By Benedikt J. Kastner
When consuming different media like magazines, newspapers, advertising, television, film and literature, the reader/spectator tunes into a diverse range of concepts of self-optimization, individual fulfillment and self-transformation. These concepts offer specific practices, beliefs, behaviors and systems of ideas to get close to a better self. Design, aesthetic, and content often indicate so-called “Asian“ religious or spiritual practices and beliefs intended to appreciate “Western“ everyday life. Moments of peace, health, spirituality and balance are used as an “Eastern“ response to “Western“ personal crises, diseases or any individual problems.
By consuming Buddhist traditions such as “zen“, “meditation“ and “mindfulness“, the actor is encouraged to change their life and to optimize it in the best possible way. Processes of transcultural receptions between the “West“ and the “East“ in the 20th century are the reason why terms like “mindfulness“ or “meditation“ can imply different aspects. Therefore, beliefs and practices of these terms are adapted in the fields of therapy, wellness, lifestyle and healing treatments. Media representations of terms, senses and practices are, accordingly, not neutral or apolitical; historical elements of religious, political and cultural transformations play an important role in constructing a projection surface of wishes and expectations. Actors construct and position themselves in this wide field of signifying chains in relation to transcultural dynamics.
The fast technological development of smartphones and their apps in the 21st century offers actors/consumers a new form of media and therefore a new form of mediations of “Asian“ and Buddhist practices. Terms like self-optimization, individual fulfillment and relaxation are frequently determined in apps in relation to religious semantics, aesthetics, sound and contents as sense for the senses (cf. Prohl 2004).
A current keyword in this discourse is mindfulness. Mindfulness is no longer only a part of a specific religious tradition. It is instead a transcultural phenomenon that combines in its conception different understandings of the human body, materiality, self-transformation, religion, spirituality, and meditation. For some years now, mindfulness has also been adapted in apps, intended to be consumed by a potential smartphone user. Apps such as “Stop, Breathe & Think“, “The Mindfulness App“, “Meditation Studio“ and “Buddhify“ provide the user with a complex net of knowledge transfer. Design, sound, and content are connoted differently; sometimes in a Buddhist, therapeutic tradition and sometimes in a more lifestyle-oriented manner.
But these depictions of mindfulness apps do not merely represent the current lifestyle of consumption but also the discursive interlacing of Buddhism, religion, culture and economy. Therefore, in this context, processes of transcultural positioning and distinction create specific monopolies of knowledge of what mindfulness implies and what it does not imply. The neoliberal changes in society provided actors with economic and cultural possibilities to naturalize mindfulness according to their interests (cf. Buddhist Modernism). Meaning is structured in these apps with the help of signifying chains, so that the produced content of the app can be consumed. Accordingly, language, rhetoric, aesthetic, and sound generate structures of sense in the investigated apps, which are taken from different discourses. The majority of these performative declarations are connected to an intended practice, which is called meditation.
Almost forgotten in the Buddhist history, meditation gained a revival because of the influence of the discourses of Orientalism and Orientalism in reverse; cultural and socialprocesses of transformation affected the current normative understanding of mindfulness as a conglomeration of meditation practices. The Burmese monk Ledi Sayadaw (1846-1923) for example played a leading role in the 19th century in constituting meditation practices of Vipassana and mindfulness for laypeople. Further social actors such as Satya Narayan Goenka, Thich Nhat Hanh, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jack Kornfield and many more influenced a public understanding in the 20th century of what mindfulness implies and what it does not imply. Because of these changes, mindfulness got conceptualized in therapeutic, psychological and meditative contexts. Additionally, these actors affected not only the implications of mindfulness but also the discourses (therapy, healing, psychology, meditation, individualization) which shape the image of mindfulness until now.
Stress relief, relaxation, acceptance and awareness have become key terms in the discourse of mindfulness in the 20th century. Adapted in almost every context, mindfulness can be practiced to encourage a work-life balance or to overcome a failed relationship. In terms of apps, the producers of the apps “Buddhify“ (Rohan Gunatillake) and “Meditation Studio“ (Cyd Crouse & Patricia Karpas) constitute specific monopolies of knowledge about mindfulness and its practices.
These two apps have been downloaded millions of times by smartphone users. In this context, the producers do not only play central roles in the economic appreciation of originally Buddhist practices and beliefs, but also in constituting a public understanding of mindfulness. Even though the named producers are personally experienced in Buddhist practices, the conceptions of mindfulness in their apps are mostly freed from any Buddhist implication. They both prefer to design mindfulness as a more secular conglomeration of practices and beliefs, which can be exercised by everybody. Here we see a direct reception of an understanding of mindfulness that was mostly shaped by Kabat-Zinn, who describes mindfulness predominantly as non-religious in his books and his therapeutic treatments. In their apps, the named producers design mindfulness not only in relation to the dominating image of mindfulness but also in relation to context, perception and daily life of potential users.
Because of receptions like this, the Buddhist implications of mindfulness have transformed. What was once called a specific religious exercise practiced by Buddhist monks in monasteries, has as a consequence of transformation processes been labeled as a term that can imply almost anything. Here, the apps symbolize a new vehicle to shape mindfulness as a conglomeration of practices that helps the user in almost every situation in his/her life. Even though these practices are not labeled as religious, the user consumes a concept that was originally Buddhist. You don’t have a be a Buddhist anymore to practice mindfulness or meditation. You also don’t have to go to a monastery. You just have to feel the need to download a relative app on your smartphone to consume mindfulness / meditation. You will find a concept of mindfulness that seems to be suitable to you.
Affected by the transformation of Buddhism through the discourses of Orientalism and Orientalism in reverse, mindfulness can be described as a floating signifier, a signifier that receives meaning with the help of social actors, their contexts and other signifiers. Mediated through apps, smartphones and bodies, implications of mindfulness get molded by and through media and the structures of the involved discourses.