Mindfulness Through the Ages: Understanding the Cultural Craze
Americans, mindfulness, and meditation
In a fast-paced world shaped by constant competition, technological distractions, and the need to balance social pressures, finding creative ways to cope with hectic schedules becomes a necessity. Though we all have individual strategies ranging from exercise to attending religious services, recent trends indicate that Americans cannot get enough of mindfulness and meditation.
The market is exploding with new ways to practice meditation: exclusive meditation studios are the latest trend in many major cities, music streaming services are teeming with meditation and mindfulness playlists, and mindfulness apps are diverse and abundant. A few of these apps have even established partnerships with airlines who will soon offer in-flight meditation options. Additionally, schools, healthcare facilities, companies, and even prisons have turned to meditation practices to increase general well-being. This ancient tradition is becoming increasingly prevalent in American life-- but what can explain the sudden obsession?
Before we can analyze mindfulness today, it’s essential to understand its ancient origins. Though the beginnings of meditation are often associated with the Buddha’s teachings, written records indicate that meditative practices began in 1500 BC with Vedanta, a school of Hindu philosophy. Later, around 600 BC, meditative practices became a popular component of many cultures along the Silk Road… specifically with a religious context. As these practices spread throughout Asia, they transformed to fit to the specific values and beliefs of different cultures. Mindfulness is a component in multiple religious traditions including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Judaism. Many of these early traditions maintained that in order to understand the “ultimate truth,” one must be devoted to understanding their own personal experience, as divine powers are not mysterious or remote but rather are found within ourselves. Presence of mind and attentiveness are required to reach this transcendent form of understanding.
If so many cultures and religions have taught mindfulness and meditation for centuries, what explains the United States’ more recent cultural craze? Naturally, geographic boundaries provide some reason for the lack of meditative traditions… however, meditation wasn’t widely accepted in much of the Western world at all until it was backed by science. In the 1960s, scientists began to explore the medical benefits of meditation. This endeavor was sparked by neurophysiology researcher B.K. Anand’s finding that certain yogis could meditate themselves into such deep trances that physical pain went entirely unnoticed. Later in 1967, Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Herbert Benson found that when meditating, people used 17% less oxygen, had lower heart rates, and produced more brain waves that aid sleep. These findings legitimized meditation as a viable health practice to many Americans.
From here, the practice became popularized by notable celebrities. In 1968, the Beatles travelled to Rishikesh, India to take an advanced Transcendental Meditation training course taught by Maharishi Mahesh (later known as “the groovy guru”). The immense media coverage of the Fab Four’s unexpected spiritual journey further legitimized meditation in Western cultures. The hippie spirit of the 60’s and 70’s embraced these popularized practices as well, making meditation accessible to the public on a new scale. In 1975, TIME Magazine published a story about meditation, describing it as a “drugless high” which framed mindfulness as a transcendent and sensational experience.
Fast-forward to today, and mindfulness is more present in U.S. culture than ever before. The number of Americans who have tried meditation has tripled since 2012 according to a report released by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Scientists today continue to explore meditation’s influence on interactions between the brain and the body, further fueling the phenomenon. Neurobiologist Dr. Sara Lazar found that meditation can change brain regions linked with memory, the sense of self, and the regulation of emotions. Her studies also suggest that meditation may slow down the age-related atrophy of certain areas of the brain. As more and more health benefits are backed by science, mindfulness and meditation continue to gain legitimacy and popularity within contemporary culture.
Those who practice mindfulness maintain that the routine “brain exercise” allows them to notice thoughts and emotions without judgements and teaches them to appreciate the ups and downs of life. Though this sense of reflective recognition can lead to healthier and happier lives, some argue that the ways in which modern meditation is practiced exploits the ancient tradition. Opponents claim that without recognizing meditation’s rich cultural and religious history, the true meaning is lost, making modern practices nothing more than a superficial and stylish trend. They argue that modern meditation lacks a solid moral stance, which in the Buddhist tradition recognizes the interconnected nature of our universe, and fosters empathy within communities.
Whether modern meditation and mindfulness has appropriated ancient traditions or simply adapted to another culture is up to you. If you’re interested in learning more to develop your own stance on the matter, practicing mindfulness is only a few apps, college course registrations, or Spotify searches away!