Meditation and the Trap of Pop Culture

Meditation and the Trap of Pop Culture

By Carol E. Beck


Recently, I had the chance to see the documentary film, “I Am,” by Tom Shadyac. I think there are some important lessons to be extrapolated from this film for how to convey information on eastern philosophies to western audiences, and how to make practices like meditation relevant to the mainstream without falling prey to the excesses of pop culture. While I give the film an “A” for sincerity and good intent, it terms of execution, it’s maybe a “C+”.

Audiences are suspicious these days, and many people have their hands full struggling with everyday problems. So a message that is heartfelt and positive is not really enough to capture anyone’s attention for long, let along change behaviors. People distrust second and third hand commentary, not to mention, non-repeatable, pseudo-science. We all know we can be better people, but in “I Am,” (and other media of its ilk), Mr. Shadyac fails to provide any tool set with which to implement change in one’s life other that to try to inspire us with the knowledge that there are really good people out there—and we should all be more like them. His film—and other books and films like it—unfortunately, falls squarely into the trap of pop culture.

What exactly is the trap of pop culture? It’s what happens when truly important spiritual ideas get watered down and sensationalized to make them appealing to a wide audience. Sometimes writers and filmmakers honestly believe that if they can just entice people with a morsel of junk food, they’ll stay for a more extensive and healthy meal. Sometimes they are themselves dazzled by feel-good shenanigans and unwittingly perpetuate ill-supported theories as facts. And sometimes, it’s just out and out exploitation of legitimate traditions and other cultures to turn a quick buck.

To counter this tendency, I offer the profound tradition of TIbetan Buddhism. There are several things I admire about Tibetan Buddhist science of mind (as opposed to the more overtly metaphysical aspects), the first being that it has a long history of being subjected to rigorous examination by its own practitioners. Secondly, it offers a practical tool set that doesn’t require belief in any particular dogma or religious doctrine in order to be useful in our daily lives. Next, it’s not afraid to interact with, learn from, and change when new, verifiable information becomes available. And lastly, it’s not afraid to talk about happiness in tangible ways.

In a time of post-modern, post-911, cynicism, it’s not very hip to talk about a concept so fundamental as happiness. But it is what most people think about, search for, and most ardently desire. People may think that they have other motivations, but ultimately everything from having a family (or getting rid of one), to career and financial achievement, to athletic or artistic pursuits, devolves down to the fact that we think those things will somehow make us happier.

Underlying the Tibetan Buddhist perspective on all things is something called the Four Immeasurables:

May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness—
May all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering—
May all beings never be separated from the happiness that is free of suffering—
May all beings abide in equanimity, free from the attachments and anger that hold some close and others distant.

In other words, love, compassion, joy and equanimity.

It is in the cultivation of these attitudes through the practice of meditation that will, quite literally, help us to flourish in our own lives and to contribute to the happiness of others. Recognizing our interdependence with other beings (and the environment) is a by-product of the cultivation of love, compassion, joy and equanimity.

I think there is real danger in overplaying the interconnection card as the film “I AM” does. When this idea is coopted by a kind of New Agey, “we are all one” mentality, the result is something not very consistent or rational. While on some quantum level it seems to be quite true that we are connected, I don’t like seeing meditation lumped in with a kind of fringe, pseudo-scientific, let’s-all-hold-hands-and-sing to solve our problems presentation. Especially when applied in the secular arena, Tibetan Buddhist science of mind is very much about logic, reason, and pragmatism.

Despite what people like Tom Shadyac would like to see, most of us are simply not going to sign up to work in a refugee camp in Darfur, or quit our corporate job to go teach in the inner city. It’s a nice pitch to listen to, but most of us will respond with, “yeah that would be great, but I could never do that, because_______.” And that’s the end of it. Not because we aren’t nice people, and not because we wouldn’t want to, but because it’s not an attainable reality for people trying to pay off student loans or a mortgage, raise children or take care of aging parents, or who would be beside themselves with joy if they could just find fifteen uninterrupted minutes a day to meditate.

We may not be able to save the entire world, but we may be able to save a small corner of it by getting on with our bosses, not yelling at our kids, and finding small ways to help others. The happiness quotient is increased for everyone when our behaviors begin to change, even in very simple, individual ways through the cultivation of love, compassion, joy and equanimity.

Rather than pop culture hype, I’d ask people to take a look at the current trend connecting Tibetan Buddhist science of mind with modern science through actual study and experimentation. It is, I believe, a much more believable and concrete way to demonstrate—to a western audience—the efficacy of these practices, and it also increases the potential for meaningful dialogue and the resultant synergies between these two world-views. As others have said, Tibetan Buddhism has far greater experience exploring the inner world, while modern science has mastered the outer world. Who doesn’t want less stress, less conflict, less anxiety in their life? This is the very pragmatic message that I think needs to be brought out, and which a great deal of research at places like Emory University, Stanford University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madision is demonstrating.

Meditation may seem rather exotic on the surface, but the fact is, pop culture depictions rarely depict either the hard work involved, or the real joys and transformations that can occur. With just a little effort, meditation focused on the values of love, compassion, joy and equanimity is actually a simple way to dramatically improve the happiness quotient in one’s life—and perhaps in other’s, as well.

I am grateful to my teachers should you find anything in this article helpful concerning the Buddha-dharma. My mistakes are completely my own. I welcome dialogue on this topic.

Carol Beck is a long-term member of Drepung Loseling in Atlanta, Georgia and the ad hoc documentarian for the Emory-Tibet Partnership, a ground breaking effort encouraging many different intersections between Tibetan Buddhist science of mind and western science. www.drepung.org

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