The Rise of Mindfulness

Suddenly, in about 2014, everyone was talking about mindfulness. Although derived from Buddhist meditation practices, mindfulness achieved such unprecedented levels of mainstream popularity that many people may not even be aware of its Buddhist origins. The story of how this came about is, therefore, inevitably bound up with the wider story of the transmission of Buddhism to the West and, in particular, the adaptation of certain elements of Buddhist teachings to a western cultural context.

In the popular imagination, western interest in Buddhism is often associated with the hippie movement of the 1960s and 70s, but there was contact between India and Europe a lot earlier than that. Alexander the Great invaded northern India in 326 BCE, bringing the culture of the eastern Mediterranean into direct contact with the Indian sub-continent. Following his death, a Greco-Buddhist kingdom was established in the region of present-day Afghanistan that lasted four hundred years. Trade between the Roman Empire and the civilisations of Asia was far more extensive than we might imagine. Roman coins have been discovered in archaeological sites all over India, and where there is commerce there is communication. 

Yet, in spite of these tantalising speculations, detailed knowledge of Buddhism remained rather sketchy in Europe until the nineteenth century, when western scholars began systematically translating Buddhist texts. However, this emphasis on texts – to the almost total exclusion of any interest in the everyday practice of ordinary Buddhist people in Buddhist societies – resulted in a slightly distorted and incomplete picture of Buddhism that still persists to the present day. We see evidence of this in the enduring appeal of a number of questionable assumptions. Of these, one of the most common is the idea that Buddhism is a purely philosophical system, free of dogma, and consistent with the scientific rationalism of post-enlightenment modernity. Another is that the principal practice of Buddhism is meditation. Both of these views are highly inaccurate, though widely taken for granted, lying as they do behind the oft-repeated cliché that Buddhism is ‘not a religion, but a way of life’. This has always struck me as a very peculiar thing to say. After all, what else is a religion, any religion, if it’s not a way of life? 

I’ll never forget the shock I got the first time I visited an Asian Buddhist country and saw people smashing coconuts on a statue of Ganesh as they entered the temple compound to pray for health, wealth and happiness – just like the adherents of any other religion. What had any of this to do with the scientific, post-enlightenment rationalism of Buddhist philosophy and the ascetic ‘technology’ of meditation that I had read about in all those books written by western experts for the benefit of western readers like me? Little did I realise that the overwhelming majority of devout practising Buddhists in Asian Buddhist countries know surprisingly little about the cardinal doctrines of what is generally presented as ‘Buddhist philosophy’, and rarely – if ever – practice meditation. In reality, they just go about their lives in much the same way as everybody else, having recourse as need arises to the rites and rituals of the tradition into which they happen to have been born. Being a Buddhist lay-person in a Buddhist society means visiting temples from time to time to pray for good fortune, supporting the monks through the offering of food and alms, and doing one’s best to live according to the basic moral precepts of the tradition. This is done not to achieve enlightenment – a goal considered beyond the reach of all but the most exceptional individuals – but more prosaically to generate merit in this life, or what is popularly known as ‘good karma’, in order to secure a more favourable rebirth next time around. 

In the east, as in the west, meditation has therefore always been a specialised activity for the religious professional and, until relatively recently, even the majority of Buddhist monks seldom engaged with the more esoteric elements of the Buddha’s teaching. During the 19th century, however – and partly as a response to the growing interest of western scholars in Buddhist texts and traditions – Buddhist reform movements in Sri Lanka and Burma started to revitalise the monastic orders with a renewed emphasis on meditation. The result was that meditation soon came to be seen as the very essence of Buddhist teaching and practice, whilst other aspects of the tradition were largely ignored, and sometimes even denigrated as being corruptions of the Buddha’s ‘true’ teaching. Over the course of the twentieth century, Buddhist teachings and teachers started attracting large followings in Europe and North America, and ideas derived from Buddhism, such as notions of karma and rebirth, seeped into the lexicon of global popular culture. 

