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The Roots of Mindfulness

How a group of Jews turned a Buddhist spiritual practice into a distinctly American phenomenon—and a multi-billion-dollar industry

Michelle Goldberg
October 08, 2015

In 1971, a meditation teacher named Satya Narayan Goenka led a 10-day retreat in Bodh Gaya, the Indian birthplace of Buddhism. Raised in an Indian Hindu family in Burma, Goenka had turned to the Theravada Buddhist practice of vipassana, or insight, meditation to help deal with his debilitating headaches. Eventually he became a devoted student of a Burmese meditation instructor named U Ba Khin. After 14 years of study, Goenka’s master authorized him to teach the vipassana method, which emphasizes close, detached attention to the breath, the sensations of the body, and the coming and going of thoughts. Goenka went to India to pass on what he’d learned.

Once in India, however, he had a dilemma. He was a layperson and so didn’t carry the natural authority of a monk. “He’s in a non-Buddhist culture, so he can’t claim cultural authority there,” said Jeff Wilson, a religious studies professor at Renison University College and author of the 2014 book Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture. Thus, in what Wilson calls a “very savvy move,” Goenka separated the vipassana technique from its Buddhist origins, presenting it as a universal practice that transcends religious boundaries. According to Wilson, Goenka, who died in 2013, was trying to attract Hindu students. Instead, he found a following among Western countercultural seekers—including the Jews who would create America’s mindfulness movement.

In recent years, mindfulness has become an industry. Corporate behemoths like General Mills, Aetna, Target, and Goldman Sachs offer mindfulness training to their employees. “Mindfulness is being taught in the public schools, the hospitals, and now even to the military,” Wilson writes in his book. Former ABC News anchor Dan Harris had a No. 1 New York Times best-seller with his mindfulness book 10 Percent Happier. A Harvard Business Review piece from earlier this year said that mindfulness “is close to taking on cult status in the business world.” Psychoanalysts all over the country use mindfulness techniques with their patients.

If a group of East Coast Jews hadn’t stumbled on Goenka’s course all those years ago, none of this might have happened.


The connection between American Jews and Buddhism is well-known and predates the mindfulness boom. “Religious studies scholars and historians have been deeply perplexed by why American Jews seem disproportionately attracted to Buddhism and have offered myriad explanations for this Jewish-Buddhist affinity,” writes Emily Sigalow in her recent Brandeis University PhD dissertation, “The JUBUs: The Encounter Between Judaism and Buddhism in America.” She points out that the first person known to convert to Buddhism on American soil was the Jewish haberdasher Charles T. Straus in 1893. In the 1960s, Sigalow writes, Jews in Bodh Gaya joked that they were Bewish. Later, in 1994, Rodger Kamenetz introduced the world to the neologism JuBu in his best-selling The Jew in the Lotus.

Given this affinity, it makes sense that Jews have been at the forefront of the mindfulness movement, which has secularized and domesticated a form of meditation once practiced almost exclusively by Buddhist monks. In bringing mindfulness to the West, they haven’t just transmitted an ancient discipline to new shores. They’ve helped develop something quite new, refracting old monastic techniques through the lens of psychology to create a unique, modern form of self-help.

Sharon Salzberg, now a renowned meditation teacher, needed help when she set off for India in 1970. A “studious hippie,” she’d started college at SUNY Buffalo at 16 but only felt alive during her Buddhist philosophy course. The First Noble Truth of Buddhism is that life is full of suffering. This resonated with Salzberg immediately: “The circumstances of my own life proclaimed it,” she wrote in her 2002 spiritual memoir, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience. Her mother died when Salzberg was 9; she’d started hemorrhaging while they sat on the couch watching TV, and Sharon was the one to call the ambulance. Her father, who’d abandoned her when she was 4, reentered her life but then tried to kill himself six weeks later and was institutionalized. Her grandparents raised her, never speaking openly of what had happened to her family.

In the manner of children, Salzberg blamed herself for the loss of her parents and shut down. Discovering Buddhism awakened her. The Third Noble Truth promises that there’s an end to suffering. She was determined to find it.

Though she’d never been out of New York state before, when she was 18 she arranged to spend a year abroad studying Buddhism and Marxism in India. (“I didn’t know that India was no longer a Buddhist country,” she told me recently, laughing. “I should have gone to Japan.”) She flew to London, took the Orient Express to Istanbul, and then made her way along the hippie train through Afghanistan to India.

