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Ira Helderman Ph.D., LPC

Mindfulness

The Crusade Against Mindfulness

The debate over where mindfulness practices are religious is now in the courts.

Last month, the Chief Counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) tweeted in celebration that the Supreme Court had “rejected a lawsuit to have ‘In God We Trust’ removed from our national currency.”

Readers of a piece that appeared in the Washington Post only a few days earlier might have been confused. Written by Indiana University professor of religion Candy Gunther Brown, it explained that the ACLJ—and other groups such as the National Center for Law and Policy—are bringing lawsuits against mindfulness and yoga instruction in public schools. They argue that such instruction violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the prohibition against the state’s endorsement of religion.

It may seem to be a major contradiction, then, that the ACLJ would fight to preserve the secularity of public spaces while celebrating that the word “God” continues to be stamped on every U.S. dollar that passes between people’s hands.

This is because, despite their innocuous-sounding names, what Brown called “conservative legal groups” like the ACLJ and the NCLP are actually designed to maintain the dominance of Christianity in the United States. Brown left a clue by noting that the ACLJ is led by “Trump defense lawyer Jay Sekulow.” Sekulow is not only Trump’s lawyer but a right-wing radio talk show host who promotes the tactic of using laws designed to protect religious liberty in an effort to preserve Christian influence over American culture.

Now, mindfulness and yoga practices are being targeted by Sekulow's organization and others like it.

Are Mindfulness and Yoga Religious?

A psychotherapist, nurse, or teacher offering instruction in mindfulness or yoga often does not appear from the outside to be practicing religion. An observer watching would likely only see and hear a nurse guiding their patients to focus on the sensations of breath at the rise and fall of their abdomen. And it's difficult to see what could be religious about stretching your arms out in front of you and tucking your knees below your mid-section. Many of those who bring lawsuits against a P.E. class that includes this yoga pose, however, perceive it to be “idol worship"—and, in their view, it may be all the more threatening for its seeming invisibility.

More prominent First Amendment court battles surround whether, for example, school prayer, unquestioningly defined as religious, constitutes coercion for students who are of minority religions or who are not religious at all. Lawsuits opposing the use of mindfulness and yoga practices, on the other hand, must prove that they are actually religious to begin with since they are known by many only as mental and physical exercise.

Brown thus enters to play a fascinating role in this story. She not only reports on these lawsuits but gives paid testimony on behalf of them and has done so since 2013—something else she left out of her WaPo piece. Academic religious studies scholars are not often seen testifying in courts of law; they are typically more comfortable nestled away in their offices poring over ancient texts or semi-structured interviews. But Sekulow and others view Brown’s testimony to be essential to their case. They present her as an expert with the academic qualifications to evidence that, despite all appearances, mindfulness, and yoga practices are in fact religious—still inextricably bound to Hindu and Buddhist origins—and that teaching them to students is the equivalent of teaching prayer.

The courts, however, are only one location of the larger, contentious debate raging in academic journals, online forums, and community discussion groups about whether contemporary mindfulness practices should be defined as religious. In my book Prescribing the Dharma: Psychotherapists, Buddhist Traditions, and Defining Religion, I note that it is a relatively new idea, in the scope of human history, that there is something called “religion,” separate and distinct from other spheres of life that are “not religious.” I argue that an awareness of this history should transform how we debate whether mindfulness practices and the like are religious.

Religious studies scholar Winifred Sullivan has taken this history into account and observed that Establishment Clause court cases often pivot today on defining a “religious” that ultimately may be indefinable, remaining always in the eye of the beholder; she has thus declared The Impossibility of Religious Freedom.

Meanwhile, many proponents of the use of mindfulness and yoga assert that they can, indeed, definitively classify their practices as not-religious (secular, scientific, and/or biomedical). And, out of the ever-growing multiplicity of such practices that exist today, those that are taught in public schools or hospitals were often explicitly designed to be so.

In the case of psychotherapy, clinicians set about isolating what one of the mindfulness practitioners I interviewed for my book, Christopher Germer, referred to as the “mechanisms of action” at the core of these practices (returning one’s attention to the breath, etc). Even the word “meditation” itself was too associated with the religious to the team of clinicians that developed Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). They instead named the mindfulness practices they used to prevent relapse into suicidal depression as “attentional control training.” Many therapists steadfastly insist today that the mindfulness practices they developed have been successfully secularized.

Most scholars and cultural commentators agree with these clinicians. But they typically see “secularization” as highly problematic in itself. Critics often harshly condemn yoga and mindfulness practitioners for “culturally appropriating” once-religious practices from marginalized Asian populations and completely denaturing them into secular practices. They denounce excising and estranging these practices from their Hindu and Buddhist frameworks.