As Buddhism has become more established in western societies, western Buddhists have generally fallen into two categories. One the one hand, there those who have adopted the wholesale transplantation of a particular Asian Buddhist tradition; on the other, there are those who have sought to develop a distinctively western form of Buddhism. In this process of on-going negotiation of what constitutes ‘authentic’ Buddhism in a western society, many – including those who affiliate with an imported Asian tradition – have dispensed with much of what may be seen as the Asian ‘cultural’ elements, retaining only what they consider to be the ‘pure’ and ‘essential’ teachings of the Buddha. The result, they would argue, is a legitimate and appropriate evolution of the Buddha dharma in a contemporary western context. The process by which some western Buddhists have progressively distanced themselves from Asian Buddhist traditions – as well as shaking off associations with new age spirituality and hippie culture, and all the pejorative connotations that go with those labels – is arguably what has enabled meditation to bridge the gap from alternative to mainstream. This process of adaptation went a stage further during the latter part of the twentieth century when certain key figures effectively decided to disavow Buddhism altogether and rebrand what were explicitly Buddhist meditation practices as a purely secular psychological technique, adopting the word ‘mindfulness’ as a non-religious substitute for the word meditation. 

This most recent phase in the transmission of Buddhism to the west is in many ways the most interesting. Paradoxically, and in typically Buddhist fashion, Buddhism became fully assimilated to western culture when it stopped being Buddhist. In the process, Buddhist meditation practices, intended to train monks in the rigorous disciplines deemed necessary to the attainment of enlightenment and liberation, were adapted to fulfil rather more mundane objectives: initially as a therapeutic intervention to cope with stress and related conditions, and latterly as a tool to improve efficiency and performance in almost every arena of life, from the bedroom to the boardroom.

The person most commonly credited with the development of mindfulness meditation as a therapeutic intervention is Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist by training and – at the time – practising Buddhist who, in 1979, developed what came to be called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the University of Massachusetts medical school. Kabat-Zinn basically applied Buddhist meditation techniques to the treatment of stress, pain and other medical issues and called it ‘mindfulness’ in order to make it more acceptable to the secular medical establishment that funded his research. He happily describes mindfulness as ‘Buddhist meditation without the Buddhism’, an approach echoed by other leading figures of the movement who sometimes talk about it as ’stealth Buddhism’. And indeed, there are compelling arguments to suggest that contemporary secular mindfulness is effectively ‘Western Buddhism’ in all but name, a product of the assimilation of modern Buddhism to global consumer capitalism. Yet, in spite of what seems blindingly obvious, many mindfulness teachers distance themselves from any association with Buddhism, preferring to imagine it as a purely secular phenomenon that simply came into being without any antecedents.

But of course, everything has a history, and Kabat-Zinn ploughed a lonely furrow for decades before mindfulness exploded into mainstream culture. Even with the benefit of hindsight, it’s still hard to say exactly why it suddenly became so popular, though it is possible to identify certain key moments that undoubtedly contributed, such as when Google launched the ‘search inside yourself’ mindfulness training programme developed by Chade-Meng Tan for Google employees in 2007. Five years later, in 2012, Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace) made Meng a bestselling author. In 2008, the Oxford Mindfulness Centre was founded to further the development of mindfulness based cognitive therapy, with a particular application to the treatment of depression. In 2013, one of its most famous graduates, Ruby Wax, published Sane New Mind, the first of what has since become a series of popular self-help books. This seemed to start a chain reaction as more and more high-profile advocates all started extolling the benefits of mindfulness, prompting the influential media tycoon and bestselling author, Arianna Huffington, to declare 2014 the ‘year of mindfulness’. In just a few years mindfulness went from being a quirky alternative therapy to become a global pop culture trend, spreading far beyond the medical establishment like a contagious virus, permeating the corporate world, education, professional sports, and even the military. And it’s surely no coincidence that the mass-market appeal of mindfulness coincided with the total dominance of the mass market itself. 

