They are popping up everywhere and in rich varieties: hot yoga, power yoga, hatha yoga, kundalini yoga, mindfulness. Practices from within the gut of the East are gaining the trust of Westerners who may be Christians, Pentecostals, skeptics, atheists, or hipsters. Just the other day, a particularly stressed friend told me he would try yin yoga, a type of yoga where you hold your asanas (postures) for longer periods of time. This, he had been told, would bring him emotional and mental salvation. Another friend meditates at least half an hour every morning. He might kick off the day hungry, thirsty, or sleepless, but he will always perform a ritual in which he will sit silently for 30 minutes, emptying his mind and controlling his breath before starting his life anew, as he says. A third friend is always telling me that being “mindful of the moment” helped heal her emotional wounds far more effectively than years of therapy. And a fourth does yoga because she was told it would keep her fit and confident.
Pointing fingers at perhaps some degree of shallowness of the West’s Zen culture is nothing new. On the other hand, it’s an overstatement to say that everyone who practices some of the most sophisticated and millennia-old Eastern practices does so in an empty way. In our attempt to restore our inner core to equilibrium, we should rather be asking the question: Can we children of the West genuinely benefit from spiritual practices premised on religions and cultures completely different than our own?
We have the tendency to toss around words like yoga, meditation, and mindfulness as if they were all one and the same. It might be safe to assume that meditation is an umbrella term for a host of techniques and practices—like silence, breathing, emptiness, mindfulness, love, and patience — all aimed at reaching self-regulation or a heightened level of consciousness. Mindfulness is a subcategory of meditation; it’s the act of being focused on the present moment. Yoga, or the spiritual science of the mind, contains methods applying to both body and mind — ethical disciplines, physical postures, breath control — meditation included.
In this quest to understand how the Western mind can or cannot benefit from such practices, I narrowed my search to meditation and mindfulness. I spoke with C. Robert Cloninger, Wallance Renard Professor of Psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis and author of the book Feeling Good: The Science of Well-Being. Cloninger has produced extensive research on the correlation between mindfulness-oriented meditation and well-being.
Neuroscience-wise, his research has revealed changes in the activity of the brain’s default mode network (the part of the brain associated with self-referential processes and anything related to ego) and in the activity of the autobiographical system of learning and memory (a system comprising episodes recollected from a person’s life) during meditation. Cloninger has also found that the appropriate meditative practice can lead to increased happiness and health and to feeling more self-directed, cooperative, and self-transcendent. It can also lead to feelings of boundlessness and inseparability with something greater than yourself. “Essentially, with meditation you are able to think of your life as a creative narrative in which you are responsible for writing the next chapter in a way that is meaningful and satisfying for you and others in harmony,” Cloninger writes.
I also spoke with Candy Gunther Brown, professor of religious studies at Indiana University and author of the chapter “Can ‘Secular’ Mindfulness Be Separated from Religion” in the book Handbook of Mindfulness: Culture, Context, and Social Engagement. Gunther Brown attributes the popularity of secular mindfulness programs in the West partly to the decline of other traditional religions and to our modern frustration with technology. “People feel bondaged to their cellphones and computers, so part of the appeal is the nonsecular, mystical part of it. If ancient religious people have done it for a long time, it must work, modern people think,” Gunther Brown says. She also stresses that as traditional religions — especially Christianity — are losing traction, the promise of mindfulness is increasingly filling the inevitable moral vacuum. “Mindfulness will get you more focused, optimistic, and compassionate, but through the cultivation of ethical virtues that come from other religious systems, Buddhism in particular,” Gunther Brown says.
In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn, an MIT-trained molecular biologist and longtime student of Buddhist meditation, went on a two-week meditation retreat, during which he had a vision of a mindfulness-based stress-reduction program (MBSR), or, rather, of researching its effects on medical patients in a hospital setting. Soon he was applying the ancient Eastern disciplines to people with chronic health conditions in the United States. Patients responded warmly to the program, and Kabat-Zinn did not take long to put MBSR into the mainstream conscience, though Gunther Brown says he did so by adopting a commonsensical American vocabulary and denuding mindfulness of its original Eastern origins.
Since then, mindfulness has found it way into mainstream science. Clinical psychology and psychiatry have developed therapeutic applications based on mindfulness to assist people who are experiencing a variety of psychological conditions. Large population-based research studies have shown that the practice of mindfulness is strongly correlated with greater well-being and perceived health.
For Gunther Brown, however, the benefits of such alternative practices remain an open question because studies have not looked at secularized mindfulness, but at things that are supposedly secularized yet are still deeply entrenched in religious tradition. She also thinks scholarly literature looks the other way when it comes to the adverse effects of mindfulness, which, upon her feeling of the research, range from anxiety to even psychotic episodes in people with preexisting conditions. “Just the other day,” Gunther Brown says, “I received an email from a schoolteacher who had been removed from her classroom because she refused to teach a mandatory mindfulness curriculum, and the reason she refused was because she had a history of post-traumatic stress disorder. Every time she tried it, it would send her into a panic attack.”
Doing aerobics, taking a walk in the park, listening to music, doing math, or eating a nutritious meal can all produce the same benefits as mindfulness, says Gunther Brown, who finds “the hype much more than the actual evidence about the benefits of mindfulness programs.” But her major concern is that these programs carry the risk of proselytizing people to other religions or cultural systems. “Many of these programs marketed as secular mindfulness programs are still connected with the beliefs of their founding religious system. And the longer you practice, say, mindfulness, the more you internalize religious ideas that go with it.”
Cloninger, on the other hand, distinguishes between spirituality and religion. “Spirituality is the attempt to find meaning in life beyond instant gratification of individual desires and goals, with invocation, prayer, or meditation being essential aspects of it,” he says. “Religion is a set of dogmatic beliefs established by either authority figures or institutions, which could be cultivated by a spiritual search or enforced by fear or dependence on these authority figures.”
His work reveals that there are core psychological and biological elements of spirituality across different dogmatic traditions, and based on these commonalities, people from different religions and even atheists can benefit from practices such as meditation. “Even agnostics and atheists can be highly spiritual and healthy contributors to the society through their dedication to the meaning of self-transcendence and to the cultivation of beauty and truth in the arts and sciences,” Cloninger says. “It is extremely dogmatic and idiosyncratic for anyone to suggest that only the Buddhist path is safe and effective. This insults the many people from other religious traditions and secular approaches that identify the common biopsychosocial elements of all these alternative approaches. Aren’t there saints in every religion?”
What do you think? Have you tried meditation, mindfulness, yoga, perhaps tai chi? Have you seen tangible results, are you continuing, did you drop out, did you fall head over heels in love with the new changes in your life? Or did you perhaps notice some disconcerting effects, or just nothing? Would you agree that these practices are above religions and traditions, imprinted in humanity’s common soul with the potential of doing only good, or are they products of cultural appropriation with obscure psychological effects and the ability to mess with your previous belief system?
You might want to meditate on this.