June 29, 2014

Is meditation innocuous — a way to relax and recenter yourself?

Some Americans experience it as deeply disturbing — one felt he'd "permanently ruined" his mind — as described in this Atlantic article.

Dr. Willoughby Britton observes that Americans look to meditation for "what Americans value": "Does it promote good relationships? Does it reduce cortisol? Does it help me work harder?" 
"But," she cautions, "what about when meditation plays a role in creating an experience that then leads to a breakup, a psychotic break, or an inability to focus at work?"...

Britton.... explains that the Theravadin Buddhist tradition influences how a large portion of Americans practice meditation, but in it, mindfulness is "about vipassana, a specific type of insight … into the three characteristics of experience." These are also known as the three marks of existence: anicca, or impermanence; dukkha, or dissatisfaction; and anatta, or no-self.
These are not things Americans tend to value. Perhaps they should, but why are we appropriating a religious traditions for ends that are not at all the ends for which they were originally adopted? Britton is concerned with the way it harms some unwitting American souls who are expecting modest American life improvements.

But I am asking a few extra questions: 1. Is it wrong to exploit someone else's profound religious tradition for the purpose of achieving the worldly goals of the American tradition? 2. Should we question our worldly goals — good relationships, hard work — and seek greater depths  that might involve impermanence or dissatisfaction and no-self?


Bob R said...

To your first questions, I'd say, "no." This isn't public sacrilege - putting an image sacred to some on a t-shirt. This is a private use a mental exercise. If some religion worships push-ups, it's not wrong for me to do them to for the purpose of physical fitness. If a mental exercise is good for my mental fitness, how am I harming people who used the same exercise for spiritual reasons.

With that said, meditation can be an arduous form of mental exercise, and it shouldn't surprise us that some people can "sprain their brain" when doing it.

Anonymous said...

Hyper-Competitive Meditation Guy says:

I meditate harder than you and I meditate faster than you and I meditate deeper than you. While you are still trying to sit cross-legged on the floor I've already reached Impermanence and am half-way to Dissatisfaction. Indeed, I am dissatisfied with all of you who try to meditate but just end up meandering about the edges of your soul like sheep grazing aimlessly in a field. C'mon, people: there is a lot about yourselves to be dissatisfied with, it is obvious to me just from looking at you, pick up the pace. I can achieve no-self while you are still trying to remember your mantra, it is only through no-self that I can even put up with you losers. I'm off to the gym...

traditionalguy said...

Meditation on what?

Meditation seems to be training in surrendering the mind to outside spiritual forces.

That leaves the question: how does one get their mind back when the enervating circular reasoning of the spiritual religion is found wanting by western standards.

Beta Rube said...

I have friends who meditate daily and swear by it. I have joined them a couple times and found this type of meditation to be innocuous but useless.

Sort of a sleepy time ping ponging of random thoughts that lead to a nice nap. Luckily, it's over before I start dozing, and I can thank them for including me.

Bob said...

I'm so sick of the hippy dippy lefty boomers and all their cultural appropriation.

sinz52 said...

"1. Is it wrong to exploit someone else's profound religious tradition for the purpose of achieving the worldly goals of the American tradition? "

Certainly not.

The Christmas shopping season is primarily for economic stimulus, not for the Gospel.

The Crack Emcee said...

My questions - which I've been asking for years now - are:

Was it right to condemn those who said there was madness in meditation, just because it became popular?

Since we've known there was madness in meditation for decades, should there be criminal penalties?

What kind of society promotes inculcating madness in it's population?

If whites can't recognize when they're driving themselves to madness - whether through meditation or apocalyptic beliefs - what right do they have to judge other's sanity, or values, or even run society?

I could go on,...

Sebastian said...

"1. Is it wrong to exploit someone else's profound religious tradition for the purpose of achieving the worldly goals of the American tradition? 2. Should we question our worldly goals — good relationships, hard work — and seek greater depths that might involve impermanence or dissatisfaction and no-self?"

1. Wrong, no; often unwise, yes. Althousian self-knowledge is desirable in pursuit of self-lessness.

2. Yes, we should question our worldly goals; no, we should not replace them by seeking specious "depths" in phony impermanence, non-self, etc. Questioning should include the facile equating of "American tradition" and "our worldly goals" with "good relationships, hard work."

Anonymous said...

