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

In the process of working toward this deeper level of integration, some of the challenges we need to be aware of include:

  • The American propensity toward consumerism; the tendency to turn everything into a commodity, and to look for an "easy fix."
  • Fear and misunderstanding of what contemplative practices are; suspicion that someone is trying to "take away" one's religious beliefs or convert one to another religion.
  • Our own tendency to be evangelistic about these practices. (The case of a 2003 "anti-stress" ballot measure in Denver, CO, is instructive. The initiative would have required the city to implement community-wide steps such as mass meditation sessions, piping soothing music into public buildings, and serving natural foods in school cafeterias. The measure was soundly defeated and the object of much ridicule.)

How might we address these challenges and take this nascent movement forward to the next stage of evolution? This may seem counterintuitive, but it may help to focus on our biggest vision rather than the specific means to get there. We can consider shifting the framework from encouraging the use of contemplative practices and instead emphasize a vision of a society based on contemplative values, which offers people many avenues for participation. The Charter for Compassion, sponsored by the Fetzer Institute, is an excellent example of this.

Again, the election of President Obama may be seen as an indication that many people are hungry for a kinder, gentler, and more respectful society. How can we use this strong desire to inspire people? Paul Gorman, former director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, suggested that, "The values and qualities that we love so much about Obama need to be named and more broadly owned." As Gorman defines it, the challenge for us is to identify and claim these values in our own lives rather than project them onto a person or an organization.

Related to this, it will be important to recognize that people have diverse ways of cultivating these qualities, some of which may look like "traditional" contemplative practices and others of which will help to define new kinds of practices. Here, we need to "walk our talk," be ready to let go of fixed ideas, and be receptive to new iterations of contemplative practice. Perhaps this will be the next turning of the wheel of dharma.

For further reading:

  • Duerr, M. (2004). A Powerful Silence: The Role of Meditation and Other Contemplative Practices in American Life and Work. Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.
  • Garrison Institute (2005). Contemplation and Education: Current Status of Programs Using Contemplative Techniques in K - 12 Educational Settings: A Mapping Report.
  • Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life (2007). U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, Summary of Key Findings, page 13. Accessed online:
  • Pew website:
  • Ray, P. (2000) Cultural Creatives. New York: Harmony Books.
  • Shapiro, S., Warren, K. and Astin, J. with Duerr, M. ed. (2008). Toward the Integration of Meditation into Higher Education: A Review of Research. Prepared for the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.

Maia Duerr is a writer, editor, anthropologist, and founder of Five Directions Consulting. She practices Zen Buddhism and has worked with the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Upaya Zen Center, Parallax Press, and the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. She writes The Jizo Chronicles, a blog on socially engaged Buddhism.

7/5/2010 4:00:00 AM
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