September 14th, 2014
08:39 AM ET
By Jeff Wilson, special to CNN
(CNN) - Mindfulness meditation is a huge phenomenon – and a multibillion-dollar industry – in the United States.
It’s being used to help soldiers deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, to assist schoolchildren with attention difficulties and to bring stress relief from the hospital bed to the boardroom to the bedroom.
In fast-paced, multitasking modern America, mindfulness is used both to take a vacation from our hectic lives and to help us manage ever more work and stimulation in a mindful manner.
This mindfulness movement is diverse, but it traces back to Buddhist awareness techniques, especially as promoted by UMass Medical School researcher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Essentially, mindfulness is a technique of open awareness without judgment, which allows the meditator to observe their physical and mental actions and reactions without attachment or aversion.
Once upon a time, mindfulness meditation conjured up images of an orange-robed monk with a shaven head, sitting quietly somewhere in a jungle cave.
But now, the average mindfulness practitioner is a suburban soccer mom who meditates in order to increase her work efficiency, deal with her kids’ needs, watch what she eats and keep her sanity,
Whenever a foreign practice becomes mainstream, naturally, some confusion occurs. Here’s a list of four common misunderstandings that have appeared as mindfulness spread from the monastery to the middle-class home.
Myth No. 1: All Buddhists practice mindfulness meditation.
Buddhism is synonymous with mindfulness in the West. Many suggest that mindfulness is the core of Buddhism and that nothing else – like ceremonies or doctrine – is even necessary.
It may come as a surprise, therefore, to learn that the majority of Buddhists, past and present, have never performed regular meditation practice.
Mindfulness and similar forms of meditation were traditionally the domain of ordained monks and nuns, not the average people who make up the great bulk of Buddhist societies.
Even for the monks and nuns, meditation was often a peripheral activity, with the greatest honors reserved for scholars and ritual specialists, not meditation masters.
Myth No. 2: Mindfulness is always good for you.
Mindfulness is sold to the American public primarily on the strength of its supposed mental and physical health benefits, including stress reduction. But meditation can have dangerous psychological and physical effects as well.
Traditional Buddhist stories abound of meditators being taken over by evil spirits, and contemporary psychological studies of mindfulness practice going back to the 1970s include patients who experienced hallucinations, psychotic episodes, depression and other mental trauma, as well as nerve pain and similar physical impacts.
These effects are especially likely when the practitioner has a pre-existing mental or physical condition.
Practicing under the guidance of a trained instructor can help reduce these risks, and careful screening by leaders before extended retreats is also necessary.
Myth No. 3: Mindfulness has always been used for self-improvement.
One of the hottest trends in mindfulness is the application of meditation to specific everyday activities, not to prevent a break in one’s meditation when away from the cushion but to enhance those various activities.
For instance, books, articles, TED talks and websites promote the idea that mindfulness can be used to overcome sexual dysfunction and to increase the pleasure of intercourse. Mindful parenting advocates preach that maintaining awareness while taking care of the kids results in kinder, smarter, more responsive parents.
There are similar movements for mindful work, mindful eating, mindful sports and many other activities. These are very new applications of mindfulness.
In Buddhist history, mindfulness was typically used to create detachment from desire and to help achieve nirvana. A Buddhist monk who couldn’t keep his robes on would’ve been kicked out of the monastery, no matter how mindful he was in bed.
But Americans have little tolerance for renunciation, and so mindfulness has been reoriented to provide us with the benefits we do seek.
Myth No. 4: All mindfulness practitioners are Buddhist.
Buddhism gave us mindfulness, but most Americans who’ve had some experience with mindfulness would not claim a Buddhist identity for themselves.
In fact, there are large and growing numbers of self-professed Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists and others involved in mindfulness practice. In part, this is because mindfulness has been promoted by scientists, doctors, psychologists and others with a secular role in society.
Some who begin mindfulness practice as a secular activity eventually investigate Buddhism more deeply and end up as full-fledged Buddhists.
But in other cases, encounter with Buddhist-based meditation has led Christians and Jews to a newfound appreciation for the riches of their own traditions, including a revival of neglected meditation techniques from Western religious history.
Jeff Wilson is the author of “Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture." He teaches Religious Studies at Renison University College at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.
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