Over the past 25 years, Tricycle has covered the mindfulness movement from a variety of perspectives. We’ve shared practice instructions by Buddhist teachers, interviewed a neuroscientist about how mindfulness meditation research is being portrayed in the media, and published a point-counterpoint debate about whether mindfulness belongs in public schools, among many other pieces.
Along the way we’ve tried to strike a balance between exploring critical issues for the Buddhist tradition and advocating for a practice that enriches people’s lives. In the following pieces, we continue this tradition by offering an essay from scholar Jeff Wilson that examines the nominally “secular” mindfulness movement as a religious phenomenon and a series of personal reflections from real-life MBSR practitioners.
–Sam Mowe, Contributing Editor
The Religion of Mindfulness
by Jeff Wilson
Not long ago, I was at an academic religious studies conference presenting research on mindful sex. Among all my vaguely pornographic slides and details about how Buddhist-derived mindfulness meditation techniques are being used to assist with orgasm and sexual performance anxiety, I tried to make a coherent argument that this represented a natural—if perhaps eyebrow-raising—evolution of Buddhist practice in a culture that values indulgence over renunciation and considers sexuality something to actualize rather than to overcome. During the subsequent discussion period a Buddhist studies scholar commented with disgust, “But this is all just secular, it isn’t Buddhist.”
His objection was that I was presenting research on mindfulness at a conference on religion, to an academic session dedicated to Buddhism. From his classical Buddhological viewpoint, the mindfulness movement couldn’t possibly be worth investigating in relation to Buddhism, since it lacks sutra analysis, adherence to vinaya rules, traditional monks, nirvanic ambitions, and other elements that he felt were nonnegotiable features that needed to be present for something to be called Buddhist. Although I didn’t agree, I could see where he was coming from. As I carried out the research for my book Mindful America a few years ago, I had many occasions to ask myself just what sort of phenomenon I was investigating. As a scholar of Buddhism and American religion, I am intrigued by the mindfulness movement as an example of the transformation of religion in the 21st century. When I look at the mindfulness movement, it seems very religious to me, in part because of its frequent claims to be secular.
In recent years I’ve voraciously consumed as much literature as I could by and about the mindfulness movement in all its varied facets. I’ve read hundreds of books promoting mindfulness, pored over thousands of articles and Web features, watched countless online videos, followed the discussion on television, Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere, besides talking to many practitioners about their experiences with mindfulness. From all of this, I’ve noted that the mindfulness movement is staggeringly diverse. It would be hard for anyone to make any statement that would be truly comprehensively accurate about everything that makes up the movement.
However, there is a very common narrative that I encounter across the mindfulness movement. This story is especially prominent in the language of teachers of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, in the pages of magazines such as Mindful, and among proponents of meditation applied to practical concerns such as depression, anxiety, poor eating habits, parenting, and work. Basically, it goes like this:
Buddhism may include mindfulness, but mindfulness is not Buddhist, or at least not exclusively so. Mindfulness is an innate human quality, something that all people have as their birthright. What MBSR and other programs are teaching is really dharma, not Buddhism, and dharma is universal. Dharma is just the way things are; therefore, it can’t be the property of any group or sect. In fact, mindfulness is the heart of the dharma, and the aspects of Buddhism beyond mindfulness can potentially be dropped—indeed, it might be best for them to go, since they may hold back the actual substance, the true essence of what is correct in Buddhism, which is meditative awareness and the wisdom and compassion that result from seeing things as they really are. Don’t forget, the Buddha wasn’t a Buddhist. Mindfulness is secular, because it isn’t taught with religious words like buddha and prajna and you aren’t required to believe in things like reincarnation or engage in rituals like devotional pujas to gods and bodhisattvas. Ultimately, mindfulness isn’t a religion, a doctrine, or an ideology—it is a way of life, a way of being that is good and positive and potentially transformative for self and society alike.
