Thursday, August 10, 2017

Is Mindfulness a Fad?

I was a kid when the CB radio fad hit.  There was that song, Convoy, and then the movie based on the song and next thing I knew my dad was installing whip antennas on the station wagon and mounting a CB radio under the dash as we were about to leave on our family summer vacation.  I remember the thrill--as we drove across the plains of Colorado--of pressing the button on the microphone and saying "Breaker, breaker 1-9" and hearing a husky ethereal voice reply "Come on back, breaker."

It was fun.  We learned the lingo and etiquette ("What's your 20, good buddy?").  It broke up the monotony of those long drives to Disneyland and Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon and far-flung relatives.  It was helpful to have a CB radio on the interstate back in those pre-Internet, pre-cellphone days.  It probably also drove the serious CB users--the long-haul truckers--up the wall having all of us amateurs clogging the airwaves trying to sound like C.W. McCall.  We look back on it now with fondness and perhaps a little bit of embarrassment.

Is that how we'll think about Mindfulness in twenty or thirty years?

I've heard "serious" practitioners of Buddhism speak disparagingly of "McMindfulness."  Earlier this week Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight Show had guest Andy Puddicombe lead the audience through a two-minute meditation; probably the longest stretch of dead-air in the show's history.  Newsweek and Time have published big glossy special issues about Mindfulness (both of which, of course, featured cover photos of attractive young women in blissful meditative states).  There are now dating services, such as, geared toward helping Mindfulness practitioners find mates.  A plethora of manufacturers and retail outlets make and sell meditation supplies, from altars to zafus.  New Mindfulness apps for our smartphones keep popping up.  Mindfulness teachers and books and retreats and workshops and TED talks continue to proliferate.

Although I think we will indeed look back in embarrassment on some of the excesses of the marketing of Mindfulness, I don't think Mindfulness itself is a fad.  Because Mindfulness is rooted in a 2,500 year old Buddhist tradition (and is unlikely to be replaced by newer "technology"), and because it has such a proven track-record of being genuinely beneficial, it is here to stay.  But like the fake Buddhist monks who aggressively panhandle tourists in New York City and San Francisco, there will always be a need to discern what is bona fide from what is disingenuous and crass. 

The explosion of Mindfulness into popular culture is part of a longer, steadier trend of Buddhism making inroads into the West.  That longer trend can be traced back in part to Zen monk  Shoyen Shaku's appearance at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, and then his disciple D.T. Suzuki's tireless efforts to promote Buddhism outside of Japan (including dialogues with appreciative Christian monks such as Thomas Merton) into the 1960's, and then the charismatic Tibetan master Chögyam Trungpa's establishment of Buddhist meditation and education centers in the U.S. and Europe (including the Naropa Institute, now Naropa University, in Boulder, Colorado) in the 1970's, and the rise in popularity of the effervescent Dalia Lama, and then the importation of Theravada-based vipasanna (aka insight or mindfulness) meditation to America by Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg.   

The various strains of Buddhism--Zen, Tibetan, Theravada, Pure Land, etc.--long separated from one another by culture and distance, are now mingling in the West at an unprecedented level.  Many observers postulate that an entirely new strain of Western Buddhism is emerging as a result.  And, like most things Western, it will no doubt be susceptible to commodification and hyperbole.  The facade of Mindfulness in America may be bright and neon-lit but the temple behind it is majestic and the door is open to enter and explore further.

Mindfulness isn't going to flame out or jump the shark.  It may eventually be taken for granted as it becomes a standard component in school curricula and workplace wellness programs and patient rehab protocols and TV-show dialogue and people's morning routine.   Maybe we'll stop calling it Mindfulness but I suspect that twenty or thirty years from now a lot more people, Buddhists and non-Buddhists, will be practicing Buddhist-derived meditation than are now--but it won't be particularly exciting or exotic or newsworthy.  It will just be part of the Western cultural landscape, like the imported Himalayan blackberry bushes that have spread throughout the Pacific Northwest where I live.

Speaking of which, this is my exit.  So remember: keep the shiny side up and the greasy side down.  Try not to feed the bears.  10-4, good buddy.  See you on the flipside.  Over and out.  Namaste.


Post a Comment

<< Home