In the Now

How deep breathing became a popular escape from the madding crowd

Forty years ago, the idea of mindfulness had not been much thought about in the West. In Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture, Jeff Wilson, who teaches religious and East Asian studies at Renison University College at the University of Waterloo, shows how mindfulness has found its way into western life. Wilson describes himself as a Buddhist, but says that in his book he seeks “not to be an advocate or a critic of the mindfulness movement, but a chronicler and analyst.” He concentrates on the coming of mindfulness to the United States, where it is now firmly established. Many Americans—and more generally North -Americans—now use mindful meditation to reduce stress and anxiety. Some engage in mindful eating, which is said to be healthier and more effective than dieting. If they are athletes, they may practise mindfulness to improve their performance. Some, also, engage mindfully in sex as this is thought to be more satisfying than having sex any other way.

So what is mindfulness? Wilson avoids giving a definition but, even if you have had no experience with the practices about which he writes, as you read on you get the idea. The concept has two aspects.

The first and most basic aspect of mindfulness is meditation, practised for a period each day, and sometimes engaged in more intensively during retreats that can last a week or more. Typical mindful meditation involves paying attention to your breathing for a period of perhaps three quarters of an hour, in such a way that your attention is not distracted by extraneous thoughts, worries, ideas or sensations. During meditation, when you notice anything other than your breathing, you do not evaluate whatever thoughts or emotions may come to you, but bring your attention, mindfully, back to inhaling and exhaling, which enables distractions to float out of the mind again. With practice, this becomes easier, and more effective. Some people report that their sessions of meditation become the most satisfying parts of their lives. Wilson discusses the scientific evidence that daily practice of this kind, over a period, has lasting effects on the mind and brain. These effects include being less caught up in anxieties and other responses to stress, and coming to lead a more serene emotional life.

The second aspect of mindfulness is a focus on the present in everyday life; you pay attention, moment by moment, only to what you are perceiving and doing at the time, rather than, for instance, allowing yourself to worry, to think about what you will do next, to wish you were elsewhere, or to be affected by events irrelevant to your current mindful concentration. From practice of this kind comes the idea that the present moment—now—is all there really is. Day-to-day mindful concentration is on the now.

Human consciousness is thought, in psychology, to be based on a system in which what we know and remember, including what we know of our relations, friends and acquaintances, is brought to bear on our current social situation in order to make plans in the world. Inevitably, in a complex world, in which there are accidents, and in which we are influenced by others whose goals and plans are different from our own, unwished-for events, problems and adversities occur. Like the western Stoics, Asian Buddhists saw human suffering as arising from this kind of social attachment to the world, with its pervasive concerns with relationships, aspirations and plans. Meditation and mindful concentration on the present are means by which we can detach our self from the world’s events and sufferings, although, somewhat paradoxically perhaps, by engaging in these practices our compassion for other people tends to increase.

Among the teachings of mindfulness are those of Zen Buddhism. Wilson says that the person most associated with mindfulness in America is the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. His breakthrough book was The Miracle of Mindfulness: A Manual on Meditation, published in 1976. Wilson reports that near the beginning of this book Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future—and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.

In the book’s fourth chapter, Wilson reports Thich Nhat Hanh as writing: “Once you are able to quiet your mind, once your feelings and thoughts no longer disturb you, at that point your mind will begin to dwell in mind. Your mind will take hold of mind in a direct and wondrous way which no longer differentiates between subject and object.”

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, now in his eighties, who is also a poet, a scholar and a peace activist. In the 1960s, he studied comparative religion at Princeton University, and taught Buddhism at Columbia University. In 1969, in France during the Vietnam War, he founded the Unified Buddhist Church (Église bouddhique unifiée). He has travelled the world to spread his teachings and, when not travelling, he lives in Plum Village, near Bordeaux in France, a Buddhist monastery for monks and nuns and a meditation centre for lay people.

Wilson describes how meditation and other mindfulness practices were at the centre of the earliest Buddhist teachings. At first it was monks and nuns who engaged in them, with a strong emphasis on withdrawal from the world, based on an aspiration to escape the sufferings of earthly existence, to be freed from the cycle of rebirth, and to attain nirvana. In contrast, mindfulness as it has come to North America, has very practical purposes such as dealing with stress, promoting general mental health and improving everyday living. Although sometimes it is taught with some of its religious bases in Buddhism, often mindfulness is promoted in a way that is completely secular. Typical training sessions are given for two and a half hours a week for eight weeks, with the idea that after these sessions people will have learned enough, and will have experienced enough of the practice, to be able to continue and develop it for themselves.

