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

A number of institutions devoted to the study and application of contemplative practices have been established in the past five years, including the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center (based at UCLA), the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education, and the Center for the Investigation of Healthy Minds. Institutions that existed prior to 2005 have grown and extended the reach of their work, such as the Mind & Life Institute, the Center for Mindfulness Medicine, Health Care, and Society, the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, the Garrison Institute, and Upaya Zen Center's Being With Dying project.

Collectively, the events and publications being put forth by these institutions are reaching a critical mass that is raising public awareness of the benefits of contemplative practices.

4. New generation of contemplative leaders

Compared to five years ago, there are more people in leadership positions with contemplative backgrounds, and they are no longer primarily spiritual teachers. These leaders are making their own unique contributions to the contemplative process and its dissemination. Two examples in the world of technology are Meng Tan (of Google) and Greg Pass (of Twitter). Both are engineers who are also students of meditation; they have applied their skills to design tools and structures that can support reflection and insight.

5. Contemplative responses to current events

It would appear that we are becoming more skilled in creating relevant contemplative responses to contemporary situations-for example, in 2005, a program of mindfulness retreats for military veterans and their families was developed in response to the many vets who returned home from the war in Iraq suffering from PTSD. And, compared to previous years, these responses are garnering more press coverage and public attention.

Is There a Contemplative Practices Movement?

The use and integration of these practices in non-religious sectors has continued to grow. Does this represent an actual "Contemplative Movement"? In a traditional social or political movement, people typically have some awareness that they are part of that movement and make strategic (or not-so-strategic) choices in order to advance its cause. In this case, even though there is a spontaneous emergence of contemplative practices and values across diverse fields, it is likely that many of the people and institutions involved wouldn't identify themselves as part of a larger whole. Sociologist Paul Ray's theory about "Cultural Creatives" (2000) might be a useful analogy here:

While Cultural Creatives are a subculture, they lack one critical ingredient in their lives: awareness of themselves as a whole people. We call them the Cultural Creatives precisely because they are already creating a new culture. If they could see how promising this creativity is for all of us, if they could know how large their numbers are, many things might follow. These optimistic, altruistic millions might be willing to speak more frankly in public settings and act more directly in shaping a new way of life for our time and the time ahead...When we discovered the great promise of this new group, we set out to hold up a mirror for them, so they could see themselves fully. (Cultural Creatives website)

As in the case of Cultural Creatives, by naming this phenomenon we are helping people to become aware of it, perhaps thereby facilitating the next steps in its evolution.

On the Horizon

The data and anecdotal evidence from these past five years suggests that contemplative practices, many of them inspired by Buddhist teachings and practices, are being used by more people and they are finding a normative place in American life.

But are contemplative values actually being internalized or is this a more superficial level of adoption? What are the indicators that these values are being internalized?

I would suggest that we are not just looking for an increase in the numbers of people who meditate, but rather for indications that the qualities nurtured by contemplative practices are taking deeper root and supporting a cultural shift.

What would a society based on contemplative values look like? Some of the elements of it might include:

  • Awareness of our inescapable mutual interdependence and its implications for the politics of a global society;
  • Fulfillment of basic human needs and human rights for all
  • Business with a bottom line that is no longer exclusively power and profit but one that promotes ethically, spiritually, compassionate, and ecologically responsible human life
  • A medical profession committed to healing, wholeness, and compassionate decision making 
  • A justice system that encourages a lawyer to have compassion for his adversary while still being a zealous advocate for his client
  • An economics that looks carefully at the relation between consumption and the pursuit of happiness
7/5/2010 4:00:00 AM
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