Hide the Religion, Feature the Science: 60 Minutes Drops the Ball on Mindfulness

Anderson Cooper’s journey into mindfulness was featured on the latest episode of 60 Minutes, and it proved to be a textbook example of what I call the mystification, medicalization, mainstreaming, and marketing of mindfulness. That’s good for me—analyzing these sorts of programs is my bread-and-butter as a researcher—but it’s too bad that the venerable program didn’t try to investigate any deeper.

Watching 60 Minutes, the viewer would have virtually no opportunity to realize where this mindfulness comes from—the piece treats it as having essentially sprung from Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s well-functioning brain.

In fact, mindfulness is a Buddhist meditation practice, and it was from Buddhists during Buddhist meditation retreats that Kabat-Zinn learned about mindfulness in the first place. If you know what to look for, there’s lots of Buddhism on display during Cooper’s report, but none of it is ever attended to, and the average American probably can’t decipher what’s being shown.

So we see Buddhist meditation practices (mindfulness, called sati in the Buddhist Pali language), Buddhist meditation postures and gestures (Kabat-Zinn holds his hands in a mudra position), Buddhist meditation cushions (zafus and zabutons, imported via Japanese Zen Buddhism), Tibetan Buddhist hand cymbals, and actual Buddhists (Chade-Meng Tan, among others) on-screen, yet they are never decoded so that we can understand them. Buddhism is never referenced at any point, except for a brief allusion to “the Zen people from ancient China” as folks who knew better than us. This is an example of what I call mystification: the obscuration of mindfulness’s roots and usual context so that it can be extracted from religion and recontextualized to fit new purposes.

Instead of religion, the context for mindfulness on 60 Minutes is medical science. We’re shown headlines from journal publications that claim to measure health benefits from mindfulness practice, and Anderson Cooper gets himself fitted with a brain machine so we can watch him stress out and then calm down with mindfulness. Cooper throws a softball question to Kabat-Zinn, inviting him to explain to us why this mindfulness stuff isn’t “New Age gobbledygook,” which provides a further opportunity to reinforce that this is all perfectly natural activity approved by doctors and scientists.

Of course, this sort of medicalization can only take place after the religious context of mindfulness has been hidden from attention, if not from view. Assuring the public that mindfulness is a form of medicine (and therefore secular, in the contemporary American context) is important. There’s a lot at stake here that could be held up if too many questions about religion were asked. For instance, we learn that Congressman Tim Ryan (himself a Roman Catholic, not a Buddhist, though the program doesn’t ask about his religious background either) has secured $1 million dollars from the federal government to bring mindfulness into Ohio schools in his district. If he asked for that money to teach the rosary to public school kids, would that really fly? Better to follow the lead of UMass researcher Judson Brewer, who tells Cooper that mindfulness is “just the next generation of exercise.”

The mainstreaming of mindfulness is the real crux of the piece. Rather than using mindfulness to purify the mind as part of a celibate monastic exercise designed to sever the karmic cycle of rebirth and bring about nirvana (the original purpose of mindfulness), mindfulness is here applied to mundane worldly concerns, for achieving practical benefits that Americans feel they need. The piece begins by talking about how stressed out everyone is, and throughout Cooper’s journey we’re told that mindfulness will help us calm down and live in the moment. Kabat-Zinn tells us that mindfulness is useful for “anxiety, depression, stress reduction,” and similar ills of an over-worked age.

Applying mindfulness to problems and anxieties that mainstream Americans already have allows it to make the jump from marginal monastic concern to pop phenomenon. This isn’t how it was used in Asian tradition, but new societies and demographics naturally call forth new applications; those traditions that either aren’t flexible enough or are somehow unavailable for selective appropriation by new promoters and practitioners won’t successfully make the jump into previously untapped cultures.