Wilson concentrates on how mindfulness has taken its place in America alongside keep-fit classes and different kinds of therapy, within the general aspiration for self-improvement. Almost all of what he writes seems to apply equally to Canada. Indeed, some of the people whose research and development of mindful therapies he discusses, notably Zindel Segal and Leslie Greenberg, are Canadian. There are also now Buddhist temples, as well as meditation and mindfulness centres, in many of Canada’s cities.

The person who, perhaps more than anyone else, has been responsible for promoting mindfulness as fundamental to mental health in North America is Jon Kabat-Zinn, who gained a PhD at MIT and worked in molecular biology. He was introduced to mindfulness by Buddhist teachers who included Thich Nhat Hanh. Kabat-Zinn himself, however, is completely secular. Wilson describes his work and influence in considerable detail. Kabat-Zinn has integrated mindfulness with scientific research and practice. He founded the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society, at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. His anti-stress program, called mindfulness-based stress reduction, is now widely used in medical and psychological settings in both the United States and Canada. Kabat-Zinn does not usually discuss the Asian or religious roots of any of the practices he teaches.

The idea of practices that grew up in a religious tradition, of a particular culture and were exported to other cultures without the importers taking on the religion as such, is intriguing. More typical, I had thought, was that in the meetings of cultures in world history, a society that has been defeated by force of arms, or has been colonized, or has been missionized, has tended to take on the dominant society’s religion in its entirety. Both Christianity and Islam, for instance, have spread in this way. But the issue started me wondering. Is mindfulness unique? Have other practices that arose in religious settings been detached from these settings and exported, as Wilson shows to have occurred with mindfulness? Seen this way, it is clear, for instance, that yoga is comparable in its attitudes and aspirations to mindfulness and comparable too in that it has been detached from its religious roots and exported to the West. In the stress-reduction prac-tices taught by Jon Kabat-Zinn, postural exercises of yoga are used to extend the principles of mindfulness. Yoga was introduced to this continent in the 19th century, and is now said to have 20 million practitioners in North America (1.4 million of them in Canada according to Statistics Canada’s most recent numbers for 2005). It can be thought of as a forerunner of the coming of mindfulness that Wilson describes. The parallel might have been helpful for Wilson’s analysis, but yoga does not even appear in his book’s index.

It occurred to me, too, that something of a similar kind has occurred in the West, where another religiously based practice has been detached from a primary context and entered general culture, although again, Wilson does not discuss it. The practice is reading (an apt topic for a literary journal).

In the early Middle Ages, in the West, the majority of reading seems to have been done by monks and clerics. They read hand-copied texts of the Bible, and they also read the writings of people such as Saint Augustine. In Ethics Through Literature: Ascetic and Aesthetic Reading in Western Culture, Brian Stock of the University of Toronto says that reading in those times had three principles: “withdrawal, attention, and silence.” In other words, monastic medieval reading in Europe shared some motivations with early Buddhism. As would happen later with yoga and mindfulness, reading became detached from its religious roots and, as this occurred, its practices and purposes multiplied. In the later medieval period, merchants and administrators started to read and write, and to develop new purposes for these practices. The introduction of printing to Europe in the Renaissance enabled education based on literacy to spread, and reading became more generally practised. Reading a novel or short story has other similarities to meditative mindfulness and yoga. To read, you go to a quiet place, and you put aside your day-to-day concerns. You concentrate on what you are reading, and you exclude all else. And, as with meditation and yoga, possibilities of self-transformation can occur.

We think now of some modern manifestations of religion in terms of fundamentalism, an attempt to hang on to old and unchanging ideas. The flexibility of such practices as mindfulness, as well as of yoga and reading, contrasts with this. They are practices that had been religiously based, but they adapted. Their features changed, and they contributed to the growth of secular aspects of societies. Readers interested in cultural change, particularly in the transformation of the increasingly important sphere of mental health will want to read Wilson’s book. Readers interested in how religious practices, often seen as unalterable, can change as they are taken up into society will also find it engaging.

Is mindfulness here to stay? The aspiration for self-improvement is very strong in North America, as is the aspiration to free oneself from burdensome anxieties and to attain mental health. Wilson sees mindfulness as a permanent addition to western mental health practices. It is not as easy or appealing as drugs, but it could be more effective in the long term. Mindfulness may have become a permanent addition to the instruments humans use to make their lives meaningful and to fulfill their potential.