditation yields a good “return on investment.”
In a famously distracted age, it’s not surprising that a practice meant to bolster focus and equanimity has emerged as the aid of the moment, just as yoga has gained in popularity as we’ve become more estranged from our bodies and more attached to cubicles, computer screens, and cars. But how exactly did this happen? How did we go from “Be here now” to “R.O.I.”? The journey from a Buddhism antithetical to Western go-getting has been charted quite consciously by a number of influential practitioners in the baby-boom generation. Harris devotes a chapter to some of these mostly Jewish mentors, whom he playfully refers to as “Jew-Bu”s. These Jew-Bus, some of whom are mentioned in the book, include the psychotherapist and author Mark Epstein, the scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn, and the founders of the influential Insight Meditation Society, Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and Sharon Salzberg.
A cursory history of Buddhism in the postwar West might go as follows: After the Second World War, more Americans encountered Zen masters, lamas, and monks, both here and abroad. This helped to popularize Buddhism with members of the Beat Generation, who in turn shared it with the generation that came of age in the late sixties and early seventies; by then, as a result of increased cultural interpenetration, Eastern religious study had become more common in American universities. Most of today’s celebrated teachers of Buddhism had their first experience of the religion in college, before pursuing study in the East. Some flirted with staying abroad before returning home, bringing back what they had learned in a more digestible form. Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein devoted themselves to serious Vipassana practice (Kornfield became a monk) while serving as part of the Peace Corps in Thailand, in the sixties. Sharon Salzberg studied Theravada Buddhism in India in the early seventies. The Columbia professor Robert Thurman and the prolific British author Stephen Batchelor were both ordained as Tibetan monks before returning West.
Part of this generation’s work involved shaping a view of Buddhism that was science friendly, pragmatic, and nonmystical. Kabat-Zinn founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center*; subsequent studies of its participants suggest that mindfulness can ameliorate, among other conditions, chronic pain and anxiety. Since then, practically a whole field has opened up, measuring the hale effects of meditation. The Dalai Lama, for his part, has encouraged this research, participating in a 2003 conference at M.I.T. called “Investigating the Mind” as well as lending his name to the university’s Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values. Seconding these efforts, Stephen Batchelor has articulated an atheistic Buddhism, a vision echoed by many who advocate for meditation while dispensing with religious Buddhist beliefs, like reincarnation. Others connected Buddhist values to happiness studies or emotional intelligence.
If anything, the recent flourishing of corporate mindfulness is an inevitable, if unexpected, byproduct of these efforts. From Kabat-Zinn, it is a small leap for Harris to equate meditation with brushing one’s teeth, or Wired
to name it “the new caffeine.” Many of the current iterations of Buddhist practice are even fully stripped of any philosophical or ethical coating. “Thrive,” for its part, reads a like a clip job of various wellness studies, among which meditation is but a small, unexamined part. If metaphor reflects clarity of thought, Huffington is fairly muddled; meditation, she writes, is an element of well-being, which itself constitutes only one of the four “pillars” (along with wisdom, wonder, and giving) that comprise the third “metric” of success (the other two are money and power). It doesn’t seem to occur to Huffington that pursuing this third metric (wisdom, wonder, giving, and well-being) might conflict with the primary metrics of money and power.
By contrast, “10% Happier” mainly seeks to do right by the tenets of traditional Buddhism. To his credit, Harris at least begins to explore the potential for conflict between his professional and meditative lives. Unlike other lay enthusiasts, he also gives an entire chapter to the frequently overlooked but central practice of metta
, or loving-kindness meditation. A key principle of Buddhist life is the cultivation of compassion for all living beings. To do this, the sitter first conjures a feeling of warmth toward himself or herself, next toward a benefactor, then toward a close friend, a neutral person, an enemy, and then toward all beings. Harris regularly performs this meditation, and while he begins to explore how its practice may interfere with his daily tasks as an on-air personality, and asserts that he has become a kinder, more empathetic person, metta
, it should be said, does not seem to have radically altered his life or ambitions.
One might fault Harris for not having moved to the Himalayas to become a monk (or to the outer boroughs to become a social worker). This failure of commitment is what Slavoj Žižek means, in part, when he calls Buddhism a Western “fetish,” and yet to expect it to be otherwise seems to me either to overstate the power of meditation or to understate that of capitalist ideology. It burdens the possibly helpful with having to be a spiritual or political panacea. One might also claim that Harris’s watered-down vision of Buddhism, with its emphasis on career advancement, will encourage misuse. This may be fair enough, but it’s not an especially revealing criticism. After all, one of the first things that people do with any tool or philosophy is misuse it. A history of Christianity is largely a history of the abuse of Jesus Christ’s teachings; Buddhism is not exempt from such misprision. On the spectrum of misappropriation, using self-advancement as a lure seems forgivable enough if it leads people to try a technique as subtly transformative as mindfulness. (Indeed, if personal betterment is America’s religion, such an approach might be seen as syncretic.) What can be lost by broadening access to a philosophy of liberation, even if a majority of people conflate it with the more vulgar priorities of our culture?
It’s a long road, even for those who are earnest in their practice, and Buddhists take the long view. According to Buddhist legend, the length of time it takes to achieve enlightenment through the course of one’s innumerable lives equals the time it would take a bird to efface a mountain with a silk scarf dangling from its beak. There is a peculiar kind of hope in this image, even if to ears less seasoned by the study of suffering it can sound like resignation. For, while it’s true that it takes a really, really, really long time, it can be done with a silk scarf! So we may say that a book like Harris’s does just as much—and just as a little—as a stroke of a scarf to the mountain of fear, self-interest, and inattention upon which our kingdom is built.Correction: In a previous version of this post, M.I.T. was mistakenly identified as the location of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program.Jacob Rubin’s first novel, “The Poser,” will be published by Viking in March, 2015.