The ancient Eastern religion is helping Westerners with very modern mental-health problems.
OLGA KHAZAN MARCH 7, 2019
Dressed in flowing gold robes, the bald female meditation teacher told us to do nothing. We were to sit silently in our plastic chairs, close our eyes, and focus on our breath. I had never meditated, but I’d gone to church, so I instinctively bowed my head. Then I realized, given that this would last for 15 minutes, I should probably find a more comfortable neck position.
This was the first of two meditation sessions of the Kadampa Buddhism class I attended this week near my house, in Northern Virginia, and I did not reach nirvana. Because we were in a major city, occasional sirens outside blasted through the quiet, and because this was a church basement, people were laughing and talking in the hallways. One guy wandered in to ask if this was an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The more we focused on our breath, the teacher assured us, the more these distractions would fade away.
After we had meditated for 15 minutes, the teacher shifted focus to the topic of the class: letting go of resentments. This was the real reason I had come to this meditation class, rather than simply meditating on my own at home with an app. I wanted to learn more about Buddhism and how its teachings might be able to improve my mental health—and that of the myriad other Americans who have flocked to some form of the religion in recent years. These newcomers aren’t necessarily seeking spiritual enlightenment or a faith community, but rather hoping for a quick boost of cognitive healing.
The people I spoke with were young and old, but few were Buddhist by birth. Perhaps some have just run out of options: Mental-health disorders are up in Western societies, and the answer doesn’t seem to be church attendance, which is down. There’s always therapy, but it’s so expensive. My meditation class was $12.
As she opened a book on Buddhist teachings, the teacher told the class that holding grudges is harmful. Resentment feels like clutching a burning stick and complaining that it’s burning us. And yet, being harmed by someone also hurts. So, the teacher said, the question was this: “What do I do with my mind if I feel like I’ve been harmed by someone?”
Americans everywhere seem to be asking themselves variations on this very question: What do we do with our minds?
The 40-something dad in Los Angeles was plateauing. He had achieved most of his career goals, rising to the position of senior manager at a large company. But the competitive nature of the work had taken its toll on his marriage, and he was in the process of getting a divorce. He rarely saw his grown children. “In short, I am going through a midlife crisis,” the dad told me via email, a few days before I attended the meditation class. (He asked to remain anonymous, because his divorce and other struggles aren’t public.)
Last year, this dad turned to traditional psychotherapy for a few months, but he didn’t see as much of a benefit from it as he had hoped. He felt like he was mostly being taught to justify destructive emotions and behaviors. His therapist did, however, recommend two books that were helpful: How to Be an Adult in Relationships, by David Richo, and The Wise Heart, by Jack Kornfield. Both authors work in Buddhist themes and ideas, and earlier this year they introduced him to the practice of meditation.
Hungry for more, the dad recently attended a Buddhist meditation class in Hollywood, where he learned ways to deepen his own meditation practice and to change his approach to relationships. Now he feels more open and is willing to be more vulnerable around his family and friends. “As a Catholic, I struggle with some of the religious concepts,” he says, “but it doesn’t prevent me from adopting the Buddhist techniques and philosophies.” Besides, he told me, it really does seem like the universe has been putting Buddhism in front of him.
Though precise numbers on its popularity are hard to come by, Buddhism does seem to be emerging in the Western, type-A universe. The journalist Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism Is True became a best seller in 2017. Buddhist meditation centers have recently popped up in places such as Knoxville, Tennessee, and Lakewood, Ohio. There are now dozens of Buddhist podcasts, among many more apps and playlists geared specifically toward personal, non-Buddhist meditation. Four in 10 American adults now say they meditate at least weekly.
Hugh Byrne, the director of the Center for Mindful Living in Washington, D.C., says the local meditation community has “blossomed in the past few years.” As I stress-Ubered from meeting to meeting in D.C. recently, I noticed a few “meditation spaces” where far more consumerist establishments used to be. Academic research on mindfulness meditation has also exploded, making what in the West was once an esoteric practice for hippies more akin to a life hack for all.
Buddhism has been popular in various forms among certain celebrities and tech elites, but the religion’s primary draw for many Americans now appears to be mental health. The ancient religion, some find, helps them manage the slings and arrows and subtweets of modern life. Many people are stressed out by the constant drama of the current administration, and work hours have overwhelmed the day. There’s something newly appealing about a practice that instructs you to just sit, be aware, and realize nothing lasts forever. Perhaps the comfort comes simply from knowing that the problems that bedevil humans have been around since long before Gmail.
A few themes and ideas seem to unite the disparate experiences of the people I interviewed. The Buddha’s first “noble truth” is that “life is suffering,” and many of Buddhism’s newly minted Western practitioners have interpreted this to mean that accepting emotional pain might be preferable to trying to alleviate it. “Buddhism admits that suffering is inevitable,” says Daniel Sanchez, a 24-year-old in New Jersey. “I shouldn’t focus on avoiding suffering, but learn how to deal with suffering.”
In addition to meditating every morning and night, Sanchez reads the Diamond Sutra and Heart Sutra, texts from the early Middle Ages, and listens to zen talks. The sutras are quite a departure from the normal content of psychotherapy, in which one might ponder what truly makes one happy. Buddhist thought suggests that one should not compulsively crave comfort and avoid discomfort, which some see as permission to hop off the hedonic treadmill.
A Colorado life coach named Galen Bernard told me that Comfortable With Uncertainty, by the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, has influenced his well-being more than anything else, except perhaps his very first experience on Prozac. He says the book and its teachings have helped him avoid labeling certain experiences as negative by default. For example, transitioning to a friendship with an ex-girlfriend after their breakup was painful for him at first, but Chodron’s and others’ writings helped him see that “it might seem like too much pain,” he said, “but actually it’s just an experience I’m having that … can actually be a portal to joy on the other side.”