One more essential process is required for a practice to succeed in 21st century capitalist America: it needs to be commodified for the marketplace. Mindfulness comes to us packaged with Colorado retreats for high-powered professionals, training sessions at Google (which gets lots of free good press), and all sorts of paraphernalia. We’re told about the various books that interviewees have written (ten, in Kabat-Zinn’s case), how Chade-Meng literally makes his living promoting mindfulness in Silicon Valley, and you can learn more about Cooper’s experiences by visiting an online extension of the report sponsored by Pfizer, the makers of Viagra. There’s a lot of money to be made off of the American consumer’s exhaustion, but the economics of the mindfulness juggernaut are left unexamined by Cooper.

The 60 Minutes piece, basically a commercial for the allegedly de-Buddhified arm of the mindfulness movement, couldn’t be any more positive if it were paid for by Kabat-Zinn himself. That’s pretty common, but it’s still unfortunate. Mindfulness may deliver some of the benefits that promoters tout, but Americans deserve to be informed about the full context of what they’re being sold. There are studies that suggest mindfulness can have a serious adverse effect on some practitioners, and much of the research has been criticized as sloppy, methodologically-unsound, or as failing to show actual results from mindfulness.

Cooper shows us the Wisdom 2.0 Conference, but doesn’t tell us that it’s actually the target of serious dissension within the mindfulness movement itself, with Buddhist protesters carrying out Occupy-type activism against it as an example of classist degradation of the practice. And above all, the religious connections and background of mindfulness—which might provide food for thought for Christians, atheists, and other possible viewers, if they were given the chance to contemplate such connections—are left aside.

Maybe the benefits outweigh the risks; maybe the race and class issues on display in wings of the mindfulness movement can be overcome; maybe mindfulness can be effectively shorn of its religious genesis; maybe mindfulness really will save us from ourselves. And it’s quite possible that viewers might reach those conclusions. But they’ll never have the chance when presented with fluff pieces that fail to include even an iota of journalistic skepticism.

  • Jim Reed

    What are the suggested serious adverse effects on some practitioners? When I think of adverse effects of religion, it comes down to religious beliefs. Are there beliefs behind the scenes that we don’t at first hear about like in scientology? Do they get people to put away their smartphones and relax, then start a program of indoctrination into another belief structure? Or do the expensive corporate retreats just end with connected people possibly learning to relax? I guess I would naturally be skeptical of the 60 minutes segment, but then I would also have to be skeptical of your skepticism.

  • Rmj

    There is a link to an Atlantic article, which seems to indicate some “bad” experiences. I haven’t read it yet, and can’t make claims for it’s veracity; but then the original article here only said such outcomes are “suggested,” not that they are inevitable or as proven as sunrise.

    It points out to me that ideas like mindfulness are products of a community, in this case the community of Buddhism, and it is not (like meditation, also the subject of the Atlantic piece) to be taken up individually, but rather with a mentor, preferably a larger community.

    Not because “evil demons” will “invade your soul,” but because the benefits of any practice can also do harm if not carefully guided (a few antibiotics can be good for you; a whole lot of antibiotics, taken willy-nilly and without a physician’s guidance, can do a great deal of harm).

  • I could see how mindfulness could potentially have an adverse effect. From my experience, quieting the mind can allow a lot of unprocessed grief and other old psychological issues to come to the front of the mind. An insight into my own practice revealed that I spend a lot of my normal consciousness on keeping unpleasant stuff under a lid. So what happens is that the practice can loosen this lid and allow a lot of this pain to come out. I think it’s a reason why a lot of people leave Zen practice- it can become quite painful. Fortunately, I had a good teacher and my wounds were of a “garden variety” so I could get past them. But I wouldn’t underestimate the power of these suppressed emotions, especially on a beginner.

  • Jim Reed

    What does it mean by “suggested”? When dealing with religions that are always fighting other religions, I am sure lots of things will end up being suggested.

    I find it hard to believe that you would need a community or a guide to work on things that are just mental states. It is not like taking drugs. It should be under your control what you try to do with meditation or whatever. In fact, if you want to work on mental control, a community or guide might be the wrong thing because they might have suggestions that are actually a part of their agenda. It might be better to control your own mind than let someone do mind control on you.

  • Jim Reed

    I wouldn’t know what to say in that situation. Don’t think or you will go crazy.

