As a longtime yogi, meditation teacher, and student of the mystical, I’ve observed the various points through which hatha yoga and meditation have entered the US psyche. Not intending to be historically immaculate, I simplify timeline details using broad brush strokes. The process I reference was most significantly launched by Emerson’s Transcendentalism, the Theosophical Movement, and the eventual arrival of Swami Vivekananda in the late 1800’s. After teaching in America for several years, Vivekananda returned to India but his visit was subsequently followed by that of Swami Yogananda in 1920 (later re-titled Paramhansa Yogananda). Yogananda made the US his base of operations and taught until leaving the body in 1952. Following his death, a host of other Indian gurus visited, taught, and helped fashion the yogic meditation culture. Enter Buddhist traditions through Alan Watts and Shunryū Suzuki who introduced Zen to the West. Then, in 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn adapted ancient Buddhist Vipassana and hatha yogic practices to create a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. His standardized, 8-week course couched meditation practices in Western, scientific terms using a definition of mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, and non-judgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.” This non-theistic concept became readily accessible to, and absorbed by, a religiously skittish western audience who sought something esoteric yet ‘safe.’ And, it garnered ever-increasing popularity after Bill Moyers TV series, “Healing & the Mind,” showcased Kabat-Zinn’s work. According to Medical News Today, Mindfulness is currently the most common form of meditation in the Western world.
This is a truly significant statement and, for me, a simultaneously disheartening one. Not that I mind folks trying their hand at meditation. I laud them wholeheartedly. Rather, I object from the standpoint of being a purist. Meditation has traditionally been used in spiritual frameworks to deepen realization of our essential nature, its relationship with Source or Spirit, and the meaning of life itself. Instead of pursuing such goals, modern versions of Mindfulness effectively strip-mine enlightenment traditions to foster relaxation, reduce stress, improve health, and enhance job performance. This is not what any spiritual master sought, taught, or counseled.
Noting sensations and thoughts as secretions of the mind, arising and passing like clouds across a vast sky is noteworthy, even therapeutic, but meditation is far more than this. It redirects energy and consciousness purposefully, shifting awareness from external sensory perceptions to realms of ever-expanding subtle reality. As this inner process unfolds, the limited identification of self with body and mind is replaced by perceptions of unified oneness with All-That-Is. That state of realization; Oneness, Returning to the Source, Reunion with Spirit, is the true purpose of classical meditative endeavors. Thus, I encourage all meditation practitioners to take a deeper look at what you’re doing and why. If seeking awakened connection with Source, you are on the right path. If merely pursuing less painful means of engaging the world, you are bypassing bigger realities and selling yourself short. When all is said and done, Spirit is the ultimate goal of life because It is existence, joy, love, consciousness, fulfillment Itself. Until we return Home, i.e. reunite with the Sacred, we remain stranded in a world of delusive separation and malcontent. No amount of mindful awareness or being present in the moment can change that fact, only union with Source can. So, make meditation a spiritual practice; that’s what it is for and why that emphasis will serve you better.
Rev. Alan Pritz, Interfaith Minister and spiritual disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda, has trained in and taught inner sciences for 40+ years. Author of award-winning book, Meditation as a Way of Life: Philosophy and Practice (Quest: 2014), his private practice in Minneapolis, MN, Awake In Life, provides meditation instruction and spiritual counseling-coaching for individuals, couples, and corporations. To learn more see: www.Awake-in-Life.com.