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?