    I suppose religious beliefs could mess people up pretty bad, and things could get even worse when they try to dig their way out. After spending over 40 years trying to eliminate any untrue thinking it now seems really far away. I guess I just try to ignore religious problems that other people might have and just stick with trying to force everyone to see what the errors are.

  • jcdietrich

    The Dalai Lama states: “From one viewpoint, Buddhism is a religion, from another viewpoint Buddhism is a science of mind and not a religion. Buddhism can be a bridge between these two sides. Therefore, with this conviction I try to have closer ties with scientists, mainly in the fields of cosmology, psychology, neurobiology and physics. In these fields there are insights to share, and to a certain extent we can work together.”[243]

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism#Is_Buddhism_a_religion.3F

  • Rmj

    You do understand that human beings are social animals, and everything you think is connected to some kind of community?

    That in many countries solitary confinement is considered torture?

    Agendas? It’s just called “society” where I come from. And an act like meditation is clearly something undertaken in a community which teaches the very concept of meditation. And why meditation isn’t like taking drugs is a presumption beyond me.

  • Jim Reed

    Drugs are powerful and can easily be dangerous if not taken correctly. Meditation is all in the mind.

  • Jim Reed

    Does the religious side of Buddhism have any religious beliefs? As far as I know, no religious belief has ever been true, at least in a western civilization sense. I think this is because if it was true then it wouldn’t be religious, it would just be truth.

  • RexTIII

    Human Beings – Ancient Cultures, Modern Cultures, Mindfulness a state of being present and aware is not exclusive to Buddhism (and it’s very specific meditative activity, religious or non religious). We manage to achieve Mindfulness quite well on our own when we are very young – our fascination and wonder. Our minds are amazing, the 60 Minutes program about this particular technology, is what it is. Were it a program on religious based or Buddhist based meditative technique(s) obviously, there would have been relative detail. There’s not a religious bone in my body and like many others, Mindfulness is something I relearned while still young – all on my own, sitting in a window over looking a field.

  • Dedangelo

    Yes, but…..It was Kabat-Zinn himself who started this by secularizing Buddhism so he could bring it to his patients.

  • Zoe Nicholson

    Bravo for you. I am truly disappointed in this commercialization and repackaging of the essense of Buddhist practice. I suppose we should be glib about it being USA and television but I am not. Wonder if the FDA will push a pill or Brookstone will sell an enlightenment cap. It makes me sad as the true fabric of Buddhism in all its variations could help us infinitely.

  • Pixie5

    I have read that people who have mental problems should be careful with meditation, but in general I see no problem with doing it on your own. I tend to distrust the whole “guru” ideal but part of the issue to me is to determine what your goal would be in pursuing meditation. Is it to relax or are you looking for something deeper? Many people practice yoga for exercise and relaxation without using it as a tool for enlightenment as the Hindus do.

  • Pixie5

    Yes solitary confinement is a form of torture, in fact it can cause mental illness in healthy people. But that has nothing to do with the topic at hand.

    Jim is not advocating total isolation from people.

    You can learn meditation from books and I would wonder why we have books and videos that detail the practice if it were meant to only be taught by a teacher in a group. It should not be a secret and in fact there are plenty of people who don’t have access to a teacher at all, so what are they supposed to do?

    I also think it depends on how deeply you want to get into it. For simple relaxation mindfulness is a good tool. If someone wants to go further with it then they may want to find a teacher if they feel comfortable with that.

    I have read that people with mental illness might want to be cautious with it but on the other hand many people who struggle with depression find it helpful so that is not true in all cases.

    Most people in western countries do not have the option of having a Buddhist teacher and a community close by. It is impractical for them to pursue meditation in within that context.

  • Pixie5

    I know of atheists that are Buddhists so it seems to me that it can be practiced without the religious angle. In many ways the practical aspect of it is a form of psychotherapy. it simply teaches people to re-frame the experience of suffering, to accept what is and realize that much of our suffering is due to how we interpret our circumstances.That is really not all that different from the most used psychotherapy in America, Cognitive-behavioral therapy, although they use different methods to achieve the same goal.