I find this narrative compelling, as a vision. I too want to live in a world that is healthier and saner than what we have right now, and I wish for more awareness and insight for myself and those around me. But as a scholar, I also have a role-specific obligation to analyze such statements and understand their dynamics. And the thing that continually strikes me is just how religious “secular” mindfulness really is.
To claim that something is dharma is to make a religious argument. The very term dharma is a religious label that comes to us in the English-speaking world primarily from Buddhism and secondarily from Hinduism as well. Dharma is a word with many possible meanings and uses in differing contexts, but fundamentally it is used to indicate the speaker’s view of the state of things in reality—to paint a picture of existence. It also refers to teachings and practices that are in accord with that ultimate reality, or which help us discover that reality—in other words, it separates things into favored (according with reality) and disfavored (out of accord with reality) categories. Furthermore, to claim that something is the heart of the dharma and that other things can be discarded is to make a religiously sectarian argument. Others will have different views of what dharma is, what should be retained, and what can be abandoned. Defining dharma as universal and above or beyond any particular religion is, of course, itself a religious statement about the nature of dharma.
To say that mindfulness is an innate human quality or capacity is to make a truth claim about human nature, one that is not empirically verifiable (the mind boggles at the question of how we would accurately test all seven billion human beings to see if each one has inherent mindfulness). The real purpose of this truth claim is to express values that define human nature. Claims about human nature and values are religious, or at least they are philosophical claims that clearly overlap with religious concerns. When you say that something is a birthright, you are talking about essences and natures, the very stuff of religion.
Claims of being secular are tactics of legitimization, attempts to exorcise the ghost of religiosity that persistently haunts mindfulness. This originates in the fact that the mindfulness movement springs directly from Theravada Buddhism, with significant contributions from Zen and Tibetan Buddhism as well. For that matter, mindfulness is a part of all the lineages of Buddhism in Asia, though not all practice the sort of meditation techniques that have become associated with the mindfulness movement. Additionally, MBSR incorporates postural yoga (a practice derived mainly from Hinduism), and yoga itself has become deeply inflected with language about mindfulness in recent decades.
If I were to write an article pointing out that groceries, clothes, boxing lessons, and law school textbooks are secular, the reaction would likely be that it was a weird choice of topic, if not actual evidence that I have a screw loose somewhere. But as the historian R. Laurence Moore noted in Selling God, “‘Secular’ as a category for understanding historical experience depends for its meaning on the existence of something called ‘religion,’ and vice versa.” The simple fact that the assertion that mindfulness is secular must be repeated constantly demonstrates its ongoing entanglement with religion.
Talk of the secular is really talk about religion, for the purpose of setting the limits of what should be allowed to be perceived as religious and not-religious. Defining beliefs about reincarnation as disposable religious elements, rather than as dharma and simply the way things really are, is a form of boundary drawing and in-group making, the sort of thing that religious movements excel at. Furthermore, terming something a way of being or a way of life, over and against being religious, implicitly claims that religions somehow are not ways of being or ways of life—and most precisely, that Buddhism is not somehow a way of life. There are probably many Buddhists who would dispute that point if it were made explicitly. Indeed, I quite commonly hear Buddhists describe their religion in precisely these terms.
The vast mindfulness industry certainly operates as an evangelical apparatus for promoting certain beliefs, values, and practices. I have said that it is nearly impossible to find something that applies universally to every individual phenomenon in the mindfulness movement, but there is at least one: I have never yet found a mindfulness promoter or practitioner who feels that mindfulness isn’t good and positive, or who doesn’t believe that mindfulness can transform self and society. In fact, a whole world of values is bound up with the package of mindfulness as it is disseminated in the West: mindful people are aware; awareness is good; everyone should be aware; unaware people are at risk of being bad or acting badly; mindlessness is destroying the planet; mindfulness can save us; and so on.
