The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture
- The first comprehensive exploration of the practice of mindfulness in America
- Outlines how Buddhism influences and is appropriated and adapted by non-Buddhist cultures in the United States and elsewhere
Publication Date: July 1, 2014
Thirty years ago, "mindfulness" was a Buddhist principle mostly obscure to the west. Today, it is a popular cure-all for Americans' daily problems. A massive and lucrative industry promotes mindfulness in every aspect of life, however mundane or unlikely: Americans of various faiths (or none at all) practice mindful eating, mindful sex, mindful parenting, mindfulness in the office, mindful sports, mindfulness-based stress relief and addiction recovery, and hire mindful divorce lawyers. Mindfulness is touted by members of Congress, CEOs, and Silicon Valley tech gurus, and is even being taught in public schools, hospitals, and the military.
Focusing on such processes as the marketing, medicalization, and professionalization of meditation, Jeff Wilson reveals how Buddhism shed its countercultural image and was assimilated into mainstream American culture. The rise of mindfulness in America, Wilson argues, is a perfect example of how Buddhism enters new cultures and is domesticated: in each case, the new cultures take from Buddhism what they believe will relieve their specific distresses and concerns, and in the process create new forms of Buddhism adapted to their needs. Wilson also tackles the economics of the mindfulness movement, examining commercial programs, therapeutic services, and products such as books, films, CDs, and even smartphone applications.
Mindful America is the first in-depth study of this phenomenon--invaluable for understanding how mindfulness came to be applied to such a vast array of non-religious concerns and how it can be reconciled with traditional Buddhism in America.
Amazon.com - posted Review:
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent overview
September 23, 2014 By Peter King
I found this book interesting and thought-provoking. It helped clarify for me the rapid evolution of mindfulness from its relatively ignored position as the seventh factor of the Noble Eightfold Path to the buzzword that seems to have launched a thousand self-help manuals. Jeff Wilson picks his way methodically and non-judgmentally (though occasionally he may have his tongue in his cheek) through his subject. Although he is a Buddhist himself, his interest is not in whether mindfulness "works" so much as in the coming together of different cultures and the resultant dynamics that play out. "I seek not to be an advocate or a critic of the mindfulness movement, but a chronicler and an analyst."
He begins with the history of how the term mindfulness evolved. It was as recently as 1910 that the Rhys Davids (husband and wife team) settled on the translation of "mindfulness" for the Pali "sati" in their translation of the Mahasatipatthana Sutta, and subsequent translators of the Pali Text Society followed suit. Wilson picks out Nyaponika Thera's "Satipatthana, The Heart of Buddhist Meditation" as particularly influential prior to the 1970s, in that he clearly promoted the practical benefits of mindfulness though Nyaponika Thera saw it in the context of a Buddhist practice and one that primarily benefited from a retreat setting. However, the 1970s saw a number of new factors emerging, including: (1) The return to the USA of western teachers trained in Asia, such as Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield (2) The emergence of Thich Nhat Hanh into popular best seller awareness (3) Jon Kabat-Zinn beginning to offer MBSR. Mindfulness was now moving out of the exclusive domain of Buddhist monasticism, and away from its earlier nirvanic orientation, to become applied to a wide variety of new concerns.
He goes on to examine the phenomenon of mindfulness under the following chapter headings:
Mystifying Mindfulness: How is Mindfulness Made Available for Appropriation?
Medicalizing Mindfulness: How is Mindfulness Modified to Fit a Scientific and Therapeutic Culture?
Mainstreaming Mindfulness: How is Mindfulness Adapted to Middle Class Needs?
Marketing Mindfulness: How is Mindfulness Turned into a Commercial Product?
Moralizing Mindfulness: How is Mindfulness Related to Values and Worldviews?
The actual text is 197 pages long with additional comprehensive notes. It is very readable and does not at any point become over- academic or difficult to follow.
Here are some quotes that give a flavour of the book. I apologise for taking them out of their context. Please be aware that they reflect my own interest and are not necessarily reflective of the book as a whole.
"But one of Buddhism's enduring insights is precisely that all things change, and Buddhism has managed to reach such a respectable age only by countless changes geared to make Buddhism relevant to evolving circumstances. In particular, when moving out of northern India into a large number of culturally distinct Asian regions, Buddhism was aided in its penetration of new societies by long-term processes of creative adaptation, especially by reconfigurations that allowed Buddhism to provide concrete benefits that each new culture desired."
"The balance of power to define proper practice in the mindfulness movement seems to shift further from formally trained lay teachers to authors who can make mindfulness appear accessible to the widest audiences with the minimal expenditure of effort."
"The result is a significant population of non-Buddhists teaching other non-Buddhists about Buddhist mindfulness with many of them probably never aware that mindfulness has Buddhist connections. Is this the triumph of Buddhism in a non-Buddhist culture or its death knell?"
"The process of domesticating mindfulness involves altering the sources of authority over Buddhist practice: the books and articles that stress the physical and psychological benefits of mindfulness practice often urge readers to seek out professional counselors to help them with mindfulness, but don't recommend receiving advice from an ordained Buddhist teacher or attending a temple in order to further their practice".
"Yet this newly pared-down Buddhism that supposedly returns to Indian roots is eminently prepared to be applied to the worldly cultural concerns of Americans, especially those in the middle-class, mainly white communities that have dominated the public conversation over what American Buddhism should be. This segment of the population has specific concerns that arise out of its ethnic culture....."
"As liberal Buddhists work ever harder to diminish the role of traditional Buddhism in mindfulness, Buddhism not only loses control over mindfulness but potentially comes to be extraneous , lacking any meaningful role in mindfulness and failing to shape the further trajectories that mindfulness takes in American culture."
On a personal note I found this book helpful in giving me some context for the mindfulness phenomenon. I have been involved in Buddhism since the 1970s and worked as a psychotherapist until recent retirement. Back in the 1980s I was astonished how little interest there was in rank and file psychiatry in Buddhist meditation when it clearly had so much to offer. I then subsequently watched in some bemusement as mindfulness became the latest "innovative treatment" cure-all. Now clients are often advised to go on mindfulness courses by people who themselves have little or no experience of mindfulness (though the course teachers will have significant grounding in meditation). I have heard Jon Kabat-Zin speak and found him most enjoyable to listen to, and I have been impressed with how he continues to stress the Buddhist context for mindfulness. I also respect the experience of those trained in MBSR, MBCT and other mindfulness trainings. It does not worry me that mindfulness is now a buzz word in new-age or ego-stroking self-help. However I do have concerns when that "mindfulness", that is essentially traditional Buddhist meditation under another name, is taken out of its context. As I understand it in my own limited experience, a regular Buddhist meditation practice can sooner or later lead to experiences of inner opening that may for a small minority of individuals be distressing and necessitate significant self-reorientation. This process of inner development and spiritual opening has always been central to traditional Buddhist meditation practice, and is best understood through Buddhist teachings. This unfoldment is not necessarily linear, can be unexpected, and can affect different individuals in different ways. For many, nothing much may be noticed, but for a few this can be frightening and impact on life unexpectedly. Obviously this form of experience is more likely to take place in an intensive retreat setting, but not necessarily, and I am concerned for the vulnerable. I worry that so much is being disseminated to so many with relatively little warning on the label of contents and without a sophisticated framework for understanding. I think that this is an issue that could have been within the remit of this book.