Meditation in the West: Mainstream

The practice of meditation (or contemplation) is found in most if not all, major religious traditions. Ancient traditions throughout the world have used meditation as a technique to go beyond conscious thought and experience the inner depths of the mind. In Eastern religions such as Buddhism this practice has continued unbroken over centuries. In the West, however, the living tradition of meditation largely disappeared with the destruction of classical civilisation (although the Eastern Orthodox churches have a rich and varied contemplative tradition), and interest in meditation only began to gain mainstream traction in the West when Eastern meditative practices were reintroduced by Asian meditation teachers.[1]

Ideas about Eastern meditation began to infiltrate Western popular culture before the American Revolution, through various European esoteric Christian sects.[2] However, until the eighteenth century, Western engagement with Eastern religions was sporadic and occurred primarily through missionaries, travel and trade.[3] It was during the nineteenth century, particularly the period between the 1840s and the 1880s, that Eastern religious philosophy and meditation practices started to have a significant influence on Western ideas regarding spirituality and mental healing. In Mindful America, Jeff Wilson argues that the beginnings of American interest in Buddhism are usually dated to 1844, when Edward Salisbury (1814-1901), an American Professor of Arabic and Sanskrit languages, read his “Memoir on the History of Buddhism” to the American Oriental Society, and the Transcendentalist journal Dial published Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s (1804-1894) translation of an extract from the Lotus Sutra.[4] During this period popular writers and transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) and Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) were influenced by Eastern scriptures on meditation and their works reflected a new and influential paradigm for the understanding of different religions as pointing towards a common universal metaphysical ‘truth.’[5] This perennial philosophy (philosophia perennis) was also promoted by The Theosophical Society, an organisation founded by Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891) and Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907) in New York in 1875, which greatly influenced the spread of Hindu and Buddhist ideas in the West. Blavatsky introduced Eastern concepts into American spiritualist groups and published texts on meditation, making them available in popular form to English-speaking audiences. Similarly, New Thought practitioners (followers of the American spiritual teacher Phineas P. Quimby [1802-1866]) also included meditation techniques such as guided visualisations and mantras as part of their healing therapies.[6]

The nineteenth century also saw notable visits to the West by Eastern spiritual leaders, such as Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), the Zen roshi Soen Shaku (1860-1919), and Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952), all of whom founded societies and institutions for the distribution of their meditation techniques and philosophical teachings. In particular, scholars have argued that the Parliament of the World’s Religions, held in Chicago in 1893, was the landmark event that increased Western awareness of meditation, as this was the first time that Westerners on Western soil received Eastern spiritual teachings directly from Asian teachers.[7] Carole Cusack writes that the event, which ran from 11 – 27 September, is now viewed retrospectively as the first instance of interfaith dialogue and religious pluralism.[8] The Buddhist delegation at the Parliament was one of the more influential groups, and speakers such as Sri Lankan preacher Anagarika Dharmapala (1864–1933), Shaku Soen and Swami Vivekananda were all very positively received. As a result, Cusack notes that Buddhist sympathisers like the German American Paul Carus (1852-1919) “initiated programmes to disseminate Buddhism among Westerners, through personal relationships with both the high-profile Dharmapala, and especially Soen.”[9]

Despite this initial interest, meditation remained a relatively fringe activity in the West until the late 1960s, when there was a wave of interest in Eastern spiritual practices fuelled by the counter-cultural climate. Factors such as youth unrest (triggered by opposition to the Vietnam War), suspicion of organised religion, a focus on individualism and experiential knowledge, and widespread experimentation with psychedelic drugs, combined to create a cultural climate where meditation was welcome and thrived.[10] In particular, the youth of the Western counter-culture, who were largely brought up and educated within a Christian environment, became disillusioned with the externally imposed moral constraints and absolutist belief systems of organised religion.[11] Instead, they began to gravitate towards psychological theory and personal experience as a way to make sense of the world.[12] As a result, there was an increased popular interest in, and idealisation of, Eastern religions and their seemingly more liberal, diverse and experiential frameworks.[13] Westerners were attracted to Eastern religious concepts such as non-duality and karma, ideals of non-violence and peace, and the focus on the individual spiritual experience. Paul Oliver notes that young Westerners were also attracted to stories of the mystical achievements and abilities of yogis and meditators, which were so different from ‘normal’ experience in the West.[14] Within this context, meditation began to be appreciated as both an Eastern religious technique that could be used to directly experience the divine, and a secular tool for psychological growth and development.

