Wednesday, April 25, 2012

"A quiet revolution is happening in America." So says Tim Ryan, Ohio congressman and author of A Mindful Nation, which documents the spread of mindfulness meditation across the US, and argues for its widespread adoption as a way to favourably affect the country's healthcare system, economy, schools and military.

Ryan may not have to worry. The practices he recommends are drawn from Buddhism, but commonly taught as secular disciplines, and (unless I missed it) the B-word isn't mentioned once in A Mindful Nation. Ryan is a Catholic, and positions his plea squarely in the context of western, rather than eastern, tradition – his book is subtitled "How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance and Recapture the American Spirit". He aligns mindfulness with no-nonsense values such as "self-reliance, stick-to-itiveness, perseverance and getting the job done", as well as the softer sounding "connection, kindness, caring and compassion". The book draws on plentiful neuroscientific and clinical data supporting his claims, as well as interviews with scientists who have tested mindfulness on hospital patients, schoolchildren and even the armed forces.

Some Buddhists are uneasy about the mainstream co-option of mindfulness. Whereas meditators in the 60s and 70s allied themselves with counter-cultures, this movement is happening right in the heart of some very conservative institutions – bankers, government officials, doctors and management consultants are among those being sponsored to pay attention to raisins (a typical opening meditation practice) as a way to enhance not just wellbeing but also productivity and creativity.

Buddhism's second noble truth states that the cause of suffering is craving; is the power of mindfulness diluted when taught as part of the culture in contexts that may support craving? Could it even come to be perverted when employed as an instrument for the "pursuit of happiness" enshrined in the US Declaration of Independence, which from a Buddhist perspective might be viewed as a contradiction? Might happiness come from letting go of attachment even to happiness itself?

Despite the assertion of traditional American values, Ryan may actually be an important radical, willing to use his influence to trigger a shift in cultural attitudes and practices, leading perhaps to less pursuit and more happiness. Having looked at the science, and experienced the effects of meditation in his own life, he is convinced that mindfulness "will be the next great movement in the United States", and declares that: "I would be derelict in my duty as a congressman if I didn't do my part to make mindfulness accessible to as many people as possible in our nation." As the first mainstream US politician nails his colours to the meditation mast, it'll be interesting to see what happens next, both to Ryan and to American mindfulness.

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