The Tourist but not the Pilgrim: the nature of mediation among non-Buddhist Americans

Authors: Choe, J.

Start date: 19 June 2014

There is an increasing interest in eastern philosophical activities like meditation, yoga, and traveling to Buddhist sites among non-religious North Americans. In a study of non-Buddhists visiting a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles, California in 2007 using surveys, I found that people visited a temple because of “intellectual” and “stimulus-avoidance” motivations. As part of a doctoral research journey, a better understanding of the phenomenon of non-Buddhist Americans engaging and practicing meditation was sought. Thus, I conducted a study exploring why non-Buddhist Americans engage in meditation and visit temples repeatedly. Using participant observation and in-depth interviews (N = 16) in a northeastern town in the United States in spring 2011, the study indicated that the primary outcomes of meditation were stress reduction and emotion management. Most participants noted that the meditation helped clear their minds, aided relaxation, and helped them slow down. They also reported that they became more positive, more content, happier, and healthier, when they practiced meditation regularly. Findings relating to the outcomes of meditation were found be important in the American context, because of the immediate, social, political and economic need for effective and cost-reducing health and wellbeing interventions to replace or augment existing methods, as stress and anxiety take an increasing toll on people’s health. Additionally, several participants in the study noted that they regularly traveled to India, Taiwan, California and Colorado to practice with meditation teachers. They felt inspired by these teachers, and sought to be reminded of the importance meditation through travel and practicing meditation with specific teachers. This study shows that non-religious individuals get involved in a kind of spiritual activity with practical purposes (i.e., stress and emotion management) for a long time. The study also demonstrates that non-religious “tourists” can be as serious as pilgrims, who pursue more religious experiences and fulfillment (i.e., Buddhist pilgrims). Therefore, this study adds insight to the ongoing discussions about tourists and pilgrims in the religious tourism literature.

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