During the 1960s and 1970s the mainstreaming of meditation continued to be influenced by the arrival of Eastern religious teachers from Asia.[15] During this period several highly influential Eastern religious figures visited the West, including neo-Hindu guru and founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON)  Srila Prabhupada (1896-1977), controversial Tibetan lama Chogyam Trungpa (1939-1987), Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh (b.1926) and Tenzin Gyatso (b.1935), the fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet.[16] While these spiritual teachers all played a significant role in dispersing ideas related to meditation, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1918-2008), the founder of Transcendental Meditation (TM), arguably had the most substantial impact on the popular reception of meditation in the West.[17] Like Vivekananda and Yogananda before him, Maharishi had a Western-style education, was fluent in English, and posited that meditation was compatible with Western science. However, Maharishi’s unique contribution was his ability to connect with the mainstream media, in particular the youth market. At the time, almost half of the American population was under the age of twenty-five and according to Philip Goldberg “whatever captured their fancy reverberated throughout society.”[18] Hence, when Maharishi taught TM to The Beatles and other popular celebrities, he obtained “the gold standard in endorsements,” along with a tremendous amount of media coverage.[19] Goldberg writes that “every mention of the Beatles and meditation seemed to increase demand on campuses, where students flocked to introductory lectures, sometimes by the thousands.”[20]

The popular news media ran numerous articles on TM, including a 1975 TIME magazine cover featuring an image of Maharishi along with the headline: “Meditation: The Answer to all Your Problems?”[21] Maharishi also made appearances on national television, which resulted in an unprecedented amount of US media attention for an Eastern meditation teacher. Goldberg writes:

The mother lode was two nationally televised interviews, one with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show and one with Joe Garagiola on Today. Likely no spiritual teacher, except perhaps the pope or Billy Graham, had ever been heard by that many Americans at once … Probably very few viewers understood what he was talking about. But the words, ‘more energetic,’ ‘more productive,’ and ‘happier’ no doubt registered…[22]

Additionally, books about meditation and Maharishi gained mainstream popularity. The book TM: Discovering Inner Energy and Overcoming Stress (1975) remained on the New York Times bestseller list for six months and sold well over a million copies.[23]

The popularity of TM could be said to have reached its peak in 1976, when more than one million people had allegedly learned to meditate using the TM method, and scientific research into meditation, and the legitimization of meditation in general, was established. However, in the same year the cultural impact of TM began to decline.[24] Scholars of religion argue that this happened for several reasons, including competition from the arrival of new Eastern gurus, the high cost of the introductory TM course, and a shift in the focus of the TM movement away from basic meditation and towards a new practice called the ‘TM-Sidhi technique.’[25] Further, despite the persistent framing of TM as scientific and secular, it still included religious elements, such as guru-teachers, initiation ceremonies, Sanskrit mantras derived from Tantric Hinduism, a connection to ideas such as reincarnation and God-consciousness, and alleged supernatural benefits such as the ability to levitate. These factors decreased the ability of TM to penetrate into some secular areas of society, and attracted criticism from both liberal and conservative Christians.[26]

As interest in TM declined, mainstream interest in a new type of meditation – ‘mindfulness’ meditation – increased. In Mindful America, Jeff Wilson identifies the 1970s as the decade when mindfulness meditation first began to flourish in Western culture. He writes:

When the decade opened, mindfulness was a marginal practice within Western Buddhism, associated with a handful of books and pamphlets, most of them by Asians or Europeans. By the end of the decade, the major players in American mindfulness were all in place, and permanent institutions dedicated to the promotion of mindfulness were beginning to make their mark. The center of the mindfulness movement was shifting toward the United States, which would soon emerge as the dominant player in the mindfulness game.[27]