Leaving aside the question of whether or not something genuinely is religious (as if this were ever more than a subjective claim from a particular perspective), I find as a scholar that analyzing the mindfulness movement as if it were religious is quite productive, providing insights derived from the study of other religious movements that seem to accurately and usefully explain phenomena we see going on with mindfulness. From a religious studies standpoint, what I see before me is a movement of people who share common values and visions about human beings, life, society, and reality, who place great faith in a particular set of practices and engage in a ritual meant to bring about self-transformation and liberation from suffering, who are convinced of its worth for themselves and enthusiastic about promoting it to others, who react defensively to critiques and police the boundaries of who properly and improperly speaks for and about their movement, and who engage in an ongoing discussion about religion. Maybe that doesn’t meet your definition of a religion, but it sure seems pretty close to being religious to me.
Mindfulness Practitioners Speak
by Wendy Joan Biddlecombe
In recent years, mindfulness has swiftly spread far beyond the meditation retreats that originally introduced Westerners to this practice of living in the present moment. Secular meditation classes, many of which don’t mention mindfulness’s Buddhist roots, have cropped up in schools, gyms, prisons, and corporate offices.
Critics within the Buddhist community as well as in the world of academia have been at times quick to dismiss these classes, denouncing them as a trendy commodification of ancient practices, an unwitting tool of capitalism, or a troublesome promotion of ethics-free mind training.
Such critiques can be convincing; Tricycle has published a number of them over the years as the mindfulness movement has grown. The issues they point out are meaningful and worthwhile. But they also have a tendency to ignore the on-the-ground, real-life experiences of people who have taken a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course. How have these people’s lives been impacted? What do they have to say about the effects of mindfulness practice?
Below, we talk with just six of the tens of thousands of students around the world who have taken an MBSR course. Our respondents, who include a police lieutenant, a stay-at-home mother, and a psychiatrist, speak about their experience in the eight-week classes that combine meditation, body scanning, and yoga poses.
Elizabeth J. Coleman
Age: 68 | Poet, lawyer, MBSR teacher
In 2001 I had endometrial cancer. I was home recovering, and a friend came to visit and brought me a brochure. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center had just started teaching MBSR (it was a short-lived program). I looked at the brochure and said, “This is the gift I’m going to give myself.” It had never crossed my mind before to do something like this. But I took the course, and I felt transformed from the get-go. It was like a stroke of lightning. I just felt, “Oh my god, where has this been?” A colleague from work came to visit me after I had taken the course, and he said, “You’re different. How do I get what you got without getting what you got?”
Other than that, I had a rift in my family when I started MBSR. It has healed, and I totally owe that to years of doing lovingkindness meditation. My relationships are so much better and more compassionate. I don’t think I would be a poet if it were not for MBSR. I don’t think I would be able to perform if it were not for MBSR. Meditation lets me have a calm that I never had. I am a Type A personality, very driven. That’s just who I am, and I like that self, but meditation allows me to respond and not react. I wasn’t an awful person to start with or anything, but it’s given me this tool that I’ve then been able to give other people.
Age: 27 | Associate Fashion Director for Center Core and Shoes at Macy’s
I didn’t know what to expect when I started taking MBSR, but I truly think the class rewired my whole brain in the way that I think, the way that I carry myself, and the way I feel about myself. What I learned through it was that it’s OK not to be perfect, and it gave me a lot of self-confidence as well as the ability to stand up for myself and change both my work and interpersonal relationships. I think I came out of it a very empowered person, and it was awesome.
Last year I was diagnosed with Cushing’s Syndrome, and shortly after that my health fell off a cliff. I gained about 30 pounds and had a bunch of other nasty symptoms. I couldn’t sleep; I was uncontrollably hungry. They found a tumor on my right adrenal gland, which meant that my body was overproducing cortisol. So my body thought it was stressed all the time. I had surgery in September of last year and have been in a yearlong recovery since then. And I believe 100 percent that my mindfulness training was like a black belt for me this year. It helped with both the mental and physical pain. It was easier to be patient; I know that the pain is transient and is not going to be here forever.
