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Nalika Gajaweera – Religious, Spiritual, and “None of the Above”: How Did Mindfulness Get So Big?

Marguerite Agniel in a Buddha position with her legs crossed Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Photograph by J. de Mirjian, ca.1929. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons

The ever-growing popularity of mindfulness—from corporate boardrooms to inner-city schools—has finally made my academic interest a conversation-starter at dinner parties. “Ah, the Buddha was talking about cognitive science 2,500 years ago!” as someone exclaimed after learning about what I do as an anthropologist.

The success of mindfulness in the marketplace is largely an outcome of its emergence as a kind of self-help psychology that has allowed the practice—a derivation of Theravada Buddhist meditation—to operate in non-Buddhist therapeutic settings for not particularly Buddhist goals. Its adoption by people who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” has prompted much popular and scholarly debate about what is “real Buddhism” versus “mere spirituality.”

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