Is Mindfulness a Religion?
The popularity of mindfulness and yoga has stirred a debate in politics.
According to a recent article in Psychology Today, the Chief Counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) tweeted a celebratory tweet last month, saying that the Supreme Court had “rejected a lawsuit to have ‘In God We Trust’ removed from our national currency.” While this is not an issue that’s even on my radar, this same organization is bringing lawsuits against mindfulness and yoga instruction in public schools, arguing that that such instruction violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the prohibition against the state’s endorsement of religion. That’s definitely on my radar.
The ACLJ is led by Trump defense lawyer Jay Sekulow, who is also a radio talk show host who promotes using laws designed to protect religious liberty in an effort to promote Christianity. I have no issue with his religious beliefs, but I have a major issue with the hypocrisy of upholding the constitutional prohibition against endorsing religion, except for Christianity. Shouldn’t it apply to all religions?
The most recent numbers I could find for the United States are from 2016, with Christians representing 73.7% of the total population, including Protestants, Catholics, and Mormons. With 18% of Americans stating that they have no religion, that leaves about 8.3% of the population comprising all other religions combined. I’d say it’s pretty clear that Christianity dominates religious beliefs in this country, so can’t help but wonder why the fear of other religions is so strong that groups like the ACLJ feel the need to sue over even the hint of another religious practice.
It’s absolutely true that both mindfulness and yoga came from ancient religious practices, and are certainly still a component of Buddhism and Hinduism today. But we have so secularized both practices in this country, it’s hard to see how learning to focus on your breath and stretch your body can be seen as a religious threat to Christianity. If anything, these newest attacks from multiple groups makes me think they need mindfulness training!
But it does raise the question, is mindfulness a religion?
As mindfulness has exploded in popularity over the last few years, so has contentious debate raged on radio and television shows, in academia and on social media, along with a multitude of lawsuits filed in various courts. The core issue comes down to whether contemporary mindfulness practices should be defined as religious. While there are certainly practitioners out there who unfortunately have taught mindfulness from a religious perspective to children in public schools, and which of course the opponents to mindfulness highly publicize, I don’t believe most of us have any desire to impose a religious belief on someone else. That’s actually contrary to the purpose of my definition of mindfulness. And perhaps that’s the point here. We can make any practice religious or not religious. But to abide by the law, if we’re going to teach it in state-funded institutions, it has to remain non-religious, period.
Most of the ongoing lawsuits claim that mindfulness and meditation are part of Buddhism and therefore religious practices. That in itself is problematic, as there’s debate about whether Buddhism is even a religion. Many classify it as a philosophy. But I digress. If we look at history, some archaeologists date meditation back to as early as 5,000 BCE and the practice itself has religious ties in ancient Egypt and China, as well as Judaism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and, of course, Buddhism. The global spread of meditation began along the Silk Road around the 6th century BCE, as the practice moved throughout Asia. It slowly transformed to fit each new culture as it arrived in a new location. In the 20th century, it began to move beyond the realm of specific religions, especially in the West, which is another contentious issue because many critics condemn western practitioners for “culturally appropriating once-religious practices from marginalized Asian populations and completely denaturing them into secular practices.” So mindfulness is too religious. Or not religious enough.
As science has gotten involved in the mindful movement, thousands of studies have been, and continue to be, conducted to determine the effects of mindfulness and meditation on the brain and body. In the case of psychotherapy, clinicians discovered the benefits of mindfulness for their patients and to further secularize the practices, began changing the terminology to remove any religious connotations, creating terms such as attentional control training, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, awareness training, etc.
As humans, we have a strong compulsion to categorize and label everything. And our egos constantly prompt us to judge anything outside of our belief system as wrong or bad, so we have an urge to fight and conquer those who don’t conform to our way of thinking. As this debate heats up and everyone jumps on the bandwagon, one way or another, there is one component of behavior that is completely missing. Mindfulness.
Mindfulness is awareness of ourselves and others in a non-judgmental way.
It is not a cure-all for everything that ails us, but it is a good start to learning how to better control ourselves so that we can contribute to society in a more compassionate way. It can be practiced religiously or secularly. We have the choice. As for separation of church and state, government agencies and schools who want to introduce the practice to their populations need to clarify the curriculum with the practitioner before they hire them. There is enormous benefit to children learning to self-regulate and focus, especially in today’s digital, hyperactive world and it doesn’t have to be this complicated. If mindfulness or meditation is going to be taught in schools, it has to be secular and parental consent should be required.
Meditation is a very effective tool to become more mindful. But there are countless types and styles of meditation including many that are tied to religious practices. We could choose to be grateful that we have such a variety to select from to meet our own individual needs. And we can be mindful that if we are teaching it, we are transparent as to the type of meditation being offered and create a safe space for those who wish to opt out to do so without feeling judged.
Although religious practices and rituals can provide a strong sense of community and culture, religion has been on the decline for the last several decades in the United States, largely because people view it as exclusionary and/or judgmental. Perhaps practicing mindfulness could help reverse that trend more effectively than lawsuits. And maybe we could use our religions to focus more on what we have in common than not. I’m not a religious scholar, but an easy place to start could be with the Golden Rule.
From Christianity: Do to others what you want them to do to you. [Matthew 7:12]
From Islam: None of you has faith until he loves for his brother or his neighbor what he loves for himself. [Sahih Muslim, Book 1, Number 72]
From Judaism: You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk. Love your neighbor as yourself… [Leviticus 19:18]
From Hinduism: Those acts that you consider good when done to you, do those to others, none else. [Taittiriya Upanishad (Shikshavalli, Eleventh Anuvaka)]
And finally, from Buddhism: Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. [Udanavarga 5:18]
It seems to me that as we struggle as a society in communicating and understanding each other, fighting over every single issue whether religion, education, immigration, public health, or climate change, we could all benefit from a little more mindfulness.