This month, Scientific American launches a cover story on the “Neuroscience of Meditation” describing how this ancient Hindu and Buddhist practice is now being accepted in the secular world. This article is just the latest of many proclamations that meditation has moved on from the realm of “bearded swamis” (read: “mystical” South Asians) to acceptance in the American mainstream (read: “normal” white people).
The Scientific American article illustrates how problematic such an assertion is. To demonstrate how meditation has become more acceptable in the American intellectual community, the three white and European authors cite over a dozen white and European scientists and a total of zero people of color. Apparently, when enough educated white people are willing to sign off on an “exotic” practice of “unwashed hippies” (who were of course heavily influenced by Indian and Native Americans), then we should all start taking the practice seriously.
What may be most surprising is that obvious prejudice against meditation’s Hindu and Buddhist roots is nakedly embraced. Cue Richard Davidson, founder What may be most surprising is that obvious prejudice against meditation’s Hindu and Buddhist roots is nakedly embraced.of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds: “There is a swath of our culture who is not going to listen to someone in monks’ robes, but they are paying attention to the scientific evidence.” Naively, Davidson may have intended to say that people in this country trust science over religion, but the 83 percent of Americans who identify as Christian would likely disagree. In particular, the 42 percent of Americans who believe that “God created humans in their present form” seem perfectly comfortable listening to someone in robes tell them what to believe, we just need to switch the kasaya for a western habit.
Instead of the difference between religious and scientific sources, then, what seems more likely is that Americans are starting to hear messages about meditation from sources they are more comfortable with, namely, “normal” white people.Americans are starting to hear messages about meditation from sources they are more comfortable with, namely, “normal” white people. Thus TIME’s coverage of the “mindfulness revolution” glorifies a white, thin, cisgender woman in meditative bliss on its cover (though props to them for consistency), and the New York Times tells us about this South Asian spiritual practice from the perspective of a white, cisgender, able-bodied, heterosexual man. To reach the broadest possible audience of Americans, mainstream publications hew to a strict racial, gender, and class phenotype in order to “earn their trust.” A la Davidson, this means representing meditation with faces and voices as far from South Asian descent as possible.
Time Magazine can only illustrate mindfulness / meditation with white blondes closing their eyes. 2003 – 2014. pic.twitter.com/xFfDZKbpDZ
— David Gelles (@dgelles) January 23, 2014
There is value to conducting rigorous studies on meditation to evaluate its scientifically measurable effects. However, it’s too easy to let ourselves off the hook — as a society and as individuals — by saying that this shift from the religious “fringe” to the the secular “mainstream” isn’t rife with colonialism, oppression, and cultural appropriation.
The perfect example of how not to take into account power, race, and history in one’s analysis comes from Sam Harris, author and CEO of Project Reason. He helped remove any doubt about his ethnocentricity by comparing mainstream Muslims to “Christians of the 14th century.” Harris (for those keeping track, also a white, heterosexual, able-bodied, cisgender male) gleefully proclaims his Manifest Destiny, writing in “Killing the Buddha” that “well-educated Westerners…bear the greatest responsibility for the spread of ideas.” If Harris is particularly unkind (and arguably bigoted) toward Muslims, he is much more charitable toward Buddhism, but still feels that those who openly identify as Buddhist are “complicit in the world’s violence and ignorance to an unacceptable degree.”
Harris’s arguments exemplify the white/European’s culturally hegemonic one-two punch: well-educated Westerners propagate their ideas freely while South Asians must leave their identities at the door. Viewed from a different angle, Harris’s interpretation also seems like the most appropriate way to characterize three white and European authors citing over a dozen white and European scientists in order to describe an ancient, South Asian practice as finally being “accepted” by the American mainstream.
Based out of Oakland, California, Vishnu Sridharan, J.D., has worked on international and domestic anti-poverty platforms for the past decade. He also has a deep background in human rights, in particular social and economic rights, from his legal advocacy in China and community building efforts as a Peace Corps Volunteer in El Salvador. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Columbia College and a law degree from Stanford Law School. His writings have appeared in Foreign Policy, CNN.com, the Christian Science Monitor, Slate and Politico. Read more at vishnusridharan.com.