Whether or not the latest wave of self-helping meditators or corporate practitioners of ‘mindfulness’ know it, the spiritual enlightenment sweeping America has strong ties to Buddhism, thanks in part to one huggable ex-monk in California.
Over the last decade, without much fanfare, the core tenets of Buddhism have migrated from the spiritual fringe to become widely accepted techniques for dealing with the challenges of daily life. Feeling overwhelmed? “Watch your breath,” “stay present” and focus on “mindful action.” Grappling with difficult emotions? “Seek awareness” and “acceptance.” Dissatisfied with life? Surely you’ve heard the idea that dissatisfaction is endemic to the human condition. While not always labeled as such, these are, in fact, the key principles of Buddhist teachings. And they couldn’t have come at a better time, when so many Americans are overscheduled, overstimulated and generally in need of anything that might cultivate a sense of internal calm.
Beyond the beliefs, the practice of Buddhist mindfulness-centered meditation is also undeniably having a moment. Corporate mindfulness programs, such as General Mills’s pioneering at-work meditation program, in which participating employees begin the day listening to the sound of bells ringing, are increasingly popular. Google’s seven-week course for employees, “Search Inside Yourself,” is oversubscribed. Similar programs have begun to crop up in universities and public schools, as well as in the United States Marine Corps, to help deal with stress. The explicitly nonreligious nature of mindfulness meditation makes it an easier sell for those who are allergic to all things New Age; Buddhism has succeeded in part because it does not directly challenge the nation’s dominant Christian faith but still gives nonbelievers a spiritual centering. Someone like Al Gore can call himself both a Christian and a meditator. More cynically, meditation might just be this decade’s fad, one of many throwbacks to the 1960s and 1970s, like the renewed popularity of muscle cars. Whatever the reason, the guiding ideas and practices of Buddhism are currently sweeping the culture.
Much of the credit for this inward awakening should go to a small group of men and women who spent years in the 1960s in the remote monasteries of Burma, Thailand and India, and who brought their findings back to North America. Among their numbers, Jack Kornfield, the 69-year-old co-founder of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Northern California, has emerged as one of the leading ambassadors of Buddhism in America. On a beautiful summer day I met him at Spirit Rock, located about 20 miles north of San Francisco, in the grassy hills typical of California wine country. Kornfield, who has a bushy mustache and large ears, is a quick thinker with a warm, fatherly presence. While strolling around the monastery, I asked if we needed to be silent among the students. “Let that be their problem,” he answered, chuckling.
Kornfield grew up in the 1950s in a Jewish family with a father he has described as brilliant but violent and abusive — an upbringing he admits might have unconsciously driven him to spiritual practice. At Dartmouth College, dropping out of the pre-med program to pursue Asian studies, he became entranced by the classical stories of adepts who sought out Buddhist masters in the hinterlands. After graduating, he traveled to Southeast Asia to see if he might find a living master for himself. Amazingly, he did: His Holiness Ajahn Chah, the master of a small monastery in northern Thailand, who was dedicated to preserving, in pure form, the mindfulness practices the Buddha himself pioneered. “He was probably the wisest person I’d ever met,” says Kornfield, who decided to take vows, put on the robes and become an ordained monk. He remembers Master Chah looking him over and saying, “I hope you’re not afraid to suffer.” By monastery rules, Kornfield was limited to one meal a day, to be obtained by begging. Among other trials, he spent an entire year in absolute silence, learning the skills of deep-concentration meditation. When he emerged after four years of training, he was changed. “It was just the medicine I needed,” he recalls.
Having returned to the United States, Kornfield, together with two other Americans who had monastic experience, Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein, co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in 1975, in a former Catholic seminary in Western Massachusetts. There, they began to pioneer a native mindfulness practice that they felt was both loyal to its Buddhist roots and adapted to American ways in terms of duration and openness to women. Then, in the 1980s, he fell in love, moved to the West Coast, had a daughter and opened a new and even larger meditation center, Spirit Rock.
The mindfulness retreats at Spirit Rock are modeled on monastic practice. Students typically come for five to seven days, during which time they take a vow of total silence and meditate for as many as 14 hours a day, pausing only for simple meals and one daily talk given by a retreat leader. The accommodations are comfortable if not luxurious. The approach is less rigorous than at some Asian monasteries but, as Kornfield notes, “the silence alone is a formidable thing.” If all goes according to plan, spending days here leads to time slowing down, creating a real awareness of what is happening, moment by moment. His settings forge, in other words, the experience of mindfulness.
Some of the ways in which Buddhist mindfulness practice had to be adapted for America were as simple as introducing chairs to the meditation hall. Others reached deeper. In the West, Kornfield says, “we encounter a lot of intense, striving ambition, and a lot of self-criticism, self-judgment and self-hatred.” Concerned, he initially turned to the Dalai Lama for advice, but self-hatred was such a foreign concept to the Tibetan Buddhist that he wasn’t able to offer any real insight. Over time, Kornfield and his colleagues began to believe that Americans needed a particular meditation practice closely linked to the concepts of self-forgiveness and “loving-kindness” — a training in the unconditional acceptance of imperfection. Without such a foundation, says Kornfield, meditation can easily become yet another form of striving — “another thing you do to make yourself better,” instead of a path to true contentment.
Unlike Kornfield and his fellow practitioners, more recent popularizers of mindfulness have sought to minimize or disavow Buddhist origins in the hope of reaching a broader audience. Consider Dan Harris, the co-anchor of ABC’s “Nightline” and the author of the bestselling “10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works.” A former student at Spirit Rock, Harris hopes to divorce mindfulness from what he calls its “cultural baggage.” “Meditation,” as he puts it, “suffers from a towering PR problem,” being associated with “bearded swamis, unwashed hippies and fans of John Tesh music.”
“So that’s what worked for him,” Kornfield says neutrally. He views the spread of mindfulness techniques as a “great success,” comparing the movement to the “mainstreamification” of yoga, which benefits many, even if its Eastern roots are minimized. “There’s a yoga studio next to every Starbucks,” he points out. He also celebrates corporate programs and mindfulness in the military. “You put heavy weapons in [young men's] hands, and you don’t want them to have emotional regulation, some inner sense of how to still themselves?”
Ultimately, for Kornfield, the techniques matter more than the packaging. “I really trust the integrity of these practices and teachings themselves,” he says. “They are self-corrective, in a way.” Given adequate dedication, he insists, they will work. A true spiritual awakening or the experience of Nirvana is, he believes, “within the reach of anyone.”