For decades, people have been attempting self-improvement through classes and seminars, many of which incorporated elements of Eastern religions. The Human Potential Movement of the 1960s influenced the work of the foundational psychologist Abraham Maslow and, perhaps less positively, the Rajneesh movement, documented in the Netflix show Wild Wild Country. In the 1970s, the organization Erhard Seminars Training, or EST, offered courses on how to “take responsibility for your life” and “get it.”
What’s different—and perhaps reassuring—about Buddhism is that it’s an existing religion practiced by half a billion people. Because relatively few Caucasian Americans grew up Buddhist, they generally don’t associate any familial baggage with it like some do with, say, the Christianity or Judaism of their childhoods. While liberating, this also means that the practice of secular Buddhism often differs dramatically from the religion itself. All of the secular practitioners I spoke with for this piece are reading different books, listening to different podcasts, and following different teachers and traditions. Their interpretations of Buddhist teachings aren’t necessarily consistent with one another or with traditional texts.
I ran some of their insights by an expert in Buddhism, David McMahan at Franklin and Marshall College, who said some of these Western interpretations are slightly morphed from Buddhism’s original cultures and contexts. Buddhism carries with it a set of values and morals that white Americans don’t always live by. Much like “cafeteria Catholics” ignore parts of the religion that don’t resonate with them, some Westerners focus on only certain elements of Buddhist philosophy and don’t endorse, say, Buddhism’s view of reincarnation or worship of the Buddha. Call them “buffet Buddhists.”
Taken out of their Buddhist context, practices like meditation “become like a dry sponge,” McMahan said, “soaking up whatever values are around.” Traditional monks don’t “meditate for business.”
This so-called secular Buddhism, says Autry Johnson, a Colorado bartender and tourism worker who meditates regularly, “is a little more accessible to people that wouldn’t primarily identify as Buddhists, or already identify with another religion or philosophy, but want to adopt aspects of Buddhist practice to supplement their current worldview.” (Indeed, many meditation centers emphasize that you don’t have to be Buddhist to attend sessions.)
Buffet Buddhism may not be traditional, but its flexibility does allow its adherents to more easily employ the philosophy for an antidepressant jolt. Some people practice Buddhism and meditation as an alternative to psychotherapy or psychiatric medication, given mental-health care’s cost and scarcity: Sixty percent of counties in the U.S. don’t have a single psychiatrist. “I have pretty good health insurance,” Bernard said, “but if I want support, it’s a month and a half to see someone new. Having a resource that I can pop open is invaluable.”
Some people turn to both Buddhism and psychotherapy. “There’s an overlap between the reason people will come to therapy and the reason they come to meditation,” says Byrne, the Center for Mindful Living director. Some therapists are even starting to incorporate Buddhist concepts into their practices. Tara Brach, a psychologist and the founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, D.C., offers meditations and talks with titles like “From Human Doing to Human Being” on her website. In Texas, the psychologist Molly Layton encourages clients to mindfully “sit with their thoughts,” rather than to “jump into the cycle of their thinking.”
Mary Liz Austin, who practices psychotherapy at the Center for Mindful Living, similarly helps clients see that “it’s the attachment to the outcome that really causes suffering.” Another favorite teaching of hers is Chodron’s aphorism “Everything is workable.” This means, essentially, that something good might come out of even the worst moments. “I’m having an experience right now with my father-in-law. He’s dying of cancer. It’s a shitty situation,” Austin says. “But what I’m seeing is that the fruits of this cancer diagnosis is everyone is by his bedside, everyone is showing amazing love to him, and that allows the people in your life to show up in a way that you see so much what matters.”
At times, it’s the meditation teachers who sound more like psychotherapists, offering practical tips for dealing with existential quandaries. Byrne, who also teaches meditation, wrote a book about the power of mindfulness for habit change. He uses mindfulness meditation to help people understand impermanence, another Buddhist teaching. The idea is to see your emotions and experiences—including anxiety or pain—as constantly changing, “like a weather system coming through,” he says. Everything, eventually, ends.
Cecilia Saad found this to be an especially attractive element of Buddhism. A close friend of hers was diagnosed with cancer three years ago, and Saad was impressed by how calm she remained throughout her diagnosis and treatment. “We’ve talked a lot about her outlook, and she always goes back to her Buddhism,” she says. Now, when Saad is stressed about something, the concept of impermanence helps her to imagine that she’s already survived the event she’s dreading.
At my meditation class, the teacher read from her book in her even, perfectly unaccented voice. The book told us to consider that there are two reasons someone might cause us harm: It’s their nature to be harmful, or a temporary circumstance caused them to act in a harmful way. Either way, the teacher said, it doesn’t make sense to be angry at the person. The nature of water is wet, so you wouldn’t rage at the rain for getting you wet. And you wouldn’t curse the clouds for temporarily having a weather system that causes a downpour.
“When are we compelled to hurt people?” she asked, rhetorically, before answering: “When we’re in pain. It’s easy, if you see the fear, to have some compassion.”
She asked us to close our eyes and meditate again, this time while thinking about letting go of resentment toward someone who had harmed us. I shifted awkwardly and wondered how the burly guy sitting in front of me wearing a lift life T-shirt felt. I was having trouble focusing on resentment, and my eyes flickered open involuntarily. It was 30 degrees outside, yet most of the seats were taken. The fullness was uplifting. Still, it was remarkable that so many of us were willing to stumble through the freezing dark just to take in some basic wisdom about how to be less sad.
In Sunday school, when you opened your eyes during prayer, other kids would tell on you, thereby implicating themselves as having opened their eyes, too. That’s how people are sometimes, I thought: They’ll burn themselves for the chance to harm someone else. I took a deep breath and tried to have compassion for them anyway.