Age: 47 | Police lieutenant, retired Coast Guard reservist, police reform advocate
I didn’t have a tipping point of “this happened to me, so I sought out mindfulness.” What I had was a journey as a leader in policing and in the military reserves. In 2001 I was recalled to active duty after 9/11. I don’t have any horror stories about going into combat, but I had a front row seat to the problems that affect a lot of police and first-responder organizations: the fast-paced work tempo, the stressors, the pressures to define what we were supposed to do after 9/11, group-think, and so on.
Mindfulness spoke to my warrior soul. Mindfulness training taught me to cultivate a level of awareness in body, mind, and health that allowed me to take care of myself and to develop a greater capacity to regulate my own emotions and experiences. In uniform, I could have anger and compassion in the same space while dealing with someone in crisis. Mindfulness gives me the awareness of the suffering of the people I’m trying to help.
My original objective in learning mindfulness was to improve the police-citizen encounter, because I didn’t like the outcomes that I was seeing. I approached this from the human performance perspective. The only way that an encounter between a police officer and a citizen is going to go well is if that police officer is resilient in heart and mind and body; if they have the capacity to be self-aware and aware of others; and if they have compassion and empathy and don’t judge the people they encounter. Then their performance is going to have a more acceptable outcome.
Age: 53 | Psychiatrist
Mindfulness helps me to figure out that I have a mind. I know that as a psychiatrist it sounds strange to say that, but I’ve never sat down and observed my mind the way I do with mindfulness. I was kind of terrified of some of the thoughts and feelings that could come up. But little by little, doing it on a daily basis, it has helped me see that feelings and thoughts come and go. It’s the impermanence of all the things that we do in life—if I feel a certain way in a certain moment, that doesn’t mean that it’s going to last. And noticing that it does not last gives you a sense of being able to feel more—not more in control, but more aware of what’s going on, and to respond in a way that is more present rather than reactive. In my work and in my life, mindfulness has improved my attention, my presence, and my patience.
You don’t have to convince me that mindfulness is a spiritual experience. I’m not religious, because I feel that in religion you have to blindly trust an entity, and that’s not what I can do, that’s just not who I am. But this practice has given me my own spiritual road, whereas before mindfulness I had none. This road is making sense of my life and of how I can decrease my suffering and simply accept what is good and what is not good, and work with it.
Age: 60 | Businessman
What was going on at the time [when I decided to take an MBSR course] was what had been prevalent in my life: a tendency to get caught up in worrying about things, whatever they would be. And wanting to find a discipline or a place that could calm that tendency, or channel it.
This is a very, very gradual thing. This is not the type of thing where you go for a course, and then you have an experience, and you bring meditation to it, and suddenly a whole new world opens up. For a lot of people, and for me, it’s very incremental.
Some days are better than others. I’ve been working at this for 11 years. It helps me do things like sleep better, slow down circling thoughts, or at least have the ability to observe myself. And there are absolutely times where I say, “Gee, I wonder if this is having any effect.” And then there are other times where I can tell, “OK, my power of self-observation or being able to disengage is a little better than it would have been if I hadn’t taken the course.” Sometimes my thoughts are grabbed and they’re off, and at least I can see it. But it’s still a challenge to slow them down.
Age: 40 | Stay-at-home mother to four children, former journalist
I had already been meditating through Transcendental Meditation. And then mindfulness took me to a whole other level. I love it. I meditate every day and use the practices that I learned there. And I’m sharing them with others and my own family. I’ve meditated with my oldest son; I do the body scan with him a lot. I get all my kids to try to breathe mindfully, and I do walking meditations with them.
I went into the class with two goals: one was to be less attached to technology, and the other was to be less reactive to my children. And I am not perfect by any means, but I’ve definitely gotten better, and it’s made such a huge difference in my life. I’m able to roll through negative or stressful situations in a calmer way and realize that they’re going to pass and that they’re not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things. I’m much more present at home. I’m not attending events or meetings that I don’t need to or don’t want to attend. Instead I’m at home, reading, cooking, listening to my children. I’m just aware of being a more present listener and a more thoughtful responder.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.