But the article does include the Western contemplative traditions in its discussion (the title is a bit of a giveaway, no?), so it's not just about Americans "appropriating" ill-digested or completely misunderstood concepts from Theravada Buddhism. That said, I have often wondered why hippy dippy Westerners do so often do go appropriatin' while ignoring the vast contemplative tradition in their own backyard, if that's what they've got a hankering for. They might find something more sympatico with their Western minds. (At least it might keep them from annoying cradle-Buddhists for a while.)

Reading the article, though, and his "CV", I couldn't help but wonder if the dark night of "David" might have more to do with drug use, or pre-existing mental health issues (or both), than any dangerous side-effects of meditation.

NotWhoIUsedtoBe said...

From reading the article it seems to me that meditation in America isn't about achieving traditional American goals. Meditation is an excuse not to. Chasing cosmic truth serves as a substitute for hard work.

I'm no sure why the article writer obscured that point.

The patient in the intro gave up law school and sat around doing nothing after his experience. Maybe that was the point? In my experience people choose what they want to do, then spend enormous effort in justifying their choice.

People drawn to eastern beliefs tend to be those who don't want to pursue happiness by hard work, family, and religion. It's ironic, because those same beliefs in their own context in Asia lead people to hard work and family. That's cultural perversion for you.

YoungHegelian said...

Should we question our worldly goals — good relationships, hard work — and seek greater depths that might involve impermanence or dissatisfaction and no-self?

I can't really say how "moral" the piecemeal cultural appropriation of Eastern traditions is. I can, however, wonder just how ultimately successful a practice like meditation, which is designed to transcend the self, is going to be in service of "self-ish" goals like greater success in relationships, work, etc.

Scott said...

Two things:

First, the technique of meditation and "religious tradition" are being conflated in this post. However, in this era, in the West, the two are considered separate by most people. (While taking some meditation classes at a Buddhist monastery in New Jersey, I heard a monk quietly bitch that people were coming to learn to meditate and weren't interested in learning about Buddhism. I think that's the way Americans relate to the two.)

Second, I would really like to know the root of Ann's tetchy attitude about meditation. I poked that hornet's nest awhile back when, in a discussion about kids and Ritalin (I think), I suggested that kids could be taught how to sit and meditate for five minutes in the morning. She flipped out.

I think Americans come to meditation expecting peace; and what they end up getting is clarity. That can be disturbing to people who value self-actualization over self-acceptance.

Carol said...

I never understood why highly individualistic Americans, say like Jack Kerouac, would be so drawn to the self-denying practices of Buddhism. Just seems like a lot of dilettantish horseshit.

In my own druggier youth, I inadvertently fell into some destructive meditation, wherein I reasoned that there was no point in doing anything at all. I was rescued from that inert state by Sartrean existentialism: DO something..anything..just do it.

PWS said...

I have meditated for years and found it helpful in preventing stress and providing a very deep-seated satisfaction with life. I don't consider myself a Buddhist; just a meditator.

Not everyone has the same experience. My awareness is that people who are pre-disposed to some mentally difficulties or challenges can sometimes have those stirred up by meditation; others find meditation healing for mental issues and for other things.

As for the questions, it seems "exploit" might be a little strong. I think of it is as wrong on the part of the person who took up the practice with unrealistic expectations.

As for the 2nd question, everyone should be questioning their goals at least once in a while.

PWS said...

I would add that when one learns about meditation as taught by the Buddha and practices it, one sees that American (consumer) society in general is antithetical to a meditative mindset.

Meditation is about trying to get off the hamster wheel of craving and aversion. U.S. culture is about satisfying almost every craving and expunging almost every aversion.

Meditation is about quieting the mind; our culture is about feeding the mind's every need to jump from one thing to the other.

Meditation is about achieving happiness through looking internally, changing your mind's habit pattern (easing craving/aversion) and living by a simple moral code; U.S. culture promotes happiness by external means, largely through material acquisition.

n.n said...

Forget meditation. Escape civilization. Return to nature for a clear mind. A few hours will reset the dysfunction.

kjbe said...

Well said, Scott.

Nichevo said...

Gee, my guidance counselor at Bronx Science showed me how to meditate. I didn't think anything of it except as a way to relax. Get your heads clear of life's traffic jam in 20 minutes, or at least for 20 minutes. No greater significance than that. I've rarely done it since but wasn't afraid of the idea. This is going to rot my brain? WTF?

Doug said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ann Althouse said...

Accidental deletion of Doug, who said: "First world promblems."

Anonymous said...

I've meditated off and on for 35+ years, and I recommend it. It's hard to imagine anything harmful coming out of the practice, as it is a gentle and relaxing procedure. However, if you have a thought disorder, (ie voices in your head), then I can see meditation making it worse, or at least not improving it.