There, she went looking for a teacher. At a yoga conference in New Delhi, a graduate student named Daniel Goleman—later the author of the mega-best-seller Emotional Intelligence—mentioned that he was heading to a meditation retreat. Ram Dass, ne Richard Alpert, the Jewish Harvard professor who studied psychedelics with Timothy Leary before taking off for India, was going as well. She decided to join them.

The retreat was held in a Burmese monastery. The men slept on the roof, the women in the corridors around the meditation hall. All of them were knit together by a thrilling sense of discovery: “We were all trying to understand something,” said Salzberg. “We’d all given up something to be there.”

At the retreat, she met Joseph Goldstein, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand who’d been studying Buddhism in Bodh Gaya for several years. Both continued as disciples of Goenka. Not long afterward, Jacqueline Mandell, then Jacqueline Schwartz, found her way to one of Goenka’s retreats after several months of solo travel through Europe and Asia. “I felt like I had fully lived my life, I had many friends, I’d been able to travel, I’d been able to go to college,” said Mandell. However, she said, none of those things “brought ultimate happiness. They brought good feelings, but I felt like something within me knew there was something more.” Learning how to fully inhabit the present moment gave her the fulfillment she was missing. She met first Goldstein and then, later, Salzberg.


It makes sense that Buddhism in general, and the vipassana practice in particular, resonated so strongly with these largely secular, modern Jews. As Wilson points out, Buddhism had one important commonality with psychoanalysis: Both locate the source of suffering in the mind. The Burmese vipassana practice is particularly focused on grasping how the mind works. “One of the things about the Burmese tradition is that the paradigm for the inquiry, you could almost say, is a psychological paradigm,” said Goldstein. “It really has to do with an emphasis on the understanding of the mind. There’s a very detailed analysis of the mind, there’s a whole part of the teaching which we could call Buddhist psychology. I think that fits very well into the American and perhaps Jewish cultural way of understanding things.”

The young Jewish adherents loved the fact that they were learning a set of techniques rather than a set of beliefs. “Judaism was not satisfying most people’s spiritual hunger at that point,” Salzberg said. “There’s something about a method, a way, not just holding these ideals and not being able to live up to them and feeling horrible.” She cites the Buddha’s exhortation: “Don’t believe anything because I said it. Put it into practice, see for yourself what’s true.”

Eventually, Goldstein, Salzberg, and Schwartz returned to the United States. There they met Jack Kornfield, another Jew who’d discovered Buddhism while serving in the Peace Corps in Thailand. The New Age movement was ascendant, and all four of them were soon in demand as teachers, though they had no idea how long the interest would last. “Somebody would invite us to teach a retreat, and two or three of us would go, and we never knew if there would be another invitation,” said Salzberg. “We were just sleeping on people’s living room couches all over the place.” In 1976, they founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. It became the wellspring of the modern mindfulness movement.

“They are the most important single cluster in terms of bringing mindfulness to the West,” Wilson said of the foursome. Were someone to go back in time and remove them from history, he said, “the whole mindfulness industry, the psychologization of Buddhism, and the Buddhist nature of psychology these days, all of this would disappear.”

That’s because they didn’t simply import a set of teachings. They adapted them. How much is a matter of some debate. Salzberg argues that she and her colleagues transmitted what they learned from their teacher without significant alteration. Wilson, however, believes that in its transition into a Western context, the content of mindfulness meditation has been radically transformed, even if the form remains largely the same.

The discipline that Goenka learned in Burma was already a modern one. Historically, scholars say that meditation was virtually unknown among lay Buddhists in Southeast Asia, and even fairly esoteric among monks. That began to change with the movement against British colonialism in the late 19th and early 20th century. For educated nationalists in Burma as well as in Sri Lanka, Buddhism became, in the words of the University of California Berkeley Buddhist studies professor Robert Sharf, “the vehicle through which they affirmed their national identities, their cultural values, and their self-esteem.”