Wilson identifies several key sources of mindfulness teaching that appeared in the 1970s and that drove the contemporary Western mindfulness movement. Firstly, a number of Westerners trained in Asia in the vipassana meditation method, and brought the teachings home in the form of workshops and retreats for Western lay practitioners. Many of these Western teachers had both formal scientific training in disciplines such as psychology and medicine, and an extensive personal experience of meditation. Hence, this period saw the rise of a new type of Western meditation teacher; one who was trained in science but sympathetic to Eastern religions, and also personally engaged in meditation practices. In particular, Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein have been highly influential in the mainstreaming of mindfulness.[28] In 1976, Kornfield and Goldstein (along with Sharon Salzberg and Jacqueline Schwartz) founded the Insight Meditation Society (IMS). Later, in 1981, Kornfield moved to California where he founded the Spirit Rock Meditation Center. Both IMS and Spirit Rock are highly influential organisations, and have cultivated a large number of students and teachers of mindfulness meditation across America.[29]

The second source that contributed to the mainstreaming of mindfulness meditation was the modernist Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who became, along with the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, one of the most influential Buddhist teachers for non-Buddhist popular audiences. Officially exiled from Vietnam in 1973, Hanh began to teach meditation to Westerners in the mid-1970s. His teachings, drawn from both Mahayana and Zen Buddhism, emphasised the practice of mindfulness, coupled with dedicated engagement with the world, a viewpoint that appealed to many lay Westerners. Wilson argues that Hanh is the most important figure in Western Buddhism in terms of direct influence, number of students taught, and impact on the language of contemporary Western Buddhism. Hanh has taught at Princeton and Colombia Universities, published more than 100 books in English, including the 1976 book The Miracle of Mindfulness, and established a wide network of Buddhist practice groups known as the Community of Mindful Living.[30]

Finally, the “universally acknowledged turning point” for the mindfulness movement’s mainstreaming, and in particular its relationship with science and medicine, is 1979, when scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program (SR & RP).[31]  Now referred to as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), Kabat-Zinn’s program was based primarily on vipassana courses that he had attended at IMS. The central aspect of the program is the practice of ‘mindfulness’ meditation, defined by Kabat-Zinn as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”[32] Mindfulness practice generally begins with observation of the breath, and then expands to include awareness of physical sensations, thoughts, and emotional states as they arise in the present moment. The shift in focus from the breath to a variety of phenomena is what distinguishes mindfulness meditation from purely concentrative forms of meditation such as TM. While both mindfulness and TM involve initial concentration on a specific object (in mindfulness, the breath; in TM, a mantra), with mindfulness meditation this focus is then directed toward the entire field of awareness.

While Kabat-Zinn’s work on mindfulness has been primarily clinical, it has filtered into the mainstream. In particular, his pragmatic and ‘secular’ definition of mindfulness has proved to be highly appealing to non-clinical lay audiences. Kabat-Zinn has authored several popular books on mindfulness including the bestselling Full Catastrophe Living and Wherever You Go, There You Are, which have sold 400,000 and 750,000 copies respectively to date.[33] Further, Wilson argues that not only has mindfulness meditation picked up where TM left off, it has gone well beyond TM in terms of successful integration into mainstream Western society.[34] Unlike TM, mindfulness has been effectively (and lucratively) applied ‘off-the-cushion’ to a variety of everyday Western middle-class needs. As a result, ‘meditation as self-help’ has become a booming commercial industry.[35] For example, a recent report by IBISWorld estimated that in 2015, meditation-related businesses in the United States generated $984 million in revenue.[36] Along with the traditional categories of books and CDs, there are now also meditation apps, podcasts and wearable technologies that measure brain activity during meditation practice.[37]  Apps like Headspace and OMG. I Can Meditate, have partnered with airlines to offer in-flight meditation options.[38] The large majority of these products and services have been influenced by mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness is also taught in secular settings such as the workplace and in schools.[39] A 2017 study of US workers (n = 85,004) found that approximately 1 in 7 reported engagement in some form of mindfulness-based activity.[40] Employers such as Nike and Google offer relaxation rooms for meditation practice,[41] and there has been an increase in the number of consultants offering corporate mindfulness training.[42] Recent data from MeditationCapsules and Smiling Mind, two Australian organisations that provide mindfulness training to schools, demonstrates that more than 7500 teachers are using mindfulness meditation in pastoral care classes, dedicated well-being classes, or as a preparatory tool at the start of academic classes.[43]

