A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to participate in the Mindfulness and Compassion conference at San Francisco State University. (Round-ups can be found here and here.) I’ve been meaning to write something about the experience, but nothing has gelled.
Last week, Ron Purser kindly forwarded this article to me and a dozen or so other folks (many of whom attended the conference). It’s worth a read. In sum, the author discusses her disillusionment with mindfulness practices as she learned them because, among other reasons, they tended to make her less engaged with the world rather than more engaged. Rather than quelling the mind and its distracted trains of thought, she wonders if distraction and multitasking aren’t actually good things.
It’s easy to critique this woman and her teachers and her (mis)understandings and their (mis)appropriations of mindfulness. It’s easy to draw quick conclusions from this and point our fingers and say that either she didn’t “get it” or they didn’t teach her right. It’s easy to point to some other version of mindfulness (“traditional,” “Buddhist,” monastic, whatever those terms mean) and make the claim that these other versions are more authentic, more correct. And then to lament the secularization of mindfulness. Alternately, it’s easy to leave all that aside and make the claim that mindfulness is in some way universal, not something that Buddhism “owns,” and whereas this woman had a bad experience, a lot of positive good has come to people who have engaged the practice. In short, it’s easy to use this article as evidence of one set of ideological claims or another — claims either in support or critical of secular mindfulness, its value, its limitations.
Collectively, this article and many more like, represent not mindfulness itself but a growing narrative about mindfulness. Rather than concerning ourselves with the questions of whether or not this version of mindfulness is “really” Buddhist, rather than concerning ourselves with questions of whether or not the secularization of mindfulness is a good thing or a bad thing, rather than asking whether or not mindfulness really “works” in any way close to the way its apologists claim — all very good critical lines of inquiry — I’d like to suggest that these articles, this narrative genre, be taken at face value. Regardless of this version of mindfulness’s relationship to any other, it is a version of mindfulness that is being perpetuated in a growing body of popular sources, creating its own narrative truth. It is becoming naturalized. Like it or not, historically accurate or not, this is what mindfulness means. To quote the article:
I dove into what was an open-ended experiment to see if I could correct the things about me that were loose and scattered, and reap the touted benefits of mindfulness. It was a good time for me to try, because I was about to go through a pregnancy, and wanted to be a good parent, a “mindful” parent, as all the parenting books suggested. Besides, since this way of being was supposed to greatly improve my life, to make it feel more meaningful, and to even help me lose weight, who was I to argue with it?
This is the narrative. Some aspect of modern life is pathologized and problematized (we’re too distracted, there are too many iDevices). Mindfulness, described alternately as singleness of attention and “thinking about nothing” is offered as the cure. It is valued as the thing that will create meaning in all aspects of our lives, from the vague and abstract (making life meaningful) to the mundane and particular (loosing weight). And critical thought is discouraged. Indeed, who are we to argue when all of this sounds so good?
(In passing, I’d like to note the never-ending layers of pathologization going on here, the creation of dichotomies, the explicit labeling and valuing of those dichotomies, and the endless deployment of fixes. Weight gain is a problem. A life without meaning is a problem. Distractions and cell phones are problems. A lack of productivity is a problem. Here is this fix. The irony, of course, is that mindfulness is supposed to be the nonjudgemental awareness of mental phenomenon, here deployed in the service of endlessly judged problems.)
This narrative should not surprise us. It did not come into being with Jon Kabat-Zinn. It is not unique to secular mindfulness. Its origin is implied in the article when the author lists all of the various practices she engaged in on her mindfulness journey — meditation, yoga, books by gurus, aura readings. This is familiar territory. This is the New Age/self-help narrative that has been a central aspect of American popular religion for at least the last four decades. This is not new.
(See Jeremy Carrette and Richard King’s Selling Spirituality for a good overview.)
To note how this narrative overlaps with pre-existing narratives is not to discredit some aspects of mindfulness practice (or Buddhist practice, for that matter). For every New Age dilettante with a Native American dream catcher hanging from his car’s rear-view mirror on his way to a yoga class on his lunch break, there are countless persons who use the same signs and symbols for wholly different reasons, often to great effect. Whereas the author of this article may not have “succeeded” in her quest for a more meaningful mindful life (whatever that might mean), the same practices have no doubt helped countless people overcome a host psychological and physical aliments. To note that this narrative stinks of the same snake-oil as other quick-fix self-help products is not to dismiss mindfulness in its entirety. It is merely to be critical of one of its current meanings.
