USC Dornsife College Of Letters Arts and Sciences

University of Southern California

Mindfulness and Science: Who’s Winning the Game of Samsara?

Mindfulness and Science: Who’s Winning the Game of Samsara?

Mindfulness and Science: Who’s Winning the Game of Samsara?

In his podcast lecture, Jesse Maceo Vega-Frey, a young Vipassana teacher, raises concerns about the “Mindfulness Industrial Complex.” “We want to win at this game of samsara”—the cyclic existence of suffering, driven by greed, ignorance and anger—but according to the Buddha, he says, it is “a game you can’t win in.”

As mindfulness becomes increasingly popularized—and scrubbed of its religious trappings—some teachers and practitioners concerned about the unintended consequences resulting from the secularization of Dharma. Are the ethical assumptions of Buddhist traditions integrated into mindfulness practice? Are the benefits of meditative practices being co-opted to improve corporate profits of companies like Google? Most significantly, does the orientation of mindfulness toward utilitarian self-help goals ultimately contradict Buddhist ideal of liberation?

The “Dharma world” and the “secular mindfulness world,” a pair of commonly invoked terms, seem to suggest a divide between those practicing mindfulness in a secular context and those immersed in a Buddhist religious practice. But in my ongoing research on mindfulness in Southern California, I have found that there is a lot more mixing and entanglement of the people, practices and institutions involved in this meditative practice.

For instance, some teachers provide instruction in secular adaptations of mindfulness meditation at the same time as they are advancing their own meditative practices during long silent retreats in explicitly Buddhist contexts. Many of these individuals are chameleonic travelers that travel fluidly through different cultural contexts, including hospitals, secular mindfulness centers, traditional Vipassana retreats and professional conferences. Day in and day out they exchange ideas about mindfulness between senior Dharma teachers, Buddhist monks, health professionals, mindfulness teacher-trainers, university students and corporate executives, translating concepts and ideas in Buddhism into psychological terms.

Those who defend the secular (or medicalized) adaption of mindfulness claim that these innovations make the Dharma more universal and radically inclusive, introducing the fundamentals of Buddhist teachings without the “cultural trappings” usually associated with them. To them, mindfulness is a way to share traditional meditative practice with those who ordinarily shy away from anything that smacks of “religion,” as well as people who might be averse to engaging in a practice that appears to conflict with their own religious beliefs.

This defense of medicalized mindfulness equates the fundamental insights of the Buddha with the mainstream consensus in modern neuroscience and psychology. By insisting that what they do is “scientific” rather than religious or cultural, some mindfulness proponents seek to wrest authority over the Dharma away from traditional religious narratives, rendering it “open-source.” This adaptation makes mindfulness applicable to stress reduction, addiction recovery and other modern American concerns.

Yet, while this marriage between science and mindfulness is a key driver of adaptations of mindfulness as a form of self-help and personal betterment, it has at the same time become integral to the teaching of meditative practices amongst those who are skeptical of this secular development.

Indeed, I have found that while some Dharma teachers see the secularization of mindfulness as diverging from the “true” liberatory goals of Buddhism, they are still happy to draw on the prestige and legitimacy that science brings to their teaching of the Dharma. In this sense, the “science” behind mindfulness serves as a common idiom for those practicing in the Dharma and the secular mindfulness world.

Efforts to connect Buddhism to modern science are not new themes in the history of Buddhism. Early Asian Buddhist reformers of the turn of the 20th century sought to challenge European impressions of Buddhism as nihilistic, passive, superstitious and ritualistic, by strategically employing a scientific language to translate and transform Buddhist ideas as not only rational and centered on the individual, but also embracing and surpassing Western science. The popularity that mindfulness enjoys today is in part a testament to the success of these early Asian Buddhist reformers innovative efforts to position the Dharma as consistent with “reason” rather than superstition, “empiricism” rather than divine revelation.

By readily embracing the science-of-mindfulness discourse, many of those who are concerned with the secularization of Dharma are in fact thrown into a paradox, with their practice leading into areas that the practitioners themselves often find problematic.

So if some Dharma teachers and practitioners today are finding aspects of the contemporary mindfulness development troubling, they might need to unsettle some of their most foundational inherited assumptions about their spiritual practice. Namely, that the Dharma is scientific.

Photo Credit: Glogger/WikiCommons

Nalika Gajaweera was a senior research analyst with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture through 2023.