The Future of Contemplative Practice in America: Buddhism in the West

Maia DuerrBy Maia Duerr

There is an inner revolution taking place in our culture in which great numbers of people are becoming aware of the relationship of their inner lives to their outer lives. - Rob Lehman, 1999

For the Patheos summer series on the future of religion, I'd like to share some insights based on my research into the state of contemplative practices in America, conducted for the Fetzer Institute and the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.  I offer them here as Buddhism has informed much of the current popularity of these practices, and the developments described here may have some bearing upon the future of Buddhism. Following a brief introduction to the growth of contemplative practices in America, I'd like to focus on their future.

Contemplative Practices

From 2001 to 2004, the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society conducted a qualitative research project entitled the Contemplative Net. This was quite possibly the first systematic effort to map the use of contemplative practices across a diverse group of secular settings including business, healthcare, education, law, social change, and prison work. In-depth interviews were conducted with 84 professionals who incorporated contemplative practices in their work. The data was then analyzed for recurring patterns and themes, and supplemented by a media survey (e.g., collecting web, print, and broadcast media stories about contemplative practices in non-religions settings).


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The study confirmed the growing use of contemplative practice in non-religious settings and that it was a phenomenon worthy of further study. The complete report, titled A Powerful Silence (2004), and detailed findings can be accessed on the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society's website.

In reviewing the events of the past five years since the publication of A Powerful Silence, I believe there are five cultural indicators, which suggest that contemplative practices are moving from the periphery to the mainstream. As I look to the future, my guess is that these trends will continue and expand.

1. Mainstream media coverage of contemplative practices (as well as Buddhism)

Stories about the benefits of meditation and other practices are no longer published primarily in specialty publications, but appear with increasing frequency in venues such as USA Today, The Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times.

The 2010 PBS documentary "The Buddha" also played an important role in introducing many Americans to meditation, as well as its applications to fields such as health care, death and dying, law, and more.  The film was viewed on its first PBS screening by 1.6 million people across the country. The show's companion website, which provided resources for learning to meditate, had more than 1.6 million hits by mid-April, 2010, and its Facebook page had 31,642 fans.

Media outlets that have traditionally focused on contemplative practices have also seen growth. For example, subscriptions to Shambhala Sun magazine grew 56% from 2004 to 2009. The March 2010 special issue called A Guide to Mindful Living was the bestselling issue in the magazine's entire history (Boyce, 2010).

2. Election of President Obama

Setting aside political affiliations, the election of President Obama in 2008 is one of the most interesting indicators that the American public has a strong yearning for a more contemplative way of being (albeit perhaps on an unconscious level). Mr. Obama embodies a number of qualities that are developed with contemplative practice: reflection, thoughtfulness, equanimity, and an emphasis on collaboration and interconnection. When he searched for his first Supreme Court nominee, for example, he looked for a "candidate with empathy." In a time when Americans seem to becoming more polarized, Mr. Obama's ability to respect points of view different than his own and to hold multiple truths-also dimensions of a contemplative perspective-is refreshing to many people.

3. Institutional strength