Why have these traditionally eastern practices gained such popularity in the West?
The West is experiencing a rapid growing popular interest in meditation and the eastern traditions that developed these methods. The rising interest has mainly focused on the Buddhist and Yoga traditions which, although quite distinctive, share much in common. Both originated in the Indian subcontinent over two thousand years ago. Buddhism began with the life of Siddhārtha Gautama, a prince of a Hindu tribe in what is now Nepal, who lived around the time of Socrates (approximately 500 BCE). He gave up his royalty in favor of a contemplative life which led him to be eventually called the “Buddha” or the “one who is awake”. The origin of Yoga is much more difficult to trace. Yoga’s origin lays in Hinduism, but was arguably first systematized in a series of Sātras by the Hindu Philosopher Patañjali who lived around 150BCE.
Either within or outside a religious context, meditation can be understood as methods for understanding our self, emotions, motivations, behavior and our relationships to others. Meditation provides a person with tools for investigating the whole range of their experience so that they may, ultimately, better understand why things are the way they are. Nevertheless, a very reasonable question we should ask ourselves is what relevance, if any, does meditation have to the modern western world?
Meditation is penetrating mainstream western culture. In academia, meditation is now a legitimate object of investigation by psychologists, neuroscientists, philosophers, psychoanalysts, psychotherapists, psychiatrists, and other health professionals. This intellectual interest runs in parallel with pragmatic concerns. For example, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) are therapies which use meditation and have been found to be effective treatments for depression, anxiety, stress, and disease-related emotional distress. It was not so long ago when meditation and yoga centers were strange to see in western cities. Now they are found in all major urban metropolises. Even celebrities have taken a fancy to these traditions. Famous Buddhists include Richard Gere, Orlando Bloom, and the late Steve Jobs. Jennifer Aniston and Sting practice yoga.
However, the fact that something is popular does not necessarily mean that it is relevant. Returning to my original question, it seems westerners find these eastern traditions relevant because they seem reconcilable with their secular and scientific world view. In the "Kālāma Sūtra", the Buddha is approached by a group of people who are troubled by the fact that each priest who passed through their village declared that their doctrine was the true teaching and that the other priests’ teachings were false. The villagers wanted the Buddha to tell them, once and for all, which was the true doctrine. The Buddha famously replied that they should be skeptical of knowledge based on hearsay, tradition, scripture, and authority. Rather, he encouraged them to critically investigate the priests’ claims, like an experiment, in order to see for themselves whether they are true or not.
Similarly, Patañjali defines yoga in the "Yoga Sūtra" as “yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ”, This means, “yoga is to calm the patterning of the mind”. Again, we see that yoga and meditation are tools to help a person understand their mental life. But why does mind need to be calmed? In the Buddhist and Yoga traditions, the mind needs to be calmed because the dissatisfaction and misery we all experience – regardless of whether you are rich or poor – is constructed by the mind itself. By calming the mind, genuine happiness is possible. However, this raises a very strange question. Is there a connection being a westerner, the rapid growing popular interest in meditation, and the promise of overcoming misery and dissatisfaction? What does this say about modern western culture itself? I do not know the answer to these questions, but I suspect it has something to do with why meditation is relevant to the West. What we see is that many westerners feel something is missing and astray, which is why they turn eastward, like many before them, for an answer.