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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

UMass Boston students consider Western interpretations of Eastern meditation traditions

Part of studying any field or practice is looking at the distortions of such a practice. In RELSTY/ASIAN 314L: Meditation Traditions of Asia, students spent the semester in study and application of the meditation traditions of Asia’s major religions, with focus on Buddhist, Hindu, and Daoist traditions. Students not only had the chance to learn about these religions in their cultural contexts from Professor Shaman Hatley, but they also had the chance to engage in the practice of meditation experientially, drawing on both traditional and modern variants. Their learning expanded to the arts of poetry and music that are adjacent to the practice of meditation, and included guests like Bo-Mi Choi, the director of the Cambridge Zen Center, and Dada Maheshvarananda, a yogic monk. This is all made possible through a grant from the Mellon Foundation, which funds a number of the creative and diverse humanities courses offered here at UMass Boston. At the end of a semester of exposure to the rich traditions of meditation in Asian religions, students turned with a critical eye toward the western iterations of these practices.

Students spent their last class of the semester discussing three academic articles critiquing the secularized, contemporary adaptations of meditation, yoga, and mindfulness. One group read and discussed “The Triumph of Narcissism: Theravāda Buddhist Meditation in the Marketplace” by C.W. Huntington, Jr. The author identifies a fundamental disconnect between the goals of mindfulness and psychotherapy, as psychotherapy aims at a functioning, coping, and resilient self, and Buddhist philosophy denies the existence of the self. Professor Hatley pointed out that the author is not against this western practice, and neither is this study, but wants students of both traditional and contemporary mindfulness to be aware of these dissonant goals and the ways traditional practices are being changed by western audiences. 

The discussion group picked up on this, and student Alixx drew attention to the contradictions in some Western expressions of mindfulness. “It’s kind of paradoxical the way that we’re marketing and selling meditation and mindfulness and the secularized western version of it,” she said. “Meditating and mindfulness, specifically the vipassanā-bhāvanā, it’s not interchangeable with just any meditation or mindfulness and you can’t just claim it.” Other students again pointed out that the western expression of mindfulness is not unproductive or wrong, but there is an ethical concern in appropriating a tradition, removing its spirituality, and rebranding it.

Branding is central to the western commodification of traditional practices. The second article discussed was “Branding Yoga: The cases of Iyengar Yoga, Siddha Yoga and Anusara Yoga” by Andrea Jain, in which the author traces the development of westernized yoga as having evolved over multiple generations, the first generation of which took place in the 1960s-1980s when specific groups associated with fitness centers and organizations began to brand themselves. The third brand in the title, according to Professor Hatley, “makes for a wonderful case study of capitalist yoga.” The second generation took place in the 1990s-2000s and resulted in the watering down of specific practices even more than the first generation.  Yoga is today a multi-billion-dollar industry. Professor Hatley noted that we have now entered a third generation of westernized yoga that the author does not address.

One student pointed out that brands and market shares quickly took precedence over the spiritual practice of yoga from its first iterations in western contexts. “You are buying into specific groups, and they go on expensive retreats and require or suggest specific supplies branded for each group,” they said. Student Julie wrote in the chat, “it’s interesting because you don’t actually need much of anything to practice yoga or meditation.” After a semester of learning and applying these practices, students were quick to denounce the monetization of such practices.

The last reading discussed was a chapter from McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became The New Capitalist Spirituality by Ronald E. Purser. The author presents the four-billion-dollar industry of western mindfulness as the fast food, quick fix version. “Whether you eat McDonalds in Dubai or India or America, it all tastes the same, and it’s the same for mindfulness,” student Noora said. Mindfulness has become widespread in psychology as a tool to help people deal with unpleasant situations and “become complacent,” as Noora phrased it. “It’s stripped of the compassionate roots of Buddhist mindfulness and becomes about me, me, me,” she added. In Buddhist traditions, compassion is understanding yourself as a part of the greater world and acting accordingly, which multiple students mentioned as a key point in identifying the impact of this class on the realities of life in 2020.

This course gives students the chance to learn not only traditional practices, but also to turn and examine the variants of these practices in a western capitalist context. With particular emphasis on the commodification and de-spiritualization of religious traditions, students have emerged with a rich understanding and observation of the meditation traditions of Asia and how they have been adapted and transformed in western contexts for better and for worse. In thinking about the course’s themes and the crises we have faced in 2020, one student’s take-away from the class said it best: “how can you not become engaged and not want to reshape our world with a focus on compassion?”