Mindfulness has now taken on at least three different meanings: (1) some “traditional” Buddhist meaning, (2) a “legitimate” psychotherapeutic meaning, (3) and a quasi-New Age/self help meaning. Each of these meanings can be critiqued; each of these meanings has its own underlying ideological assumptions and agendas. And, obviously, they overlap. But being clear on what it is were are critiquing, and what we are not, provides us with a clear way forward.
A couple of quick professional updates, filed in the “self-promotion” category.
First, a big box of books landed on my desk today. After much hard work, Natalie Quli’s and my edited volume, Buddhism Beyond Borders, has been printed and is ready for purchase. Or for review copy request. Or for borrowing from your local library. It was a supreme joy to work with Dr. Quli who has a sharp intellect and keen eye for typos, two things I am deeply envious of.
Second, the Board of Trustees of the Institute of Buddhist Studies generously bestowed upon me an endowed chair, the Rev. Yoshitaka Tamai Professor Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Studies. Rev. Tamai was an influential minister at the Tri-State Denver Buddhist Temple in Denver, Colorado, serving for half a century and deeply devoted to the spread of Buddhism in the United States. It’s an honor to hold a chair in his name. (It also means I may be traveling to Denver in the not too distant future. Something to look forward to.)
Lastly, a couple of weeks ago I finished a draft of the other book. Editing now, and I hope to be able to get the final draft completed and sent off to the press before the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. If all goes well, another box of books will land on my desk a year from now.
We now return you to your regularly scheduled internet.
Several months ago, I became aware of a Buddhist shrine that had been built on a street corner in the Clinton neighborhood of Oakland. This morning, I finally had a chance to visit it myself and take some pictures.
I am in need of images, and I would like your help.
I am currently in the midst of writing an introductory textbook on Buddhism in the United States, contracted by Bloomsbury Academic. As an introduction, the book explores the history of American Buddhism from colonial contacts in Asia and the establishment of the first communities in the nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century expansion and diversification of Buddhist traditions in the US through to the present. The book will be divided into three parts dealing with history, lineages and traditions, and topical and methodological issues including art and practice, race and privilege, and modernity and globalization. Much of the discussion is being framed by the metaphor of convergence and digergance, that is, how have different cultural discourses and movements converged in Asia and the West thus giving rise to specific Buddhist discourses and communities (e.g. Buddhist modernism) while at times diverging into new lineages or movements.
It’s a fairly ambitious project. It’s consuming a not-insignificant part of my life.
Ideally, the book would have images galore of Buddhist sites from across the continent. Of course, I can only do so much (or have only done so much picture taking in my own travels across the country). And this is where you come in. If you would like to contribute images, it would be much appreciated.
How can you help? Join this Flickr group and add your images. I’m mostly interested in images of locations, of temples or churches, retreat centers and monasteries, ceremonies and celebrations. Images of people are okay, but getting permissions can be tricky. The book focuses on the United States, but it does make reference to other parts of North America; so if you have some amazing images of Gampo Abby, for example, feel free to add them.
Adding an image to the Flickr group in no way obligates you to have the photo used in the book. If I (or my editor) want to use the picture, we’ll contact you directly before it goes to press, sometime down the road, to get all necessary permissions. Beyond that, the book will have a companion website at Bloomsbury where I’ll link back to the Flickr group. So this group will have a life of its own regardless of whether or not any images show up in the printed book.
Leave a comment with any questions. And thanks in advance. Many bows.