The media reporting on mindfulness has also been overwhelmingly positive. ’Mindfulness’ has become a buzzword that has generated an explosion of interest and enthusiasm and has permeated the discourse of popular culture.[44] For example, in 2014 TIME magazine ran another meditation related cover, this one titled “The Mindful Revolution” along with an accompanying story detailing the extent to which mindfulness meditation has spread into the largest sectors of modern Western society.[45]  In the same year the Huffington Post, a popular American news site which has its own Mindfulness news section, declared 2014 the “Year of Mindful Living.”[46] Hence, via mindfulness, secular meditation has been able to reach into nearly every institution of Western society. In 2007 there was an estimated 20 million meditation practitioners in the United States, and hundreds of millions worldwide.[47] Meditation is now one of the world’s most widely practiced and researched psychological disciplines.

[1] J. Shear, The Experience of Meditation: Experts Introduce the Major Traditions (St Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2006), xv.

[2] M. Murphy and S. Donovan, The Physical and Psychological Effects of Meditation: A Review of Contemporary Research with a Comprehensive Bibliography 1931 – 1996 (Petaluma, CA: Institute of Noetic Sciences, 1999).

[3] W.B. Parsons, “Psychoanalysis Meets Buddhism: The Development of a Dialogue,” in Changing the Scientific Study of Religion: Beyond Freud?, ed. J. A. Belzen (Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, 2009).

[4]J. Wilson, Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 15.

[5] D. L. McMahan, The Making of Buddhist Modernism (New York: Oxford, 2008), 70-71.

[6] W.S. Hickey, “Mind Cure, Meditation, and Medicine: Hidden Histories of Mental Healing in the United States,” Unpublished PhD Dissertation. (Duke University, 2008): 72.

[7] Murphy and Donovan, The Physical and Psychological Effects.

[8] C. M. Cusack, “The Western Reception of Buddhism: Celebrity and Popular Cultural Media as Agents of Familiarisation,” Australian Religion Studies Review 24, no. 3 (2011): 303.

[9] Cusack, “The Western Reception of Buddhism,” 305.

[10] A.C. Paranjpe, “Indian Psychology and the International Context,” Psychology and Developing Societies 23, no. 1 (2011, 5): 1-26.

[11] P. Oliver, Hinduism and the 1960s: The Rise of a Counter-Culture (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 45.

[12] Parsons, “Psychoanalysis Meets Buddhism,” 198-99.

[13] Oliver, Hinduism and the 1960s, 52-53.

[14] Oliver, Hinduism and the 1960s, 157-158.

[15] Cusack, “The Western Reception of Buddhism,” 307.

[16] Cusack, “The Western Reception of Buddhism,” 307.

[17] TM is a form of concentration meditation that uses a mantra to centralise cognitive focus. See L. Williamson, Transcendent in America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements as New Religion (New York: New York University Press, 2010).

[18] P. Goldberg, American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation How Indian Spirituality Changed the West (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2010), 156.

[19] Goldberg, American Veda, 153.

[20] Goldberg, American Veda, 161.

[21] Goldberg writes: “Pre-cable and pre-Internet, a story in a national magazine was maha exposure, and Maharishi had several of them.” Goldberg, American Veda, 159.

[22] Goldberg, American Veda, 158.

[23] Goldberg, American Veda, 167.

[24] Williamson, Transcendent in America, 94.

[25] Williamson, Transcendent in America, 94-97. Wilson, Mindful America, 79.

[26] Wilson, Mindful America, 79-80.

[27] Wilson, Mindful America, 31.

[28] These teachers integrated meditative insights with Western psychology, and argued for the importance of psychological healing as part of the spiritual path. For example, Kornfield, a clinical psychologist, wrote his PhD dissertation of the phenomenology of the vipassana meditation experience and has argued for the need to integrate the individual psychological self into meditation practice. J. Kornfield, “Meditation and Psychotherapy: A Plea for Integration,” Inquiring Mind 5, no. 1 (1988).

[29] Wilson, Mindful America, 32.

