Monday, July 05, 2010

Maia Duerr - The Future of Contemplative Practice in America: Buddhism in the West

This is a nice article from Patheos on the future of Western Buddhism, written by Maia Duerr and based on research she conducted for the Fetzer Institute and the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. Interesting stuff for anyone involved in American Buddhism.

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

Maia DuerrBy Maia Duerr

There is an inner revolution taking place in our culture in which great numbers of people are becoming aware of the relationship of their inner lives to their outer lives. - Rob Lehman, 1999

For the Patheos summer series on the future of religion, I'd like to share some insights based on my research into the state of contemplative practices in America, conducted for the Fetzer Institute and the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. I offer them here as Buddhism has informed much of the current popularity of these practices, and the developments described here may have some bearing upon the future of Buddhism. Following a brief introduction to the growth of contemplative practices in America, I'd like to focus on their future.

Contemplative Practices

From 2001 to 2004, the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society conducted a qualitative research project entitled the Contemplative Net. This was quite possibly the first systematic effort to map the use of contemplative practices across a diverse group of secular settings including business, healthcare, education, law, social change, and prison work. In-depth interviews were conducted with 84 professionals who incorporated contemplative practices in their work. The data was then analyzed for recurring patterns and themes, and supplemented by a media survey (e.g., collecting web, print, and broadcast media stories about contemplative practices in non-religions settings).

Read More from: The Future of Buddhism

The study confirmed the growing use of contemplative practice in non-religious settings and that it was a phenomenon worthy of further study. The complete report, titled A Powerful Silence (2004), and detailed findings can be accessed on the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society's website.

In reviewing the events of the past five years since the publication of A Powerful Silence, I believe there are five cultural indicators, which suggest that contemplative practices are moving from the periphery to the mainstream. As I look to the future, my guess is that these trends will continue and expand.

1. Mainstream media coverage of contemplative practices (as well as Buddhism)

Stories about the benefits of meditation and other practices are no longer published primarily in specialty publications, but appear with increasing frequency in venues such as USA Today, The Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times.

The 2010 PBS documentary "The Buddha" also played an important role in introducing many Americans to meditation, as well as its applications to fields such as health care, death and dying, law, and more. The film was viewed on its first PBS screening by 1.6 million people across the country. The show's companion website, which provided resources for learning to meditate, had more than 1.6 million hits by mid-April, 2010, and its Facebook page had 31,642 fans.

Media outlets that have traditionally focused on contemplative practices have also seen growth. For example, subscriptions to Shambhala Sun magazine grew 56% from 2004 to 2009. The March 2010 special issue called A Guide to Mindful Living was the bestselling issue in the magazine's entire history (Boyce, 2010).

2. Election of President Obama

Setting aside political affiliations, the election of President Obama in 2008 is one of the most interesting indicators that the American public has a strong yearning for a more contemplative way of being (albeit perhaps on an unconscious level). Mr. Obama embodies a number of qualities that are developed with contemplative practice: reflection, thoughtfulness, equanimity, and an emphasis on collaboration and interconnection. When he searched for his first Supreme Court nominee, for example, he looked for a "candidate with empathy." In a time when Americans seem to becoming more polarized, Mr. Obama's ability to respect points of view different than his own and to hold multiple truths-also dimensions of a contemplative perspective-is refreshing to many people.

3. Institutional strength

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

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.


learning management system dude said...

it would be nice to have a study on how the different factions of Buddhism interact within the American setting

learning management system dude said...

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Anonymous said...

What happened to the culture creatives subculture mentioned in the blog? It would seem to be more relevant now that its last update 8 years ago.

Greg said...

Good topic. Contemplative prayer and meditation have been around since ancient times, perhaps the valuable research has to do with why people moved away from such practice.

The paper would be much better if you would edit out the trendy devotion to Obama. The idea that a south side Chicago politician has anything to do with contemplation and enlightenment is silly at best.

Anonymous said...

Hi Greg,

Thanks for the comment on the article.

I'm less interested in President Obama himself than in the positive response that so many people had to him during the 2008 campaign. Obama may indeed be a kind of cultural rorshach where we project what we want to see onto him.

But if that's the case, it does seem to me that the personal qualities that he emanates (or at least seems to emanate to some of us) may be indicative of a collective desire for more reflective, thoughtful leadership. So from that perspective, I would still hold that the Obama phenomenon is an important one, in the context of looking at the evolution of a contemplative perspective in the U.S.