  • Pixie5

    I see nothing wrong in giving people tools that will benefit them even if they do not accept Buddhism. Many people practice yoga without subscribing to Hinduism. In fact being introduced to secular meditation might just wet people’s appetites for more.

    As someone pointed out below, mindfulness is actually a natural state that is more common in children than in adults. I remember in the spring lying next to all the pretty flowers in the backyard and reveling in the sweet scents. I had no idea what Buddhism was at the time and I needed no teacher to show me how to do it.

    I hate to say this but I think exclusivity is a big problem with every religion as they seem to think they have a monopoly on the truth. People find their own truth and what works for them.

    As far as the news piece not getting into the Buddhist roots, most people already know where meditation comes from. The story was meant to highlight the scientific angle. I don’t see anything wrong with that at all.

    These days all people have to do is do a search on google to find more info if they are interested. I feel the same way about the evangelical Christians who are always trying to “witness” to everyone despite the fact that we have moved on from the New Testament times when no one had ever heard of Christ. The info is out there already if anyone wants to learn about Christianity. The same applies with meditation and Buddhism.

  • Zoe Nicholson

    I do not disagree with you. I am only pointing out that if one is looking for Buddhism and its vicissitudes, it is not the same as mindfulness. I hope that those who want to learn about Buddhism, do not confuse it with the stress reducing states of attention that google, et al, are teaching inhouse. Workers may be more productive and their bodies better at managing stress but it is not the same as Buddhism which carries with it a way of life.

  • Jim Reed

    I think the purpose is to help your mind think about things that it might have been missing. It is easy to fall into a rut where your thoughts follow along with what others expect of you. Sometimes there are better thoughts if you can shut out that outside influence.

  • Jim Reed

    If someone wants to go further with it then they may need a teacher who knows how to create the illusion that they are going further with it.

  • Zafnat Paaneah

    This article suffers from the same narrow vision as the 60 Minutes spot. Mindfulness is not a specifically Buddhist concept. It was already an important practice in the Indian spiritual culture into which Siddhartha Gautama was born. The Buddha’s innovation was to use mindfulness to break the cycle of birth and rebirth, which is not a goal of any of these secular efforts. So the roots of these American manifestations of mindfulness practice are — like the roots of the Pali language — in Indian civilization more broadly, not in Buddhism alone.

  • nimitta

    Wilson: “Rather than using mindfulness to purify the mind as part of a celibate monastic exercise designed to sever the karmic cycle of rebirth and bring about nirvana (the original purpose of mindfulness), mindfulness is here applied to mundane worldly concerns, for achieving practical benefits that Americans feel they need.”

    This description of sati’s ‘original purpose’ is carefully circumscribed to heighten the contrast the author claims between religious Buddhism and secular contemporary applications. It is not at all correct, though, to say that celibacy, monasticism, and rebirth define THE original sati. Many who received instruction in sati (and other beneficial practices) were brahmins, ascetics with different views, and householders – for example, Mānadinna in the Satipaṭṭhāna Saṃyutta. In the 104 suttas of that collection, whose entire focus is on how and why to be ‘mindful’, I can’t find a single mention of rebirth, and very little of anything religious (which often was added later).

    As for ‘extinguishing’ – nirvāṇa/nibbāna – it is rarely mentioned in secular modern approachs, true, and never in MBSR. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t occur, though! In fact, it will arrive for a significant number of people who undertake the kind of intensive meditation retreat practice depicted in that 60 Minutes segment and develop it more fully.

    Many of us who explore the early Pali, Sanskrit, and other teachings as scholar/practitioners arrive at the view that the Buddha’s key insights were offered not as elements of a religious system but to help everybody – men, women, monastic, lay – to see through their cultural identities and conditioning. Sati was the preeminent mental factor that the Buddha identified which might enable us to see the impermanent, impersonal nature of experience with our own ‘eyes’, thereby defusing otherwise mandatory cascades of ideation and reaction. Nothing religious about that, but everything to do with freedom.

