Meditation occurs within a broader social and political landscape
As psychologists, we endeavor to map mental territory, and just as geographic maps reflect political territory, our mental maps also in some way reflect the tacit political and social priorities of the day. Likewise, meditation has always been something of a Rorschach test in the sense that each age understands, interprets, and utilizes it in ways that suit prevailing values and ideology. And so it remains in the twenty-first century; the dharma wheel is being re-imagined to take radial tires and chrome hubcaps. As evidence of the personal and health benefits that can derive from meditation practice becomes more widely discussed, it is finding an increasingly accepted place in mainstream health care. One result of this is the uneasy relationship between the internal and phenomenological investigation of meditation’s practices and the external, sense-based empirical methods of assessing outcomes and mechanisms in Western clinical medicine.
Meditation programs are also being employed by some large companies with the aim of reducing stress and so increasing workplace productivity. It is even being introduced into explicitly political settings such as the British House of Commons. And while the assumption seems to be that these developments can only be an unalloyed good, it is worth considering the changing broader social, political, and economic landscape within which this increase in interest is occurring. The rise in popularity of meditation-based stress reduction programs in health and business settings in the US in the 1970s and 1980s closely tracked falling middle-class incomes and rising levels of personal debt as people tried to maintain their standards of living. Even as these programs become more widely used, conditions and economic circumstances become increasingly dire for workers and families.
While it would be unreasonable to suggest that the use of meditation by an ever-increasing number of people could alone be expected to result in social and political change, it is worth critically analyzing and discussing the embedded values that may be associated with meditation practice and instruction and how these relate to the personal desires that create cultural or political change. Is there is a danger that these skills and world view just result in getting people to be more “productive” even if their pay does not increase along with this productivity, or result in coping better with conditions that, to initiate change, require resistance rather than acceptance?
The increasingly popular mindfulness meditation programs have roots in the politically passive and authoritarian societies in which East Asian Buddhism evolved and the social conditions in countries with long Buddhist traditions do not offer promising role models. Judeo-Christian traditions have, painfully and bloodily, evolved to be more democratic with ideals of justice, tolerance, and equality, and with solid ideas of sin; actions are seen as right and wrong rather than skillful and unskillful. So, as Buddhism-based meditation becomes more integrated into Western societies, it is worth examining without prejudice whether and in what ways the values that tolerate and support the societal structures in which it evolved may be present in the practice, the way it is taught, and its assumptions about change and well-being.
The contrasting roots struck me clearly in a venue in which I found myself teaching. A Buddhist organization had acquired what was once a Catholic monastery. The old chapel had been converted into the meditation hall and, while readily accessible Christian iconography had been removed, the stained glass windows in the clerestory depicted Christ and various martyrs in some form or another grimly shedding blood and dying. These images contrasted starkly with the imposing eight-foot Buddharupa dominating what had been the altar and depicting the Buddha sitting quietly with a beatific smile. And while bodhisattvas are at times depicted wielding weapons, these symbolize the slaying of ignorance, not other people. It is worth noting also that the Buddha was not politically radical himself; rather, he appears to have been a pragmatist, careful to cultivate the support of the rich and powerful.
Do such differences bear upon views of acceptance and compassion? The practice of refraining from changing experience is a cognitive stance adopted in meditation practice. But acceptance can occur implicitly at a deeper level. In this understanding, when sensations or thoughts are recognized for what they are, and it is recognized that they will by their nature change of their own accord, the acceptance is implicit. At this level the cognitive/affective stance is recognized as a mental activity comprised of the components of experience. And while the dynamic quality of compassion is emphasized in meditation training programs, and studies show that exercises to foster self-compassion have a salubrious effect upon happiness, an assumption that this will impact the broader social and political fabric needs to be critically examined.