“3:30 A.M. I’m over in the Orderly Room. I couldn’t sleep. I put my coat on over my pajamas and came over here. Al Aspesi is G.Q. He’s asleep on the floor. I can stay here if I answer the phone for him. What a night. Mrs. Fedder’s analyst was there for dinner and grilled me, off and on, till about eleven-thirty. Occasionally with great skill, intelligence. Once or twice, I found myself pulling for him. Apparently he’s an old fan of Buddy’s and mine. He seemed personally as well as professionally interested in why I’d been bounced off the show at sixteen. He’d actually heard the Lincoln broadcast, but he had the impression that I’d said over the air that the Gettysburg Address was ‘bad for children.’ Not true. I told him I’d said I thought it was a bad speech for children to have to memorize in school. He also had the impression I’d said it was a dishonest speech. I told him I’d said that 51,112 men were casualties at Gettysburg, and that if someone had to speak at the anniversary of the event, he should simply have come forward and shaken his fist at his audience and then walked off — that is, if the speaker was an absolutely honest man.”
J.D. Salinger, “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” (1955)
Let’s be perfectly clear: there are riots in the streets. And it’s a shame that good, honest folk are having their property destroyed. But whatever is destroyed can be replaced. The same cannot be said of Mike Brown. Or Amadou Diallo or Oscar Grant or Trayvon Martin or Eric Garner or the seemingly endless line of young black men and women who have lost their lives at the hands at those meant to “protect and serve.” I’ve wanted to say something about all of this. And all I can think to do is shake my fist at this country and walk off.
Today is December 8, a day when many Buddhists celebrate the enlightenment of the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni. Enlightenment is nothing more than the removal of ignorance and delusion. And if we can’t wake up from the delusion of how our privilege and power — how our own actions — cause systemic and personal suffering, then I don’t know why we’re celebrating Bodhi Day in the first place.
It’s that time of year again: the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion is fast approaching. If you’re planning on attending, below are some panels that may be of interest to our students and community. Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive! The complete program book is online and searchable here: AAR Program Book.
In the interest of self-promotion, the IASBS is hosting a public lecture with Prof. James Dobbins on D.T. Suzuki. More info can be found here. This lecture is held during the AAR, but it is open to the public (no need to register for AAR to attend). Also, I’ll be chairing the Buddhist in the West panel on Monday morning, and other IBS/GTU students and alumni are presenting as well, including:
Finally, here’s some highlights. Head over to the program book and search for “Buddhism” for more.
See you in San Diego.
It seems to me that the advice of the Buddha was not to change how you think about things so that you’re happy and content with them as they are, but rather to see things as they are.
That might be the most important thing you read all week. Really read it. Really let it sink in. Sit with it, for god’s sake.
It’s from this excellent post by Richard Payne, a reflection on the ongoing reflections about mindfulness in non-Buddhist contexts, in this case, education. There are a host of companies the world over now who are advocating for mindfulness in education (I am patiently waiting for someone to raise the Lemon test, but I’m not holding my breath). Without getting into the details of that whole discourse and debate, I think this one sentence sums up my frustration with Buddhist platitudes more generally. Never-ending not-really-Buddha quotes meme-ified across the web constantly make reference to how the world is an illusion, suffering is a matter of how you look at things, “there is no spoon,” etc., all of which, it seems to me, misses this most basic of points.
A few posts back, I mentioned that I had some writing goals for the summer. Here’s an update.
But first, I’d like to reflect on something. The inspiration for this goal setting came from @mittensprings and, more generally, things like AcWriMo (Academic Writing Month) which challenges folks to set writing goals for a period of time and be held accountable via the internets. Most of what I’ve read regarding these things usually includes a word count. You’ll notice my goals have no word counts. I’m lousy at that. Someone’s selling some little bit of software that allows you to track your word counts, and it includes revisions which would be extremely helpful in my case. But breaking down my writing productivity into word counts doesn’t make sense for me. I’m more able to gauge my ability to get stuff done by actually, well, getting stuff done, i.e., finishing a project. Academic writing, for me, is long and complicated and doesn’t make a lot of sense along the way. I write drafts and outlines and chop things up into numerous copies of files and stitch them together in awkward ways and leave smart-ass notes to myself that I (usually) remember to delete before letting others read the draft which almost always gets completely gutted a least a couple times before I finally feel happy with it. I’m content measuring progress in terms of drafts and completed projects, not individual word counts.
Which brings me to what I have to report regarding this summer’s goals.
