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  • Rick Repetti

Meditation to the People!

Critics of the widespread secular adoption of mindfulness meditation and related techniques from Buddhism (and/or Hinduism, Taoism, etc.) complain variously that it is a form of cultural appropriation, that it is a watered down extraction from among a set of more importantly integrated practices, that it is being divorced from the ethical or deeper spiritual components of those larger integrated practices, and, among others, that it is being used in ways that diminish the political agency of those practitioners, as if enabling them to cultivate introspective tools, abilities or skills entails a negation of their extrospective tools, abilities or skills. Quite a number of these objections have been published together in Handbook of Mindfulness: Culture, Context, and Social Engagement, eds: Ronald E. Purser, David Forbes, and Adam Burke (Springer 2016).

There are ways in which these objections are at odds with each other, and I have critiqued them collectively in this regard and individually, in the penultimate chapter of the same edited collection ("Meditation Matter: Replies to the Anti-McMindfulness Bandwagon!", pp. 473-94). I should mention that my chapter in that collection stood in opposition to most but not all of the other chapters in that collection, most of which were critical about one aspect or another of the widespread secular adoption of mindfulness in our culture, and that my chapter was written precisely to counter many of those objections. While there were a number of more nuanced views, I think mine was the only one to vehemently argue explicitly for the absolute endorsement of mindfulness for everyone, so to speak, or, as I've become fond of putting it, of meditation to the people.

I should also point out that the ultimate chapter in the same collection ("Criticism Matters: A Response to Rick Repetti", by Glen Wallis, pp. 495-504) was a critical response to my own chapter, if anyone is curious to hear an alternative perspective. For what it's worth, I don't think Wallis correctly (charitably) interprets or characterizes my arguments, in which case his criticisms do not really directly engage with my actual arguments, but instead with arguments (and their authors) that he apparently associates with them. Of course, I leave that to others to decide for themselves.

However, the more important point from my perspective, a point that I did not emphasize in that chapter, but which I am writing this post specifically to emphasize, is that nobody has a right to tell us what kinds of mental states we may wish to cultivate or experience, or which types of awareness, consciousness, or attention enhancing exercises we may engage in. This one idea is worth seriously contemplating, and I think its importance clearly eclipses whatever other importance there may be concerning the validity of invalidity of any and all of the other objections alluded to above in outline or covered in great detail throughout the above referenced collection of articles on the subject. I would also emphasize that while I am arguing for this right to meditate, so to speak, or meditation to the people, this is all I am arguing for here, and nothing I say here is meant to have any direct bearing on any of these other objections. Some of them, at the very least, involve what I would characterize in the abstract as tentatively valid and important concerns, even if I disagree with how to understand them.

Thus, let me say just a few things about meditation to the people that I take to be almost self-evidently true. Of course, as a philosopher, almost any putatively self-evident statement may be framed within a different context within which it could conceivably be equally self-evidently false, but as we say regarding these, ceteris paribus (other things being equal). I'll add one more caveat before I make my announcements in favor of the self-evidence of the right to meditate: by all means, subject any claims to self-evidence to scrutiny, doubt, and critical thinking, and never let anyone guide your thinking by telling you that what they are saying is self-evident. Ok, having hedged against the main sorts of objections to what I'd like to say, I'll now make a very brief case for it. It's a simple matter of freedom, akin to freedom of speech or, to use abetter analogy, freedom of thought.

I would caution people to be suspicious about anyone who would try to get inside the privacy of your own mind or head and tell you what you are and are not allowed to have going on in there, what mode of consciousness you are and are not allowed to experience, what mode of attentional focus you are and are not allowed to exercise, and/or what type of awareness cultivating exercise you have or do not have their permission to practice. I would extend this caution to those who would tell you that you could only do these things correctly if you do them they way they would instruct you to do them, or only if you do them with their help, or only if you do them with an authorized representative of their tradition. I would also extend this caution to those who would tell you that it is illegitimate, ill-advised, or inappropriate for you to discuss your experiences in this domain with others, as if they, being authorized, may do so, but as if you, being unauthorized, should not, regardless of the fact that they will tell you that such matters are best kept to oneself for various reasons, including protecting you from the doubts of others.

Nobody has a right to tell you how to exercise your mind, your imagination, your dreams, your thoughts, or which of all the many possible mental states you may be permitted to experience. Of course, there may be individuals who suffer from certain pathologies, such as obsessive thoughts, for whom it might be inadvisable for them to practice any old variety of consciousness-altering meditation techniques, some of which may be unskillful for some of those individuals. But only someone who is specifically encouraging some such individuals to do so would be an appropriate target of a criticism of being too liberal in interpreting the idea that everyone has a right to meditate. If you have a child who over-indulges in fantasy, to use another example, it may or may not be wise to encourage them to close their eyes and meditate. It depends.

Another criticism that seems valid to me is that some individuals may suffer pathological consequences of long-term meditation, say, as might occur on intense meditation retreats, or in the context of a cult-like spiritual community, monastery or some other cloistered venue, among other possibly risky circumstances. For that reason, the research being done at Brown University by people like Jared R. Lindahl, Nathan E. Fisher, David J. Cooper, Rochelle K. Rosen, and Willoughby B. Britton, as reported in their recent article, "The varieties of contemplative experience: A mixed-methods study of meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists" (PLOS ONE, May 24, 2017,, will hopefully shed some light on the sorts of people for whom such intense practices may be risky, as well as some of the conditions that might be contributing factors. But this is more about when it advisable for anyone to give interpersonal advice about the utility of going on an intense meditation retreat, etc., than it is about those individuals lacking a right to meditate. Not to detract from the importance of this sort of research, but it is a truism that while exercise is good for health and wellness, the same sorts of exercise are not advisable for everyone. After running a few miles a day a few times a week for decades, I started running full marathons. After a few years of this, my knees and hips started to suffer, I needed knee surgery, and now it is inadvisable for me to even jog a little. So, instead, no-impact exercises work fine, e.g., bicycling, elliptical machines, etc. By analogy, meditation marathons might negatively impact some minds the way jogging marathons impact some joints, but in both cases exercise of mind and body of some sort remains an option.

The sort of meditation I think remains an advisable option for almost anyone, of course there are exceptions, is simple focusing, either narrowly on some element within the overall field or stream of consciousness, in other words, one pointedness, or broadly on everything within the overall field or stream of consciousness, in other words, open monitoring, or some or any combination of the two or degree of either. In the case of otherwise mentally stable adults, it is the individual who is best situated to figure out whether such exercises are advisable for them. For anyone else, their caretakers or guardians might be better situated to help determine the extent to which such an exercise may or may not be advisable. However, most if not all of the criticisms mentioned earlier in this post are not at all about any such individualized matters, but instead about the widespread cultural appropriation of mindfulness meditation from its Buddhist and related ethical and spiritual moorings and its applications within so many domains that constitute our secular Western society. My arguments against these objections, I think, remain untouched by these individualized concerns. In this regard, again, I think the key issue is one of rights. Nobody has a right to tell us whether or how we are or are not entitled to meditate.

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