[30] In 2012 the Community of Mindful Living listed 357 official affiliated groups in the United States. Wilson, Mindful America, 34.

[31] Jon Kabat-Zinn changed the name of his mindfulness program from Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program to Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and removed the word “relaxation” from audiotapes and handouts. Wilson, Mindful America, 78.

[32] J. Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life (New York: Hyperion, 1994), 4.

[33] Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are.

  1. Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living: How to Cope with Stress, Pain and Illness using Mindfulness Meditation. (New York, NY: Delacorte Press, 1990).

[34] Wilson, Mindful America, 79.

[35] Wilson, Mindful America, 104-131.

[36] D. Gelles, “The Hidden Price of Mindfulness Inc.,” New York Times, March 19, 2016, accessed 12 April 2018: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/20/opinion/sunday/the-hidden-price-of-mindfulness-inc.html.

[37] According to a recent article, there are currently 1300 meditation apps. P. Doran, “McMindfulness: Buddhism as Sold to You by Neoliberals,” The Conversation, 24 February, 2018, accessed 16 April 2018: https://theconversation.com/mcmindfulness-buddhism-as-sold-to-you-by-neoliberals-88338. See also S. Brinson, “Hacking Your Brain Waves: A Guide to Wearable Meditation Headsets,” DIYGenius, January 29, 2017, accessed March 23, 2018: https://www.diygenius.com/hacking-your-brain-waves/.

[38] “Why Airlines are Promoting In-flight Meditation,” Globetrender, 3 August 2016, accessed 25 April 2018: http://globetrendermagazine.com/2016/08/03/why-airlines-are-promoting-in-flight-meditation/.

[39] Mindfulness-based practices have been shown to ameliorate the negative effect of stress on employees, leading to improved employee health, increased productivity, and reduced costs for employers. For example, M. Klatt, B. Steinberg and A.M. Duchemin, “Mindfulness in Motion (MIM): An Onsite Mindfulness Based Intervention (MBI) for Chronically High Stress Work Environments to Increase Resiliency and Work Engagement,” Journal of Visualized Experiments 101 (2015): 1-11.

[40] The authors used 2002, 2007, and 2012 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) data for adults (aged ≥18 y, n = 85,004) to examine 12-month engagement in four mindfulness-based practices (meditation, yoga, tai chi, and qigong) among different groups of workers. D. Kachan, H. Olano, S.L. Tannenbaum et al. “Prevalence of Mindfulness Practices in the US Workforce: National Health Interview Survey,” Preventing Chronic Disease 14 (2017).

[41] A. Stahl, “How to Practice Mindfulness at Work,” Forbes, September 14, 2017, accessed March 23, 2018: https://www.forbes.com/sites/ashleystahl/2017/09/14/how-to-practice-mindfulness-at-work/#5656b674d57b.

[42] For example, the non-profit Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, a mindfulness training program incubated at Google, offers two-day workshops to Fortune 500 companies, including Ford and American Express. J. Wieczner, “Meditation Has Become a Billion-dollar Business,” Fortune, March 12, 2016, accessed March 23, 2018: http://fortune.com/2016/03/12/meditation-mindfulness-apps/.

[43] L. Waters, “Why Meditation Should be Taught in Schools,” The Conversation, 30 June 2015, accessed 25 April 2018: https://theconversation.com/why-meditation-should-be-taught-in-schools-42755.

[44] J. Sun, “Mindfulness in Context: A Historical Discourse Analysis,” Contemporary Buddhism 15, no. 2 (2014): 394.

[45] K. Pickert, “The Mindful Revolution,” TIME Magazine, February 3, 2014, accessed March 23, 2018: http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,2163560,00.html.

[46] C. Gregoire, “Why 2014 Will Be the Year of Mindful Living,” Huffington Post, March 1, 2014, accessed March 23, 2018: http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/entry/will-2014-be-the-year-of-_0_n_4523975.

[47] In 2007 a government survey reported that more than 20 million Americans used meditation for health reasons, and recent reports suggest that one million Americans are taking up mindfulness meditation each year. J. Michaelson, “What If Meditation Isn’t Good for You?” Daily Beast, November 1, 2014, accessed March 23, 2018: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/11/01/what-if-meditation-isn-t-good-for-you.html.

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