A conference paper. And 3. A journal article. I’m lumping these together because they’re intimately connected. First, of the journal article, not only did I finish the damn thing, I sent it off to a journal. It is now in proverbial peer-review land. So I am in proverbial “let’s not think about it” land. The conference paper, in hindsight, was a lame-ass goal to make for myself. The paper I’m planning on presenting is a shortened version of the one I just submitted to the journal. Which means “writing” in this case is more “editing,” a task in itself but, c’mon Scott. Really?
On the other hand, I had a really good idea for another paper based on the same body of research. I did some initial research and analysis and drafted an outline of that one. I’d like to believe that I can squeeze in some writing on that between now and mid-August, but the remaining book chapters and conference preparation are higher priorities. So we’ll see.
So. That’s the update. How goes your own summer research and writing?
It seems improbable to me that Danny Fisher has a day job given how frequently he posts things to the internets (including Lethal Weapons clips to my Facebook posts). Earlier today, he posted this to Twitter.
“New Amazon terms amount to ‘assisted suicide’ for book industry, experts claim.” http://t.co/frfvX549TY
— Rev. Danny Fisher (@RevDannyFisher) June 26, 2014
The article, about Amazon changing terms of service to publishers around the world, includes this aside:
Authors will suffer as publishers claim that paying large advances is increasingly risky and, of course, authors are traditionally paid less on print books if publishers concede high discounts. On ebooks they are paid a proportion of net receipts so higher terms for Amazon will result in less money going to authors,” said Solomon… The changes, she said, “highlight one wider, and growing, trend across all publishing and bookselling. Namely, that the author is the only 100% essential component in the creation of a book.
On a not-at-all unrelated topic, I received a lovely email from the editor of my book the other day. It included not only her own very encouraging and supportive feedback but the feedback of an anonymous peer reviewer which was also quite helpful. Let me tell you. When you’re in the middle of a large project, deep in the weeds, it’s easy to get lost, to feel like you’re not at all sure you’re saying things that make sense or merely talking out of your ass. So it was good day.
Also in not-unrelated news, for most of my professional academic career, I’ve served on a variety of committees — as an editor, advisor, peer reviewer, and so forth. I have been the man behind the curtain who herds all the cats to pull off a conference or symposium (often with amazing help and support from others). It’s generally the kind of work that goes unnoticed (unless it’s done poorly). I can attest from both sides of that fence — as the creator of scholarly content and one of the invisible folks who makes it possible for scholarly content to see the light of day — all persons are important. All forms of work are valuable.
Think back to the last really great book you read. Fiction or non-fiction. It wasn’t just the author who created it. And it wasn’t just a bookseller (local independent, online MegaCorp, or brick and mortar MegaCorp) who got into to your hands. A dozen or more people are responsible for that book being both really good and in your hands. Now think of the last book you read that was genuinely crap. And not crap because of the tangible details but crap on technical levels — being poorly copyedited, badly researched, full of factual errors. Yes, the author made some mistakes. But so did the editors and a dozen other people whose jobs it is to make sure the book isn’t crap.
That’s what you’re paying for. It’s not unlike the movies, really, except that the dozens of people who are responsible for making a movie happen all get their names in the credits. Perhaps we should starting doing that with books, too.
This isn’t to say that the publishing industry — especially academic book publishing, lord knows! — is not without its flaws. There are plenty of ways to critique and improve upon the publishing model, including some valid and wholly revolutionary ideas. However, let’s not kid ourselves. Really good writing can arise spontaneously and be self-published. But it’s not as common as our culture — obsessed as it is with individual genius — would have you believe. (Kerouac’s On the Road scroll would still be a scroll without some help from an editor.) No, really good writing is most often a collaborative affair, especially if there’s only one author listed.
Which is really my long winded way of saying thank you, thank you to all the editors and other folks working behind the scenes whose names never appear in the credits. Much appreciation.
I don’t think we should throw it away, though. Or, at the very least, I don’t think we should thumb our noses at it and say “their methodology is flawed, to hell with it.” Rather, and I say this as a teacher, I think we should use it as an opportunity to discuss the limits of our knowledge and our assumptions. After all, you only ever get answers to questions you ask, and to the extent that this survey was designed by asking questions about institutions (or congregations), it necessarily reflects that bias.