Religious, Spiritual, and “None of the Above”: How Did Mindfulness Get So Big?

Marguerite Agniel in a Buddha position with her legs crossed
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Photograph by J. de Mirjian, ca.1929.

Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons
Marguerite Agniel in a Buddha position with her legs crossed Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Photograph by J. de Mirjian, ca.1929. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons

The ever-growing popularity of mindfulness—from corporate boardrooms to inner-city schools—has finally made my academic interest a conversation-starter at dinner parties. “Ah, the Buddha was talking about cognitive science 2,500 years ago!” as someone exclaimed after learning about what I do as an anthropologist.

The success of mindfulness in the marketplace is largely an outcome of its emergence as a kind of self-help psychology that has allowed the practice—a derivation of Theravada Buddhist meditation—to operate in non-Buddhist therapeutic settings for not particularly Buddhist goals. Its adoption by people who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” has prompted much popular and scholarly debate about what is “real Buddhism” versus “mere spirituality.”

Do the contradictions between self-help psychology and the transcendent goals of the Buddhist path render the mindfulness movement inauthentic?

As a researcher I find mindfulness most significantly propagated and practiced at Buddhist meditation centers, among people who identify as converts to Western Buddhism. From learning Buddhist Pali scriptures and taking the five precepts, to participating in long Vipassana meditation retreats and learning under the tutelage of Buddhist monks, Zen priests and lay Buddhist teachers, these individuals have deep and abiding commitments to Buddhism.RDinboxYet, a theme that repeatedly emerges in my interviews and fieldwork among these groups is the notion that what they do is distinct and different from what they recognize as “religion.” For many it is part of a spiritual experience and practice, where Buddhism is at heart a rational philosophy consistent with scientific knowledge. Practitioners find evidence for this in the proliferation of cutting edge neuroplasticity studies that legitimize the uses of mindfulness within the broader secular “integrative health” scene. Moreover, the depth of Buddhist philosophy is recognized as emerging not through dogma or religious moral proscription, but rather through personal investigation and direct transformative experience.

Many Western convert Buddhists, for instance, keep a friendly distance between their own conceptions of the core features of Buddhism and the mystical ideas of karma and rebirth that are so earnestly held by more traditional Buddhist communities.

“I don’t think Buddhism is very useful to people as a belief system,” Pablo Das, a senior teacher at the LA-based Buddhist meditation society Against the Stream, told me in the upstairs lounge of the meditation studio where he teaches in Hollywood. “It’s a philosophy. I mean there are ethical teachings; there are heart-based teachings. There are philosophical frameworks through which we’re to look. There’s a rational system of practices, mindfulness-based practices, and those transform you because you have experiences. You have direct experiences.”

In Pablo’s understanding, the “heart-based” teachings are the “truth” of Buddhism and go beyond the history of Buddhism as a “belief” system. His comments are aligned with the notion of spirituality defined as an “authentic” profoundly individual experience that comes from the heart, contrasting sharply with ideas of religion as institutionalized and formalized—and thus inauthentic and superficial.

Although my respondents imagine Buddhism to be an authentic Eastern philosophical tradition transformed into the American context through the interactions of Asian teachers and Western novices of the 60’s counterculture, its history in the West as a rational “heart-based philosophy” and not a religion are somewhat more varied and complex.

As many Buddhist studies scholars have pointed out, early Asian Buddhist reformers of the 19th century strategically employed a scientific language to translate Buddhist ideas into Western contexts. They did so to challenge European impressions of Buddhism as nihilistic, passive, superstitious and ritualistic. In embracing science, they positioned Buddhism as rational and centered on the individual. Moreover, the inviolable truths of Dharma embraced and surpassed Western science, making Buddhism superior to the colonial religion of Christianity.

The popularity that mindfulness enjoys today is therefore, in part, a testament to the success of these early Asian Buddhist reformers—from places as disparate as Sri Lanka, Burma and Japan. Their innovative efforts positioned the Dharma as consistent with “reason” rather than superstition, “empiricism” rather than divine revelation and ultimately the “spiritual” rather than the “religious.” It is also in part due to the parallel efforts of Indian gurus, such as Vivekananda, who presented yoga as an ancient wisdom tradition to help Americans cope with the stresses of western modernity.

When contemporary mindfulness proponents claim that what they do is “scientific” rather than religious or cultural, they are tapping into a complex history of colonial encounters and adaptive appropriation that goes back at least 150 years. Moreover, while the adaptability of the Dharma to the needs of practitioners in various times and places threads through this history, some contemporary scholars have nonetheless remarked on ways that these appropriations are problematic.

Robert Sharf of Berkeley has argued, for example, that seeing meditation as the defining feature of Buddhism is a recent (and mainly Western) development. And C.W Huntington of Hartwick College notes that the ego-based process of “self-help” seems to contradict the fundamental Buddhist tenet of “no-self.”

These arguments certainly offer critical insights on what might be lost in the translations that produced contemporary mindfulness meditation. But it is hard to ignore the fact that these processes—these mistranslations and conflations—still profoundly shape my interlocutors’ understandings of the “spiritual” and have very real felt effects on their mental wellbeing. Anthropologists must determine not if a particular translation is accurate, but rather how it forms and produces people’s sense of spirituality.

How does Buddhist mindfulness, as a hybrid discourse, part homegrown, part foreign, enable contemporary practitioners to claim spirituality and reject institutionalized religion?

These contemporary interpretations that construe the Dharma as the “science of mind” offer special tools for people to explore the mind, emotions and personal experience. I believe that Western converts to Buddhism are finding in these narratives about scientific Buddhism what Vincent Rafael called the “promise of the foreign,” a means for translating Buddhism and the mindfulness movement into a properly rationalized world-affirming “spirituality.”