OLGA KHAZAN: Why So Many Americans Are Turning to Buddhism
ANNATAMILA / SHUTTERSTOCK, KATIE MARTIN / THE ATLANTIC
The ancient Eastern religion is helping Westerners with very modern mental-health problems.
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.”