Another in the growing line of stories covering meditation’s migration into mindfulness pops up this month in the New Yorker. I’m trying to decide if meditation’s becoming mindfulness is akin to asana’s becoming (all of) yoga. I don’t think that quite works, but surely there are parallels between how both are being embraced anew in the 2000s. From the New Yorker piece, which seems worth your time, unless you’ve had enough with Headspace, which is what much of the story is yoked to:
This changed in the late nineteenth century, when the British invaded Burma, and Christian missionaries set about converting the populace. Fearing that their religion was being destroyed, Buddhist monks began to teach laypeople the practices of the monasteries, in order to preserve them. One monk, the Ledi Sayadaw, travelled the country, encouraging people to study complicated philosophical texts, and to try meditation for themselves. Traditionally, meditation followed a rigorous curriculum, but the Sayadaw created a pared-down version for the masses. He argued that laypeople might not be ready for enlightenment, but they could still cultivate “insight,” by practicing moment-to-moment awareness.
Along with his successors—including S. N. Goenka, the creator of Vipassana, or “insight” meditation—the Sayadaw and other Burmese teachers transformed Buddhism. “They rebranded it, in essence,” David McMahan, the author of “The Making of Buddhist Modernism,” told me. (This transformation is sometimes referred to as Buddhist Protestantism.) Lay-Buddhist meditation began to spread across Asia in the nineteen-twenties. By the sixties, it had made its way to the West, where it became embedded in the era’s counterculture.
Headspace recently set up its headquarters in Venice Beach, Los Angeles—around the corner from Google’s offices and the wellness mecca Moon Juice. When I visited, on a seventy-degree day this winter, I wondered briefly if I’d arrived in Nirvana. Puddicombe walks to work, at an indoor-outdoor space that’s filled with relaxed Millennials, typing on laptops. He is married to a British woman named Lucinda, who is an exercise physiologist, and they recently had a baby. His days are spent writing a book about mindful pregnancy—users requested it—and teaching meditation, alone in a recording booth.
The next morning, at eight-thirty, Puddicombe picked me up, along with Rich Pierson, his business partner, a thirty-four-year-old British man, who wore sneakers and shorts. They’d wanted to take me surfing; according to Puddicombe, the sport is one reason that Headspace is based in California. After years of sitting, he was eager to move around again. The partners now discuss company issues during surf sessions every morning, off Santa Monica Beach. (After meditating, of course. Puddicombe meditates for about an hour, using a combination of “visualization and awareness techniques” that he learned at the monastery, and vowed to practice every day for the rest of his life.)
I had to include those last two paragraphs, to bring it home to us here, a few miles inland from Headspace’s HQ. (As bad as I’ve found the surf in Venice, I believe it is only worse in Santa Monica, for those who care. Neither is Encinitas.) And I pass it on because of the large subset — from my experience — of Ashtanga practitioners who also have a meditation, often Vipassana, practice. I’m still uncertain why that is; is it something lacking in Ashtanga or does Ashtanga crack open that door for lots of people. Is it a limit of the practice or evidence of its success?
I’d probably have better insight if I could maintain anything close to a meditation practice myself. (Another shout-out to Bobbie for setting up the little corner in our yard for that, which I woefully and apologetically underuse.) But I already am devoting 60 to 90 minutes most days to Ashtanga; that’s hard enough. Adding in another piece to my already busy day, that’s another level of pure dedication. (I now sound some version of whiny or excuse-making; in my defense, a separate subset of Ashtanga practitioners do seem surprised at how long my work days are, and, yes, mostly at a desk and computer.) Ashtanga certainly has shown me that I’d benefit — that cracked door. But I can’t imagine meditating with an app, of all things. Or, again, just finding the time to do so.
Posted by Steve