I realize that, at this point, the word “meditation” has evolved into a term that is used to describe cool things that cool people do instead of doing uncool things that journalists might think of as prayer. Perhaps we need an entry in the Associated Press Stylebook that states this clearly.
The problem, of course, is that many of these generic meditative techniques have their origins in major world religions and, in fact, they are linked to prayer in those traditions. The key, today, is that these spiritual techniques have been turned into consumer goods. Yes, there is an app for that.
It was a strange little news-you-can-use piece in The Los Angeles Times — “Meditation apps let the peace flow through the phone” — that got me thinking about this. Look it over, and we’ll return to its contents in a minute.
This story, if it is a news story, reminded me of an interview I did a decade ago with poet Rodger Kamenetz, author of the bestseller “The Jew in the Lotus.” He was worried that, as more and more people stopped practicing actual religious faiths, we would end up lots of people making up their own religions — stripping away the actual doctrines and ethical teachings until they were left with plastic substitutes that, essentially, calmed their nerves but never judged their lives.
Perhaps, he told me, it was time to list the actual prayer traditions of Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam on some kind of “spiritual endangered species” list. Thus, I wrote:
Take Buddhism, for example, which appears to be flourishing and winning converts in media-soaked America. Simply stated, Buddhism is being bought and sold. And Kamenetz is not the only scholar who is worried about the rise of a consumer-friendly Buddhism in the spirituality marketplace.
There are other seekers — including growing numbers of “JUBUs” or Jewish Buddhists — who find Buddhism attractive because they see it as a form of spirituality without dogmas, creeds, beliefs, commandments and rituals that resemble anything they were required to learn as children. They simply ignore what traditional Buddhist leaders such as the Dalai Lama have to say about hot-button moral issues, such as abortion, homosexuality of sexual abstinence.
“Let’s face it,” said Kamenetz, “one of the reasons Buddhism has become so popular, with so many Americans, so fast, is that people have stripped away all of the rules and the precepts and the work that has to do with how you are supposed to live your life. In doing so, they have stripped Buddhism of its ethical content. You are left with a religion that makes very few demands of you. Is that Buddhism?
With that in mind, take another look at that Times piece, which centers on peace and tranquility via the smartphone. Think of this, in a way, as a parallel story to the whole wretched “going to confession online” media craze of a year or two ago, which was a news-gets-abused mess on multiple levels. Those apps allowed believers to PREPARE for confession, using printed materials and journals on their smartphones.
It appears that these new “meditation” apps go way, way, beyond that kind of thing. The story notes that a simple search for “meditation” in the iPhone App Store yields 1,000 possible downloads.
The guidance offered in these apps “allows you just to let go and stop worrying about whether you’re doing it right,” says Stephan Bodian, a psychotherapist in Tucson and the developer of the Mindfulness Meditation app. “You can just relax and let yourself be led.”
Plugging in to a meditation app — having turned off the phone’s ringer and other functions, of course — could have a host of benefits. Researchers have found that meditation reduces stress and makes people generally happier.
Here’s the journalistic key, for me. What does the word “meditation” actually mean, in the context of this story? What would differentiate “meditation” from “prayer”? What is the line between, let’s say, letting oneself “be led” in generic, commercialized meditation, as opposed to meditating by saying the prayers of the traditional Catholic Rosary?
Here is what readers get:
There are many kinds of meditation, but a lot of attention these days is going to “mindfulness.” Mindfulness is all about paying attention to the here and now — not the past or future, where stressors lurk — with an open, observant attitude, says psychologist Britta Hölzel of Massachusetts General Hospital. Frequently it involves focusing on one particular thing, like the breath.
“It helps me be more awake and alive to what’s happening around me,” Hölzel says.
Mindfulness can help with attention, memory and emotional control. It can help people deal with anxiety, depression and substance abuse.
The benefits of meditation aren’t limited to the brain; it can also lower cholesterol, heart rate and blood pressure. …
In other words, the story offers little or nothing in the way of a definition or a description of the contents of these programs. Mediation is defined in terms of its alleged effects — that is all. You pay your money, you get the outcome that you want. Or you get your money back? This strange Times story does not address that point.
The story ends, of course, with blurbs promoting several of these generic, non-religious meditation products. Personally, I wonder what Kamenetz would say about this one:
For: Android, iPhone
The lighthearted Buddhify program promises “appalicious goodness for you to play with,” including 32 meditations. It’s all about “urban meditation,” so you don’t have to find a quiet mountaintop or temple. Buddhify has meditations for walking, riding the bus, working out and the home. With no music, you focus on the sounds around you. You can further customize your experience by selecting specific “flavors,” such as clarity or stability.
I guess, in terms of journalism, we are living in a new age after all.