Mindfulness is everywhere. From die-hard new atheists like Sam Harris to tech-gurus like Chade-Meng Tan, it is attracting a surprisingly diverse audience. Like yoga in recent decades, this derivation of a traditional Buddhist practice of meditation is finding a home in some of the most secular American cultural spaces, including university classrooms, medicine and the U.S. military. To keep abreast of these trends, major news outlets (see here and here) are scrambling to offer their take on this story.
Deeper analyses of the phenomena also abound. Many scholars, writers and journalists have shown how a traditional religious practice from the East has been adapted to respond to modern secular preoccupations with therapy, stress-management and addiction. Other commentators go still further, critically examining how this adaptation has happened. For instance, Jeff Wilson has pointed to the ways in which the origins of mindfulness in the Theravada Buddhist tradition have become both mystified and mainstreamed so that what was once a practice exclusively associated with Buddhist monastics has now been adapted to meet the mundane concerns of middle-class Americans.
Toward that end, the tradition has been mostly stripped of its supernatural and otherworldly significance. Still, the growing prevalence of mindfulness practice is not a contemporary phenomenon; rather, it’s part of a longer trajectory of Buddhist modernism that has been in the making for over a century.
While much of what has been written about the contemporary mindfulness movement concerns the so-called secuarlization of the Buddhist path of awakening, this phenomenon can also provide us with some specific insights about spirituality in America. I suggest the best way to approach this rich cultural terrain is by doing in-depth ethnographic study of the numerous meditation-centered groups that have popped up across the country and by reframing the kinds of questions we ask.
What do contemporary adaptations of Buddhist practice tell us about the spiritual desires and yearnings of the steadily growing number of Americans who identify themselves as religiously unaffiliated, but who nonetheless are attracted to Buddhist meditation as a personal spiritual practice. How do mindfulness practitioners reconfigure elements of Buddhist practice and cultural ideas to nurture aspects of their lives that are traditionally fulfilled by the very sorts of traditional religious institutions that many of them shun?
Many of the members of the meditation groups that I have encountered through the RCCI project use the Sanskrit term “Sangha” to refer to their community of meditators, which includes teachers, guides and fellow students. In fact, in conversations with me they often use the terms “Sangha” and “community” interchangeably. At places like Against the Stream and Long Beach Meditation, teachers introduce the concept of “Sangha” to their members by talking about its centrality in traditional Theravada Buddhist scripture. For instance, they may refer to what is known as “taking refuge in Triple Gem”—the the Buddha (the original teacher), the Dhamma (the Buddha’s teaching) and the Sangha—as an important aspect of any mindfulness practitioner’s spiritual life.
Watch a video about Against the Stream’s Sangha:
This conflation of “Sangha” and “community,” however, is a modern interpretation; it differs markedly from how traditional Theravada Buddhists have understood the word. In fact, for many traditional followers of Theravada Buddhism in countries like Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka, “Sangha” refers exclusively to the ordained monastic community—a conception that explicitly excludes the laity. The term Sangha is therefore assigned to those monastic disciples of the Buddha who are regarded as worthy of alms and reverence, since they are believed to possess great karmic merit.
The stripping away of the monastic significance of the term Sangha in the context of American mindfulness groups is one aspect of the secularization of a sacred practice that is being adapted for the purposes of therapy, stress management and trauma. Indeed, many of those who are drawn to American versions of mindfulness practice identify themselves as atheists yet nonetheless find Buddhism appealing because they view it not as a religion, but rather as a rationalistic philosophy that aids in the process of psychological introspection.
Many mindfulness practitioners who are deeply suspicious of religion and associated notions of divine authority and supernaturalism have been quick to point out to me how their meditation practice has nothing to do with religion. In the course of doing interviews I have had to be sensitive to this issue. For example, I often opt to use the term “Sangha” in lieu of the more religiously loaded word “congregation” to ask members about their practice in the group.
Can this be viewed as yet another instance of the secularization of a Buddhist practice? Indeed, I think it can be. But at the same time, we may still ask why “taking refuge in the Sangha” retains significance for mindfulness practitioners. Why emphasize the idea of “Sangha” at all, when the therapeutic benefits of mindfulness can be obtained through solidary, committed practice?
Pablo Das, one of the teachers at Against the Stream, explained the significance of Sangha in this way: “I believe in the practices and see it as life-changing for me—but at the same time it’s about having a place to go where you feel safe and you feel seen and you feel connected and held.”
These and other explanations I have heard suggest to me that “taking refuge in the Sangha” remains important to many mindfulness practitioners because it resonates with a profound and persistent desire for community among those who identify themselves as atheist or religiously unaffiliated. Religious institutions like churches and mosques offer their adherents a sense of connectedness, solidarity and common purpose—something that religious “Nones” often find lacking in their lives. Sangha in its desacralized form can offer a way to redeem one of the most profound and meaningful aspects of religion: togetherness.
Western adaptations of mindfulness are changing not just the context in which meditation practices are taught. They are reinterpreting beliefs about karma, community and enlightenment that can be traced back to the deepest roots of the Buddhist movement to meet the spiritual yearnings of today.
Nalika Gajaweera is a senior research analyst with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.