“I want to deal with the chaos in my mind.”
“I need to find some stillness and clarity in my mind.”
So said two students at the first session of a six-week beginners’ mindfulness class where I have been conducting fieldwork for the Religious Competition and Creative Innovation project. As the novice meditators took turns to introduce themselves, it was clear that the other attendees shared similar motivations for signing up for the course. They highlighted reasons such as reducing stress and anxiety, recommendations from psychotherapists and continuation of meditative practices cultivated through practices like yoga. None expressed otherworldly purposes like getting on the Dharmic path to Nirvana or finding a cessation to suffering.
With all the press that the therapeutic value of mindfulness has received in the media lately, these are not particularly surprising observations. Indeed, a common refrain in such commentary is how a practice exclusively associated with Asian Buddhist monastics has now been adapted and secularized through programs such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn to meet the mundane concerns of middle-class Americans.
The secular turn in mindfulness is certainly significant for understanding the boom in meditation across various American cultural spaces like hospitals and classrooms. Still, I suggest that this perspective can sometimes obscure as much as it reveals. It can reify a dominant narrative about secularization at the expense of obscuring the history of mindfulness in the liberal religious currents of 19th century America.
Anthropologists like Talal Asad and sociologists like Courtney Bender have been suggesting for some time now that studies of spiritual practices should be understood genealogically in terms of the broad range of secular and religious networks and powers that shape spirituality’s contemporary manifestations. Taking their lead, instead of tracing the roots of mindfulness exclusively to the ancient traditions of the East, what if we also explored the complex genealogy of meditation in the cosmopolitan spiritualism of American traditions?
The notion that mindfulness is a timeless traditions of the East may offer proponents a cultural caché and veneer of authenticity. But the transcendentalists, theosophists, New Thought optimists and the Unitarians also shared a commitment to ideals such as spiritual liberty, mystical experience, meditative interiority and universal brotherhood. These traditions are anchored in the spirit of Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James and Walt Whitman.
To be sure, I am not suggesting that the roots of mindfulness should be credited solely to an American liberal intellectual heritage. Rather, it’s a prompt to think of mindfulness sideways and laterally. We can move away from a singular genealogy of mindfulness towards an account of its development through the messy, sideways associations and encounters—personal and intellectual—between the American moderns and their Asian counterparts.
Historically situating mindfulness in such a manner shows American moderns’ efforts to counter the alienating forces of urbanization and scientific and bureaucratic rationalization. They turned to the “primitive” and the “pre-modern,” crossed boundaries of race and studied comparative religion for the purposes of seeking and constructing spiritual authenticity at home.
The students in the mindfulness class may think they’re seeking therapeutic answers from secularized Eastern traditions, but their practices are authentically American too. Perhaps it’s this implicit knowledge that makes mindfulness so enchanting to spiritual seekers today.
Photo by Santos Gonzalez on Flickr.
Nalika Gajaweera is a senior research analyst with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.