Until I began my 9-to-5 job in 2011, I had only rarely had to get up before 8 or 9 in the morning on a regular basis, which suited me fine since I am a night person. Now I need get up at 6:45, and it is a struggle to get enough sleep – and so I started worrying ever more about how little sleep I was getting, which gave me insomnia.
Fortunately the job has a good health plan (essential in the USA), and I was able to seek treatment for my insomnia at the highly regarded Boston Medical Center. They suggested a number of interventions to deal with the insomnia, several of which slowly came to prove helpful. The most striking moment among these interventions, though, was when they prescribed – mindfulness meditation.
I should clarify. I had not yet become a Buddhist (and the meditation played little role in my doing so). More than that, I had given the Center staff no indication that I had ever studied Buddhism before in my life, or for that matter that my mother had already been practising Goenka meditation for decades now. Nor, as far as I know, were any of the staff Buddhists themselves. No, mindfulness meditation was prescribed simply as a preferred medical intervention, alongside the likes of cognitive-behavioural therapy and reducing exposure to nighttime blue-spectrum light. They would have given the exact same prescription to a professed Muslim, atheist or evangelical Christian.
This advice was a startling indication to me of just how far this sort of practice has spread in our culture. We Buddhologists, at least those who have any interest in the contemporary West, have been talking a lot lately about the kind of de-Buddhified mindfulness meditation practice popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn. But every cobbler thinks leather is the only thing. It’s easy to wonder whether such a thing is really as big as we Buddhologists think it is, or just our exaggeration of our own significance – a conceit among the sort of hippies that we study and/or live among. Yet here I was at a highly regarded medical centre getting psychiatric help, and I was being referred to mindfulness meditation without any knowledge of, let alone reference to, my involvement with Buddhism. This is what we call mainstream.
They sent me home with an eighteen-minute MP3 recorded by Robert Sokolove, BMC’s director of behavioural medicine. I started trying it and it made little difference at first, much like my experience at a Goenka retreat a decade or so before. But I kept coming back to it because I wanted to find something to deal with both the lack of sleep and the resulting tiredness. And little by little, I do believe it has started to have an effect.
In the intervening time, I came to consider myself a Buddhist and practise Buddhism in other ways. Yet the meditation played little if any role in that happening. As it happens, too, I’ve continued working with Dr. Sokolove’s recording, even though it is completely denuded of any Pali words, references to the Buddha, or anything else obviously Buddhist. Much more so than Goenka vipassanā itself, it is clearly supposed to be just a technique. I would have liked something more Buddhist, and I looked on the Goenka vipassanā website to find something, but Goenka’s recordings are much longer, and it is much easier to fit Sokolove’s eighteen-minute recording into my busy day than any of Goenka’s recordings of an hour or more. I haven’t had the time to investigate other options. So while I myself am a Buddhist, I at least currently practise a meditation that is stripped of Buddhism.
I tell this story in part because I think it’s unusual. I was telling some of it at a dinner at the AAR conference with Justin Whitaker, who proclaimed “You’re the weirdest Buddhist I know.” Which I take as a compliment. And yet at the same time I think it is not that unusual. Traditions cross a lot these days, and they have been doing so for some time. Even Gandhi began reading the Bhagavad Gītā only when he was given an English translation by the Theosophical Society. The trick is to be consistent – to put the very different things one has learned together in a way that actually makes sense. I have found so far that that is a lot harder than it might look.