So where did Sekulow get the idea that these practices are still religious? He might have gotten it from mindfulness practitioners themselves. Answering the above condemnations about secularization, some psychotherapists reassure listeners that their practices still work to “enlighten” people, for example, to the interconnectedness of all things or the need for compassion. Others claim that this means their practices remain authentically Buddhist. Sekulow and his allies often selectively quote these statements, highlighting comments from proponents who call their practices “stealth Buddhism”—a phrase those proponents hope will reassure critics, but that may sound extremely pernicious to some conservative Christians.

However, as I describe at length in Prescribing the Dharma, those who describe mindfulness practices as a “trojan horse” for “the dharma” will frequently deny that this makes those practices religious. They often contend that Buddhism shouldn’t be considered a religion at all and will, at most, say that these practices are “spiritual.” (The First Amendment does not address “spirituality," per se. But, as Brown suggests in her WaPo article, it may only be a matter of time before we see lawsuits coming for "spirituality" as well.)

Popular, and Thus, Not Divisive

Advocates for the use of mindfulness and yoga practices in public schools or healthcare alternate their discursive tactics in the above manner to make them more or less attractive depending on the audience. And attractive they certainly have become. In her piece, Brown claims that mindfulness and yoga practices are both “popular and divisive.” They are undoubtedly popular—which is to say that, for the vast majority of people, they are not divisive at all. Yoga and Pilates classes are seemingly something nearly every American can get behind. This includes conservative Christian communities, in which many people follow a worship service by attending a yoga class or using a meditation app on their phone. Many of these folks believe that they are engaged in forms of exercise that are in no way dissonant with their religious identities.

But this may be precisely what is so anxiety-inducing to groups like the ACLJ or Alliance Defending Freedom (another that has supported these lawsuits). These organizations promote the idea that “Christian America” is under siege from all sides—by Harry Potter, secular humanism, and acupuncture. They warn unsuspecting Christians to inoculate themselves from the infection of cultural pollution, to remain hypervigilant against the unwanted “spiritual experiences” some report are produced by even “secularized” mindfulness and yoga practices.

The popularity of mindfulness and yoga may be precisely what makes them so threatening to some of their opponents; to some, anything that competes with Biblical authority can become an “idol.” Lawsuits against the use of yoga and mindfulness practices are just one response to the conviction that “Christian America”is under siege, part of a larger constellation of litigation that includes the defense of wedding cake bakers’ “religious rights” to discriminate against the LGBT community. Religious liberty laws once used to protect religious minorities are now often wielded to suppress their influence over U.S. culture.

Brown herself, meanwhile, advances more modest proposals that seem impossible to take issue with (and, on their face, I certainly wouldn’t). For psychotherapists and healthcare providers she cites the notion of “informed consent” to argue that we are ethically bound to inform patients that these practices are considered by some to be religious. (I will devote a future post exclusively to the topic of informed consent for psychotherapists interested in Buddhist traditions as well as innovations like the “affirmed assent” used by important mindfulness practitioners like Lynette Montiero).

For schools, meanwhile, Brown endorses an “opt-in” approach asserting that parents should be able to choose whether their children participate in mindfulness or yoga instruction. But, as a Jew who grew up in the South, my experience has been that religious minorities do not have the ability to opt-in or opt-out of a Christian-majority U.S. culture. (Sekulow, incidentally, identifies as a “Messianic Jew,” i.e. Jew for Jesus, and lives not far from me in Nashville, Tennessee.)

Religious minorities do not have the ability to opt-in to, for example, observing Christmas. Despite the “war” Bill O'Reilly told his viewers is being waged against it, they are completely immersed in the symbols of that holiday for weeks on end. In conclusion to my book, I compare the Christmas tree to items like contemporary mindfulness practices. I ask how Buddhist these practices are for what are now multiple generations of people who today utilize them and, more importantly, teach them to others, with little to no awareness of their past.

At what point will yoga and mindfulness practices cease to be Buddhist or Hindu and become something different? At what point exactly did the Christmas tree lose its connection to its “Pagan” origins and become Christian? And if a historian stands alone in the woods shouting that mindfulness practices or Christmas trees are hybrids, and no one is there to hear the revelation, do they make a sound? Sekulow, meanwhile, is not standing alone in the woods, but has an entire radio show at his disposal.

References

Sullivan, W. F. (2018). The Impossibility of Religious Freedom: New Edition. Princeton University Press.

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About the Author

Ira Helderman, Ph.D., LPC, is in private practice in Nashville, TN. He is the author of Prescribing the Dharma and teaches in the graduate counseling program at Vanderbilt University.