Bus stations in downtown Accra, Ghana, are almost always packed with people. A two-hour wait is pretty common, and on Fridays the crowd triples in size – and so does the wait. The only thing that makes this bearable is the good company in line and the constant stream of snack and drink hawkers passing by. “Yes, I will have another fried plantain!” I knew all this, but nevertheless found myself waiting for a bus late on a Friday afternoon back in 2004. By 8 p.m. the orderly line disintegrated whenever the bus pulled in – people climbed through windows and smashed through the front door. Because of the chaos, I missed the last bus.
And as I stood there contemplating how many plantain snacks would make the 7-mile walk home bearable, a car pulled up and one of the guys I met in line asked if I wanted a ride home. (Minor miracles – aka the kindness of strangers – are one of the best parts of traveling.) As we pulled out into traffic I commented on how many people were out in the streets. Both the driver and my new friend nodded in consent and nonchalantly said “Yeah, of course, all the spirits come out on Fridays.”
Mary Kate Long
In the last post, Jonathan Morgan took on a recent NY Times Magazine article from popular science journalist, Dan Hurley. Hurley aimed to bring up a few studies that offer a different perspective on the benefits of mindfulness meditation practices – namely, that mindfulness might actually have some negative effects because too much focus reduces the time your brain needs to relax in order to be creative. Jonathan’s critique is right on – meditation isn’t only about focus, there’s a lot of other stuff going on too. When Hurley takes mindfulness out of the religious context it emerged from, something important gets lost. Jonathan challenges us to pause over what happens when we remove “an idea or religious practice from its native ecosystem” and asks, “At what point does it become something entirely different?”
While Jonathan identifies the concept of compassion as lacking in Hurley’s article, that’s not the whole story either, nor is compassion necessarily a primary aspect of mindfulness meditation as a religious practice. So, how is mindfulness, as a religious practice in a religious context, different from what Hurley says it is? And why is what Hurley is doing problematic?
As a scholar of religion and science, it’s so disappointing, if not infuriating, to read an article like Dan Hurley’s piece in the New York Times, “Breathing In and Spacing Out.” Hurley’s argument is that despite all the studies lauding the benefits of mindfulness, meditation isn’t always a good thing. That’s an interesting case to make, but in the examples he treats meditation as if it’s an SAT prep course. Is maintaining attention all that meditation is about?
If you substitute tomatoes for mindfulness the piece would read like one of the endless debates on the health effects of food: “Tomatoes are good for you… no, no, no they’re actually bad for you.” But I’m not convinced that Hurley and the research he references are even talking about tomatoes – ahem, mindfulness – at all. That may seem like a minor problem, but in an increasingly plural society this feigning of cultural appreciation is not only irresponsible, it’s harmful.
My point is that when Hurley, and the research he cites, strips mindfulness of its traditional religious ecosystem, he’s no longer talking about mindfulness meditation, he’s talking about maintaining attention. This confusion of terms is particularly dangerous because it speaks with the authority of science. It’s easy to do this with something like meditation, because it’s still unfamiliar to a lot of Western people. But imagine if this was done with prayer or a religious practice that’s close to you. If I tried to strip, say, Christian prayer down to its essential elements and came away with something totally secular, would I still be talking about prayer? Would you believe me if I went on to tell you about how “prayer” is related to this or that benefit?