Whenever spirituality, in the form of Christianity or, for example, Buddhism, was on the rise in the past, it always had an impact on society. Will the increased appreciation of and focus on modern meditation have an impact on our society as well? And if so, what can we expect? In collaboration with tech-journalist Wouter van Noort (NRC), we organized an event to reflect on this matter with a panel of experts. In this note, we’d like to share some of the insights we’ve gained from the event.

Our observations

  • In general, mindfulness promises a healthier, happier, well-rested life by living more mindfully. The main purpose of most mindfulness apps (e.g. Calm, Buddhify, Headspace) is to strengthen mental fitness and tackle some of the biggest mental health challenges of today: stress, anxiety, insomnia, and depression. Living more mindfully can refer to the aim to “quiet and soften the mind” (Buddhify), “the ability to be present, to rest in the here and now, fully engaged with whatever we’re doing in the moment” (Headspace) or, for example, “the practice of paying attention to our thoughts, emotions, and experiences without judgment” (Calm).
  • More traditional meditation practices had a different aim, which was deeply connected to an underlying cosmological worldview and often came with a deeply committed or disciplined life. Contemplation, for example, by which monks attempted to achieve union with God, was one of the most important aspects of monastery life in Christianity. In Islamic tradition, it is said that Muhammad would seclude himself from the world in order to contemplate life and its meaning. In Buddhism, to give a final example, meditation was part of the path toward liberation, awakening and preventing reincarnation into the infinite circle of life and death.
  • Most mindfulness apps and studios have distanced themselves from all spiritual or religious heritage with regards to a specific cosmological worldview (e.g. believing in a higher power, committing to certain moral values or opting for a particular lifestyle), focusing solely on the concrete exercises that are used. Some even explicitly claim to be non-religious, not committing to any cosmological perspective (e.g. Calm: “All of our teachings are universal and non-religious”). Moreover, these modern practices do not demand submission to a committed or disciplined life. Buddhify, for example, is praised for offering meditation tools that do not require saving time to meditate, and is designed to fit into a busy modern lifestyle. Still, the link with spirituality is legitimate in the sense that the concrete practices that are offered in mindfulness show great resemblance with the concrete characteristics of more traditional meditation that was embedded in religion or spirituality.
  • In order to reflect on how the increased appreciation for mindfulness could influence our society, Wouter van Noort and FreedomLab Thinktank invited three experts: Yvonne Zonderop (journalist), whose latest book reflects on the renewed appreciation of religion and spirituality, Emanuel Rutten (philosopher), whose logical argument for the existence of God was picked up by The New York Times, and Stine Jensen (philosopher), who recently published a book on the seductions and dangers of modern spirituality. Van Noort and FreedomLab Thinktank have both written before on the rise of mindfulness.

 

 

Connecting the dots

The terms religion and spirituality were historically used synonymously. In the contemporary usage of these words, however, their meanings have begun to differ. Spirituality is often associated with an individual emphasis on the well-being of the “mind-body-spirit”, while religion refers to more organizational or communal practices. Mindfulness is often associated with spirituality, because its practice has roots in ancient spiritual and religious practices such as contemplation and meditation, and it is mainly an individual matter. However, many practitioners do not have any interest in its spiritual roots, but rather look for solutions to mental health issues in order to lead a more balanced, relaxed and/or happy life. They would therefore not identify as being spiritual per se, but rather as being mindful or aware in the sense of, for example, paying attention to thoughts, emotions, and experiences without judgment. In this sense, it can be a practice that focuses solely on the well-being of the mind-body, without spirit.
Because of the association with spirituality and its supposedly positive impact on mental health, mindfulness was primarily perceived as a positive or at least harmless trend in Western society. However, because modern meditation is merely an individual matter, social elements are often missing. Meditation in itself does not invite communality or shared values, which modern variants leave up to the individual to carry out or not. Zonderop points out that religion or spirituality in the more traditional sense, invites people (in addition to their individual prayers) to take care of each other and to experience celebrations together. She argues that Western society could benefit from taking the heritage of Christianity seriously again, emphasizing that its moral values, traditions, art, etc., could have a positive influence on our society and personal lives. For example, it could motivate or inspire us to take care of each other and stimulate tolerance and compassion, all-important for a peaceful and healthy society. Rutten supplements that religion or spirituality can have a vitalizing impact on society when it offers a common horizon that allows us to connect with each other on a deeper

level and inspires us to contribute to our community. Merely political or theoretical ideas about a functional society without a spiritual element would not be sufficient, he argues, because they remain rational constructs that lack a deeper connection to more profound personal convictions.
Jensen points to other pitfalls of mindfulness that need to be acknowledged and reflected upon. For example, during her book research she observed the addictive power of mindfulness, simply because it became the only option for people to escape the ongoing stream of stimuli and information overload of modern society. The economic aspect of mindfulness can also become a pitfall: it is a potential cash cow that can easily change the intentions of suppliers/teachers from merely guiding people to getting as many people as possible hooked. However, she also points out that it is still a practice that can help people to balance their life, become more open or get in touch with themselves. These positive aspects of mindfulness might not be directly beneficial for society in the sense that Zonderop and Rutten propose, but are nevertheless of great value in a time when we are sometimes overwhelmed by all the stimuli and pressure we face.
An expert from our audience who leads a mindfulness studio argued that the practice is still very young. She suggested that we treat it as such: something that needs to be developed further. We could, for example, reflect on how mindfulness could incorporate more communal aspects or values that motivate us to be more considerate towards each other. Another listener commented that, by starting to use one of the mindfulness apps, for the first time, he became aware of the possibility to observe and disconnect from his so-called monkey mind. Initially he was not looking for spirituality or religion, but eventually it opened him up to considering the roots of meditation. Although this testimony could confirm Jensen’s warning of the addictive potential of mindfulness, it also points to the possibility that mindfulness can be an entrance to reconnect with more traditional forms of religion or spirituality that do offer more communal aspects that might vitalize society.

Implications

  • The impact of religion or spirituality on a society can be profound in the sense that it can direct moral code, ethics, traditions, legal systems, etc. The heritage of Christianity in Western societies, for example, is visible even now, long after it was directed to the private domain. Buddhism was of great influence in the shaping Eastern societies, and the heritage of Confucianism is still very present in China.
  • If mindfulness develops into a tool for mental health, the impact of its roots on society will not have such potential. At best, it could then be a very welcome tool to deal with the overwhelming stimuli and pressure of our time, making practitioners more aware of the importance of their mental health. The worst-case scenario, which may well occur simultaneously with the best-case scenario, would be for mindfulness to facilitate a disposition of individuality or even indifference towards society and the responsibilities we have in it.
  • If, however, mindfulness were to increasingly include the more traditional heritage of, for example, Buddhism or Christianity, its rise might imply a transition towards a renewed incorporation of religions’ moral values, ethics or traditions in modern society. As such, it could vitalize our society.