Aria Een ‘22

Lecture Correspondent


Distinguished Buddhist Lectureer, Rev Dr Wakoh Shannon Hickey. Photo by John Crawford ‘20.

This year, the Chaplains’ Office welcomed the Rev. Dr. Wakoh Shannon Hickey as the 2020 Distinguished Buddhist Lecturer on Monday night, January 27th.

Dr. Hickey is a Soto Zen Buddhist priest as well as a scholar and educator. She received a Doctorate from Duke University, where she also served as Buddhist Chaplain and was a professor of religious studies at Notre Dame of Maryland University. She is currently a full-time hospice chaplain in California. In addition to her commitment to interfaith engagement, Dr. Hickey specializes in American Religious history, in particular regarding race, gender, and minority religious traditions, and focusing on Buddhism.

In November of last year, Oxford University Press published Dr. Hickey’s book Mind Cure: How Meditation Became Medicine. In the book, which was the basis of her lecture, Dr. Hickey traces the origins of mindfulness practice in the United States to the 19th century, when it was a movement led by women interested in using meditation as a means of transforming the oppressive conditions they lived under. Following World War II, these women leaders began to disappear as their methods were co-opted by white men in the medicinal establishment. As a result, these men began to emphasize the practice as logical and scientific, while deemphasizing the religious components. 

Dr. Hickey suggests that in this transition from the community-oriented, female-led origins to the medicalized, commodified, and individualized form of modern mindfulness popularized today, there has been a loss in a sense of community and in the ethical and moral foundations of meditation.

Today, we live in a moment where mindfulness is seemingly everywhere: emblazoned on magazine covers, through apps, and in books on how to be mindful while doing anything from studying to giving birth.

In discussing the modern “mindfulness boom,” Dr. Hickey’s impugnment of companies was particularly insightful. Today, companies have commodified and enlisted mindfulness as a means of combating workplace stress with the goal of increasing productivity and making people more resilient. However, Dr. Hickey suggests these initiatives ignore the larger question: why are people so stressed in the first place? What we need are systemic analyses of suffering, ill health, and stress-related illnesses. By merely trying to treat these issues with individualized and ungrounded mindfulness practice, we are able to ignore other factors, such as systemic sexism and racism, as well as a toxic culture of productivity inherent in workplaces defined by capitalist production.

The point is not to castigate modern mindfulness practices; in fact, we must recognize the undeniably positive impact it’s had on many people. What we must do is move toward a more aware and ethically grounded version of mindfulness practice that emphasizes seismic cultural shifts regarding productivity and improvement.

My hope is that these questions will resonate on campus and force us to consider our own culture of stress. If we actually want to ameliorate student stress levels on campus, let’s think critically about the institution and the systems in place that allow this culture to be perpetuated. Let’s ask ourselves why people are so stressed in the first place. Let’s shift our focus from individual change to large-scale community transformation. This critical thinking and engagement can itself be a spiritual practice.

Aria Een is an intended American Studies Major from Los Angeles, CA. She can be reached for comment at areen@davidson.edu