Artwork by Cai Cramer

Artwork by Cai Cramer

By: Grace Gay

As cultures collide in the 21st century, it is fascinating to see how the practices of one culture are integrated into another. Cultural collisions can be seen as the mere sharing of ideas or as cultural appropriation, since the experience of sharing ideas is complicated and multifold. Perhaps the best example of the adaptation of the flow of cultural ideas is the incorporation of Buddhism into the western world.

Buddhist practices like yoga, though now ubiquitous in most areas of America, only recently became popular. Further, in the last decade, the use of meditation has surged as mindfulness training has become more popular. And Northwestern is beginning to incorporate these practices across campus.

From yoga classes at SPAC to classes on Buddhism and mindfulness training, Buddhist ideals have become far more widespread on campus. Northwestern’s Counseling and Psychological Services released the Breathe portal in November of 2017 as part of an effort to teach college students stress reduction tips that utilize mediation practices.

Breathe, as the name suggests, focuses on rhythms of breathing, building on single point meditation practices (samantha, in Buddhist traditions). The program focuses on using breathing to counteract the stress response, and also suggests mindful walking and body scanning as ways to manage anxiety. Both of these concepts also build on Buddhist practices of body scan meditation and walking meditation.

This mindfulness adaptation of Buddhist traditions, when applied correctly, has been found to help people who suffer from severe depression and anxiety and can be almost as effective as antidepressant medication. Practicing meditation has benefits across the board for general wellbeing. Meditation and mindfulness practices have also been incorporated into treatments for PTSD with promising results.

But as these practices offer new ways to help people suffering from mental illness, or just reduce general stress levels, much of the significance of the practices is left behind. Buddhism is generally misunderstood in Western culture, largely because many Buddhist ideas are quite different from traditional Western ideas. Depending on the denomination or country in which Buddhism is being practiced, the level to which Buddhism is a spirituality, versus a religion, differs. In general, Buddhist ideas focus on understanding that all life (and non-living things) are interconnected, but at the same time, positing that there is no true self or soul. All people are constantly changing and have no true one version of themselves.  Additionally, despite misconceptions, the Buddha is not a deity, but simply the man who first began teaching Buddhist ideas. Buddhism also focuses on non-materialism, wishing good for all and helping everyone with equanimity. While some of these concepts mimic those found in Judeo-Christian religions, for Westerners, there seems to be a cognitive dissonance in Buddhist understanding.

Artwork by Cai Cramer

Artwork by Cai Cramer

The version of Buddhism often presented to Americans is anesthetized from its core beliefs and spiritual understandings. In Western culture, the ideas of interconnectedness over individuality and transcendence of material desires are often left behind when adapting Buddhist mindfulness practices, despite how key those ideas are to Buddhism. American culture relies heavily on prioritizing individuality and the accumulation of wealth, achievements, admiration, and so on. There is a whiff of cultural appropriation and fundamental disconnect between the intentions behind Buddhist practices and how Americans use them.

From this phenomena, a danger emerges: Buddhist practices can become beneficial for wealthy, white people to claim they are enlightened in some way without actually understanding the culture their practices come from. In the 1800s and early 1900s, Chinese and Japanese immigrants to the U.S.were often discriminated against through labor and immigration laws and were unable to seek legal protection. Buddhism was the most popular religion among Japanese-Americans during World War II, and as discrimination against Japanese Americans rose, Buddhism was a source of comfort to those placed in internment camps. But at the same time, in order to show their loyalty to the US, Japanese Americans worked to make their religious practices look more Christian. It is therefore important to acknowledge that the sanitized version of Buddhism and Buddhist practices within the US has arisen in part because of a long history of racial discrimination by the US government and people.

This sterilization of Buddhist ideas makes the practices less effective too. Perhaps more than the practices themselves, the principles behind Buddhism incorporate a worldview where the self is decentralized, and therefore the things we stress about (money, change, and other matters that may be defined as inconsequential by Buddhist views) are not as important as American culture claims. Both the practices and ideas of Buddhism offer ways of healing to problems, and anyone can practice Buddhism kindly and respectfully, so long as they can be aware and respectful of the origin of these ideas.

However, the intersection of cultures has not been all one sided. As Buddhist ideas have spread towards the West, ideas about social activism have also arisen as a component of Buddhist practice. While generosity is important in Buddhist tradition, there is not a general history of social activism or a focus on justice as part of some Buddhist practices. In recent years, Buddhist monks such as French-born Matthieu Ricard have begun working on projects in the Himalayan regions to improve the lives of the less fortunate through education, health care and community infrastructure. The influence of Western ideas such as cultural activism have emerged to a greater extent in Buddhist works such as Ricard’s.

The benefits of Buddhist practices in America so far offer promising results for combatting stress and mental illness, but research has only recently increased in this area. In order to see large effects from mindfulness practices, a great deal of time and energy must be utilized. Therefore, in Western culture, Buddhist practices are not the end-all solution to problems of the Western world related to combating stress, but rather a helpful tool to help people better live their lives.

The incorporation of Buddhist practices at Northwestern offers students learning opportunities that can benefit themselves and others, but as mindfulness becomes more popular, the origins of these practices should be respected. The incorporation of Buddhist practices in Western culture has a great deal to offer and all it takes in order to honor the origins of these practices is to acknowledge the past from which they come. Buddhism encourages the spread of any behaviors that can help alleviate suffering in others and so the practice of mindfulness can both honor Buddhist ideals and be used by Westerners respectfully.

From taking a class in Buddhism (quite a few Northwestern professors are actually practicing Buddhists!) to studying abroad with Buddhist practitioners, students at Northwestern can find a balance between honoring where mindfulness practices largely come from and incorporating them into their lives. By understanding the history of Buddhism in America, we can better honor the pain that was inflicted and move forward to a more interconnected and understanding future.