Oliver Friedmann reflects on the cultural implications of the Western mindfulness movement.
Meditation has been stripped of its cultural and social setting and placed in a Western context to be practiced by the privileged middle class.
In January of 2015, I sat my first Vipassana meditation course. This experience took place at a site known as Dhamma Pabha, about forty minutes north of Hobart, Tasmania. Over the course of the 10 days, I woke up and meditated in silence from before the bitterly cold sunrise, until late evening; a total of 11 hours.
I have to admit; the experience was near life changing. But after a year of reflection, I have begun to see a different side of the mindfulness movement. The question that has worried me most is whether meditation and mindfulness is ‘preconceptual’, and therefore ‘precultural’? Is there something of cultural value at stake here that the scientific treatment of mindfulness does not deem important? And what’s the difference between meditation and mindfulness anyway?
Mindfulness in the West
Mindfulness has made its way into mainstream Western lingo. Whether it be in schools, family homes, the corporate boardroom or government offices, meditation is common place. A recent survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics in the United States suggested that 8% of Americans engaged in some kind of meditation practice. With workplace stress costing the nation approximately $10.11 billion a year, it is no wonder that corporate Australia is looking for a solution. The Department of Industry agency IP Australia signed a $10900 contract last year to subsidise yoga classes with Canberra instructor Swami Yogamanas Saraswati, reflecting a growing government trend to spend thousands each year on self-improvement programs.
Mindfulness as a term was popularised in the late 1970s thanks to Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor of Medicine Emeritus and creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare and Society at the University of Massachusetts. His Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program, initiated in 1979, brought meditation practices into mainstream Western medicine conversations, and thus mindfulness became free of its religious and cultural roots.
Today, mindfulness is packaged in many different ways. Some reference a Buddhist origin. Some do not. Some use imagery of the Buddha and other Hindu icons. Some have a focus on lengthy retreats with exorbitant costs. Most common though is the commercial link to a New Age/Hippy tradition, to successful corporates and to a fantasy about the exotic East. Apps, corporate retreats and personal wellbeing seminars are generating huge revenue from the practice.
Regardless of how mediation is presented, the verdict is clear in Western psychology. Meditation practice is beneficial for psychological wellbeing. But with this Western, secular, scientific verdict comes cultural baggage which has not received adequate attention. Is the cross-cultural practice of Eastern methods of meditation, referred to as mindfulness in the West, just another instance of cultural appropriation? Is this a relic of colonisation, a new age consumer-driven trend towards spiritual charlatanism? Or should the practice of meditation lie outside discussion of culture?
Mindfulness and Western appropriation
It seems easy to draw boundaries for those cases where first nation indigenous culture is appropriated, such as by the Settler societies of North America and Australia. In an Asian context however, where local advocates of traditional culture have often been more responsible for its practice in the West, the cultural consequences are less clear cut. It is harder to see cultural damage or discontent in the East from our Western vantage point, and often difficult to demarcate meditation from religious practice.
Vipassana traditions in the West deemphasizes dogma and doctrine and dismisses communal ritual practices within the Buddhist tradition as cultural idiosyncrasies. Claims like ‘the Buddha was not a Buddhist’ are common in Western discourse around mindfulness. Claims of this kind allow Westerners to capitalise on some aura of authenticitythat is presented by the Dharma teachings. Scholarly discourse has often shown that the label ‘Buddhism’ itself is Westerncentric. That the term was used by colonized people only as a means of reclaiming cultural legitimacy.
There is danger with the practice of mindfulness of creating a cultureless space, which appears through the normalisation of white culture. Appealing to a Western sense of individualism and autonomy, the practice is most inviting and accessible to the white middle class. In some nations, Buddhism has such a central position in politics and society that it has become the cornerstone of legitimacy for the ruling class. No longer do the cultural owners of meditation have control over how they or their practice is presented to the West; yet another example of social colonising of the exotic East.
There is no doubt that meditation is beneficial for our social and personal wellbeing. But we need to make sure that its origins and uses do not get confused with commercial enterprise. It seems that the difference between Western mindfulness and meditation is important. Meditation is a personal endeavour that is slowly morphing into its own commercial and socially mobile entity. On the surface it can seem that the practise of meditation is harmless, yet its transportation to a commercial setting named mindfulness is problematic.