“I was stressed out, burned out, and divorced. And then I started doing yoga.”
This is how many people I have spoken to in the course of my research describe their path to mindfulness. Like yoga, mindfulness has had a tremendous impact on the lives of individuals who are searching for mooring in the midst of life’s day-to-day struggles.
Yoga and mindfulness—in their modern adaptations of their South Asian religious roots—have both been widely criticized for their deviation from their presumably more authentic “traditional” forms. A frequent charge leveled at both modern yoga and mindfulness is that their reshaping as world-affirming forms of spirituality is individualistic and therapeutic—an ego-based process of “self-care” that subverts the original goal of realizing the illusory nature of the self. These arguments may offer critical insights into how yogic and meditative traditions have been adapted to the needs of the neoliberal marketplace. Yet they also perpetuate a mythology of an authentic, “truer” premodern tradition, and indeed implicitly presume a static view of cultural tradition, one that inadequately accounts for the diversity and mutability of premodern spiritual forms, as the British historian of yoga Mark Singleton has pointed out.
I find the dismissal of mindfulness as inauthentic ironic; it is similar to the complaints made by some American Buddhists about their Asian Buddhist counterparts—namely, that the preoccupation of Asian Buddhist monks and laypeople with the mundane aims of merit-making and rebirth are aberrations of what American practitioners perceive as a “purer” and “more rational” contemplative philosophy. Both make claims about what “real” Buddhism is without giving serious consideration to the enormous innovation and pluralism that have characterized its historical development.
Indeed, as the American anthropologist James Clifford says, cultures “do not hold still for their portraits.” The same applies to religion. Traditions are always in flux, and they are subject to influences from sources both proximate and foreign. The tradition that has come to be known as Buddhism today in Asia has always been reconfigured and redefined by sociocultural conditions, political circumstance, and transcultural encounters. The contemporary American Buddhist interest in mindfulness is no different. Focusing too narrowly on the inauthenticity of mindfulness because of its departure from a presumed pure original form gives insufficient attention to the themes and concerns central to the lives of dedicated American Buddhist practitioners.
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