Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Study of Buddhism highlights evolution of mindfulness

  • Print

In an ostensibly secular age, it is difficult to imagine a concept derived from religious tradition gaining widespread pop-culture currency. Even less likely that it might appeal equally to followers of diverse religious backgrounds as to atheists, agnostics, and other sceptics.

Yet this is precisely what has happened in the last decade under the umbrella of what has come to be called the mindfulness movement.

Mindful America, by American scholar Jeff Wilson, traces the growth and integration of mindfulness, a traditional Buddhist practice, in contemporary America. An associate professor of religious studies at Renison University College, Wilson has investigated the mutually transformative relationship of Buddhism and the U.S. in two previous works.

A central tenet of Buddhist thought is the ineluctability of change. Originally an obscure monastic meditative discipline, mindfulness today is part concept, part practice, part utopian social movement. Moreover, it has come to represent the Western face of Buddhism -- or, as Wilson would have it, crypto-Buddhism.

It is also a major economic force, with books and seminars aimed at mindful treatment of anxiety, grief, substance abuse and even shyness. There are courses for mindful law students, investors, teachers, parents and lovers.

Mindful America's primary audience is scholars of religion and American culture, yet is as equally applicable in Canada, or indeed, in the generalized Western world. Wilson positions his work as a pioneering attempt to bridge a gap in scholarship centred around mindfulness. He is explicitly unconcerned with whether mindfulness as a practice actually confers the assorted benefits its proponents claim.

Despite its intended scholarly audience, this is an accessible and remarkably jargon-free study. Wilson is clearly not a reluctant writer, and his prose is clear without being reductive or dry. The readability, and thus possibility of a larger, non-academic audience, is due in large part to the fantastic organization of his argument. He makes his case clearly and forcefully, without treading into repetition.

Wilson's central claim is that Buddhism, as a tradition, owes its continued existence to an ability to meet the needs of new cultures it encounters. It does this through both adoption and adaption. In this frame, mindfulness acts as a test case for Wilson's thesis.

In earlier incarnations, mindfulness was a contemplative practice intended to help monks appreciate the ever-changing nature of reality and existence. This insight allows a lack of attachment to all things temporal. Mindfulness was thus strongly tied to the metaphysical concept of nirvana and cycles of birth, death and rebirth.

To find a foothold in America, mindfulness underwent a series of fascinating transformations Wilson describes with insight and acuity. First popularized in the work of a fairly small number of advocates, its religious lineage was obscured. Explicitly metaphysical connections were symbolized or re-interpreted to a form more palatable to middle-class America.

The religious associations of mindfulness were further abstracted as discussions became increasingly centred upon the benefits available from mindful practice and attitudes. Philosophical insight was exchanged for stress reduction, healthier relationships and the ability to function more efficiently in the economic marketplace. These benefits were then given neuro-scientific backing, which in turn allowed mindfulness increased penetration into areas typically unavailable to religion, such as schools and hospitals.

Framing religion as a set of solutions to problems encountered by particular cultures proves a fruitful methodological choice for Wilson. At the same time, a more extensive treatment of mindfulness and contemporary American Buddhism as religion in other guises would prove fascinating.

Wilson has done something rather remarkable: he has written a well-researched, intensively referenced work intended for scholars, which is nevertheless both interesting and accessible to non-specialists.

In accounting for the success of a particularly ancient religious tradition and its encounter with American culture, Wilson has capably demonstrated the aforementioned Buddhist insight that all things, everywhere, are in flux.

 

Jarett Myskiw is a Winnipeg teacher with a master's degree from the department of religion at the University of Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 16, 2014 G7

History

Updated on Saturday, August 16, 2014 at 8:27 AM CDT: Formatting.

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

City Beautiful trailer: How architecture shaped Winnipeg's DNA

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A young goose gobbles up grass at Fort Whyte Alive Monday morning- Young goslings are starting to show the markings of a adult geese-See Bryksa 30 day goose challenge- Day 20– June 11, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • Marc Gallant / Winnipeg Free Press.  Local/Weather Standup- Catching rays. Prairie Dog stretches out at Fort Whyte Centre. Fort Whyte has a Prairie Dog enclosure with aprox. 20 dogs young and old. 060607.

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Are you still on the Bombers' and Jets' bandwagons?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google