ISSUES PERTAINING TO CULTURAL COLONIZATION OR CONVERGENCE
Kelly's experience raised two questions for her about the adoption and adaptation of mindfulness in a Western context. First, she asked, Is the adoption and adaptation of mindfulness colonization of an ancient tradition and is that process watering down its authenticity? Second, she asked, Can anyone construct his or her own model of therapeutic meditation based on ancient religious practice?
Kelly's questions seemed to assume the takeover of a knowledge base, and she associates this with dispossession, imposition of one culture on another, oppression, and injustice—all significant concepts in her social work education and worthy of critical analysis. Her analysis of these questions included concerns about cultural appropriation, fragmentation, and representation of the Buddhist belief systems as a generic meditation brand that has been commodified within a globalized world. We asked if these issues would be of interest or concern for a psychologist or if there is something particular to social work that generates such questions. In the social work context, colonization is something to be resisted, critiqued, and opposed, and the dominant culture is immediately assumed as the colonizer. And yet is this so? Is this knowledge transfer process more complex and dialectical in nature in this case?
As we examined Kelly's questions more closely, we thought it was important to ask, Who is the colonizer? Cultural appropriation and colonization may be one interpretation as mindfulness is “lifted from its traditional setting in Buddhist doctrine and faith and transplanted in a secularized culture bent on pragmatic results” (Bodhi, 2011, p. 35). Bodhi cautions that
there is a real danger that scientists who investigate traditional Eastern contemplative practices might be swayed by materialistic premises to explain their efficacy reductively, on the exclusive basis of neurophysiology . . . and that the contemplative challenge might be reduced to a matter of gaining skill in certain techniques. (p. 35)
However, he also argues for balance and refers to a statement made by the Buddha prior to his death that he interprets “to mean that we can let anyone take from the Dhamma [teachings] whatever they find useful even if it is for secular purposes” (p. 36).
In contrast, other authors would suggest that Buddhism and its adaptation could be described as Eastern colonization. Although not the essence of his overall argument, Mark Singleton (2010) does allude to the idea that the introduction of yoga and its acceptance into the West could be interpreted as an Indian colonization of the West. Mindfulness meditation could also be seen to be a bit like that in its journey into the West through Buddhism and its acceptance in the West.
Conversely, as discussed previously, a number of authors identify that there is an epistemological and cultural convergence occurring—a coming together of the different worldviews of empirical Western science and contemplative disciplines (Mark et al., 2011; Wallace, 2009) that is generating a paradigm shift. Vohra-Gupta, Russell, and Lo (2007) describe the development of Eastern spiritual practice in the Western context in the United States as emerging from immigration policies that increased the diversity of the population. They describe how the first official presentations of meditation by two Buddhist scholars at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in the late 19th century received a positive reception. This encouraged some Buddhist teachers to migrate to the United States in the early 20th century to open meditation practice centers. Also during the 20th century, there were cultural and social shifts occurring among the populations of Baby Boomers and Generation X in relation to religion that helped meditation to take root in the United States.
This convergence or adaptation of ancient religious practice has occurred throughout history. Many of “the great contemplative traditions that emerged from India ... later spread to Southeast Asia, Tibet, China, Mongolia, Central Asia, and Japan” (Wallace, 2008, p. 136). In each country, these traditions were influenced in form and practice by the culture to which they had spread. “Terminology and emphasis have always changed over time as the Dharma entered new cultures, and this is happening once again in our era” (Mark et al., 2011, p. 14). In the Australian context, there have been Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adaptations of the practices of Christianity into their cultural context. Likewise, the Christianity practiced today is not the same as that practiced in ancient Rome or Greece but, rather, it has adapted as cultures have evolved. On a lighter level, we do not question the adoption of the coffee culture in Australia. Coffee came to Australia through other cultures, but it has been adapted with a culture around this that is different than in America and in England. Do these adaptations water down the authenticity of any of these practices?
Adaptation is not foreign to social work, which is a profession that has adapted practice in a number of ways. Social work practitioners adapt—they go and sit under a tree if that is what is appropriate for Aboriginal Australians. Social workers engaged in good practice are always interested in and adapting to where the client is at and the value base of the client. If the difficulty is with incorporating spiritual practices and values, then there is also a precedent in social work. As discussed previously, much ofthe knowledge in Western disciplines including social work is underpinned by Christian values and worldview. With the secularization of social work and a distancing from its spiritual origins (Rice, 2002), through humanism and modernity, these Christian roots no longer seem to be of concern. For example, we fail to acknowledge that psychoanalysis originates from a Jewish culture (Klein, 1987), and yet it is a practice that converged with social work and is freely used with people other than Jews without question. Strangely, however, when it comes to the use of other spiritual practices, ethical dilemmas about authenticity, client self-determination, and openness and transparency are raised.