But as Sharf argued in a 1995 scholarly article, this Buddhism was refracted through both Protestantism and the Enlightenment. That meant discarding monastic hierarchies and supernaturalism in favor of rationalism, universalism, and personal experience—the taste of the sublime that an individual could find through newly simplified, democratized meditative techniques. That was the context that Goenka learned in, and he continued the process of modernization. “He was very known for teaching a particular psychoanalytic tradition of Theravada Buddhism,” said Sigalow. Through meditation, he sought to show students how to free themselves from destructive patterns and find self-love and happiness. “Taking refuge in the Buddha was, for me, like having an uncommon mirror held up before me and seeing myself in ways I hadn’t before—rich with the potential for transformation, and possessed of an innate beauty,” writes Salzberg.

This emphasis on joy and self-realization, argues Wilson, is unlike anything seen in traditional Buddhism, even if the seated meditation techniques that Goenka’s students practiced were not. The Westerners’ “understanding of what they’re doing, and the applications to which they put those practices, are very, very different, in a way they have difficulty even comprehending,” he said. “They usually believe they’re being faithful to the tradition at exactly the moment they’re changing it.”

Mindfulness, after all, was traditionally meant to dissolve the self, not heal it. “Buddhism fundamentally holds that there is no self. That the self is a fiction, and clinging to that fiction is the primary reason that people suffer,” Wilson said. Modern mindfulness, by contrast, holds that meditation returns you to your true self. “In being mindful, you come to appreciate the value of life. You eat mindfully, and your eating experience is so much better than it was. The monk, doing this thing in the forest, might be eating mindfully, but it’s so that he can cease taking pleasure in eating. He’s going to become detached from it. He comes to find it to be an empty activity, just like everything else. He gives these things up.”

In bringing a version of vipassana meditation to the West, the founders of the IMS made it even more practical and contemporary. “I mean, it’s modern in some ways—I am a New York Jew,” said Salzberg. They gave women a role they did not often have in Asian traditions. The metaphysical aspects of Buddhism were played down even more: “We weren’t emphasizing those aspects which were in the teachings which were probably beyond most people’s personal experiences—teachings on rebirth and the cosmology and different planes of existence,” said Goldstein.

Perhaps most significantly, the IMS teachers had to create mechanisms to deal with Western students’ need to process their feelings with their teachers. “A big part of the interactions were about people’s personal stories as opposed to just the simplicity of the meditative process itself,” said Goldstein. “So, a lot of the both learning and teaching was about how to respond to that and also how to guide people a bit away from their stories and into the meditative process, so it didn’t become simply another form of therapy.”

Crucially, they adapted vipassana meditation to address self-hatred, a concept that doesn’t exist in traditional Buddhism. “Self-hatred is a major problem for North Americans, and the stereotype is that it’s particularly common among North American Jews,” said Wilson. “It just doesn’t exist in Asia. There’s no analogue for it, there’s no concept for it, no words for it. The Tibetans have to make up neologisms just to communicate this foreign idea. It’s as foreign to them as something like nirvana or karma would have been to us.” Of course, like people anywhere, people in Asia get depressed and commit suicide, but Wilson maintains that they conceptualize suffering differently. Thus Buddhism as it emerged in Asia didn’t address questions of self-worth or personal identity. “Buddhism is about the washing away of the self, and the moving into a different state of consciousness,” said Wilson. “Nowadays, however, we’ve got American Buddhism, which does quite a different thing.”

In her dissertation, Sigalow discusses Kornfield’s 2002 book The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace, which includes meditative recitations asking forgiveness for others, forgiveness of those who have caused us harm, and, significantly, forgiveness of ourselves. These prayers, she says, have become part of many mindfulness teachings, but they have no precedent in Southeast Asia. However, she points out, all three forgiveness practices “are commonly recited as part of the High Holiday liturgy in American Jewish congregations throughout the country.”

None of this, of course, means that mindfulness as we know it isn’t valuable. As Wilson said, “We’ve got a lot of anecdotal evidence that people are really getting a lot out of this. This would not be a multi-billion dollar industry in America alone if it were a total flop.” Indeed, it could be that one reason Westerners take to it so readily is that it’s more grounded in Western therapeutic traditions than they realize. When it comes to JuBus, it turns out, it’s hard to say where the Jew ends and the Buddhist begins.


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Michelle Goldberg is a senior contributing writer at The Nation. She is the author, most recently, of The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West. Her Twitter feed is @michelleinbklyn.