  • nimitta

    Zafnat: “Mindfulness is not a specifically Buddhist concept. It was already an important practice in the Indian spiritual culture into which Siddhartha Gautama was born.”

    I’ve never come across any credible evidence of this, Zafnat – I wonder if you’re referring to jhāna practice. Sati/smṛti was one of Gotama’s most important innovations, retooling a term brahmins had themselves appropriated from the culture and applied to their specialized Vedic traditions of memorization, transmission, and performance of sacrificial ritual. The Buddha’s kind of sati/smṛti/satipaṭṭhāna goes unmentioned in the Vedas and pre-Buddhist Upaniṣads, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain. True, some venerable Jain texts refer to it, and to similar practices, but these texts were worked over for centuries after the Buddha and bear unmistakable signs of Buddhist influence – likewise, the Yoga-sūtra, Sāṃkhya-kārikā and others such texts.

    One more point, repeated in my comment above: rebirth is rarely if ever linked explicitly to satipaṭṭhāna. As many of us scholar/practitioners see it, the Buddha’s most penetrating teachings such as dependent origination (paṭicca-samuppāda) are not about rebirth at all, in the sense of human lifetimes. Rather, they point to the impersonal processes from which identity (jati) is ‘born’ – not ‘birth’ in the sense of babies, but in the arising of asmitā – ‘I am-ness’ – in you and me. Gotama’s sati teachings are firmly and exclusively planted in this very life, not the metaphysical concerns about eternity that preoccupied both his contemporaries and many later Buddhists. That these ideas were attributed to him and came to permeate the canonical records doesn’t mean Gotama said them – in fact, he’s frequently quoted as rejecting them or disputing their relevance.

    One last point: it certainly is the case that disidentification with momentary, impersonal processes is both a natural outcome of the mindfulness practices shown on ’60 Minutes’ recently, and also an implicit goal of MBSR. One is taught to recognize and welcome the ‘space’ that develops between sensations, thoughts, and feelings as the grip of habitual identification and judgment begins to loosen. For many, this is the beginning of a new developmental stage of life, in which more and more of one’s prevailing bodily, mental, and emotional habits become visible and workable. As I understand it, that’s how the program works, and why Kabat-Zinn developed it.

  • cgosling

    Years ago I took a course in biofeedback (about four hours) at a local hospital. We were shown several videos of different kinds of biofeedback and what can be achieved by it. Then they hooked us up to several kinds of equipment that registered activity in our minds and body. When we reached one level of relaxation

  • cgosling

    Rex – Well said. Religious folk seem to think that mindfulness is inherently part of religion when, of course, it is not. In my opinion it is a technique where mindful relaxation is achieved through biofeedback. Biofeedback is not mysterious or religious. It has nothing to do with deities. It can be easily taught with the aid of several diagnostic machines that measure heartbeat, respiration, nerve impulse, and temperature. Audio tapes are available to help the novice reach various depths of relaxation without special equipment. Once learned it’s easily practiced and applied during times of stress. Again, it does not necessarily have anything to do with religion.

  • maryann26

    Mindfulness is baloney, and a lot of money is being made off of it. It is a pity that nobody brings up all the money being made off of it. It is being sold to cure everything, a miracle come true.

  • The problem I have with the contemporary medical approach to mindfulness is not that it separates mindfulness from religion, but that it obscures its radical nature. Mindfulness is part of a tradition that calls into question the very existence of the separate self. The encounter with “no-self”, which I think lies at the heart of Buddhist practice, goes way beyond reducing stress. It undermines the foundation of our economic system (and many other psycho-social systems as well). Rather than giving us a technique to adapt to our stressful world, mindfulness could be giving us a foundation for questioning the need to live such busy, stressful lives in the first place. By catering to the desire of the self to de-stress, contemporary American mindfulness removes itself from the area where it could be most useful in our world today: providing an alternative to an economic system that systematically chews up people and the planet. Sadly, contemporary mindfulness – stripped of its radicality – tells us to accept the economic status quo and the sense of separation on which it depends, and adapt to its demands as best we can.

    I recommend the work of David Loy for those interested in pursuing this further from the Buddhist perspective.