If one believes the media hype, the benefits of practising mindfulness are almost too many to list, and range from the sublime to the ridiculous, covering pretty much every aspect of health, lifestyle and work. Inevitably, it didn’t take long for the backlash to kick in and the scientific evidence that had lent credibility to the popularity of mindfulness began to be subjected to closer scrutiny. A report published by Madhav Goyal and colleagues from Johns Hopkins University in 2014 surveyed 18,753 clinical trials, of which only 47 were deemed robust enough to assess the effectiveness of mindfulness-based interventions. They concluded that mindfulness practice may result in a small to moderate reduction in the symptoms of psychological stress. This is a rather more modest assertion than the extravagant claims made for the effectiveness of mindfulness routinely trumpeted in the media. 

In other words, all the rather breathless reports of ‘scientific proof’ that mindfulness helps you de-stress, get a better night’s sleep, cure depression, lose weight, make better business decisions and so on, needs to be read with a degree of caution. Many of the studies on which such claims are based do not actually demonstrate much more than the fact that doing a mindfulness course will result in positive outcomes compared with doing nothing. And because many of the studies not only lack adequately designed controls, but also any clear or consistent definition of what they mean by mindfulness in the first place, they fail to show that doing a mindfulness course will be any more beneficial than going for a brisk walk every day or taking up a new hobby. That doesn’t mean that practising meditation won’t have a positive impact in all sorts of ways; just that the appeal to the authority of ‘science’ can be misleading, at best, and is rarely quite what it seems.

At about the same time, some Buddhists also began to complain about what they saw as the hijacking of ‘their’ spiritual practices to serve ends that might be considered to be at odds with the purposes of meditation as taught within the Buddhist tradition. The reduction of mindfulness meditation to little more than a ‘lifestyle hack’ to alleviate stress and increase productivity could be seen as rather missing the point. Indeed, the personal fulfilment promised by contemporary secular mindfulness seems diametrically opposed to the radical personal transformation that the diligent application of the teachings of Buddhism, and other traditions too for that matter, is intended to bring about. By placing the emphasis on being present in order more fully to enjoy our experiences, contemporary secular mindfulness seems to reinforce the ego-self that Buddhist spiritual disciplines are designed to dissolve and transcend, thus perpetuating the problem the Buddha’s teachings are intended to resolve. Whilst there can be no doubt that the practice of meditation will help almost anyone cope better with stress, and very likely improve their ability to be more efficient in the performance of any given task, such benefits would traditionally have been seen as by-products of the practice, not the point of it. In Buddhism, having the right intention is paramount, and a right intention is one directed towards the realisation of Nirvana, or liberation from the bondage of suffering that characterises our unenlightened egocentric existence. 

These, and other, criticisms are summed up in the term ‘McMindfulness’, coined by Ronald Purser – a practising Buddhist – who argues that mindfulness has been co-opted by the market, making it a thinly disguised tool for subtle forms of social control and compliance. On this view, by simply treating the symptoms of, for example, stress, without addressing its more fundamental causes, the mindfulness movement inadvertently subverts itself and reinforces the status quo.

 The commercial exploitation of all things mindful, by a media and advertising industry that barely understood what it was even talking about, peaked between 2014-16, before reaching a particularly depressing low point in 2018 when Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) came up with a new marketing campaign: a website called KFChill. This was intended, one can only hope, to be a tongue-in-cheek take on meditation, consisting as it does of three one-hour tracks for people to relax, unwind and distress to the finger licking vibes of the sound of chicken frying, bacon sizzling or gravy simmering…

The hype around the contemporary secular mindfulness movement has now largely subsided. And that’s probably no bad thing. Yet, as a result, it is undoubtedly true that there are now more people practising meditation in some form or other than at any time in the past. Whilst some may argue that mindfulness has been ‘corrupted’ by the all-consuming monster of consumerism, the more positive message is that meditation and mindfulness are more accessible than ever before, and more people are benefitting from it than ever before.

And that’s surely a good thing.

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