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Zentrum Geschichte des Wissens

Universität Zürich

Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich

Zentrum Geschichte des Wissens

Universität Zürich

Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich

JOSEPHINE SELANDER

Making mindfulness: Narrating, Mediating, Medicalizing transcultural emotion-knowledge 1920 – 2000


“Mindfulness” as a technique to manage emotions, is frequently used in the latest generation of Cognitive Behavioural Therapies. Yet, limited attention has been given to the historical trajectories of today’s consciousness practices offered in psychotherapeutic contexts. To understand the role of a Buddhist concept in psychotherapy, psychology, and related fields this dissertation explores how meditative practices became part of self-regulating psychological therapies in Europe, Northern America, and Sweden from the 1920s to the 2000s.

Based on the analysis of works of fiction, travel books, academic publications, press materials, lectures, and radio broadcastings, I propose two main ideas. Firstly, I argue that transnational mediation of Buddhist practices from South Asia to Europe and North America produced different layers of knowledge that described Buddhism as a secular meditation technique rather than a religious practice, and thus a tool for emotional self-regulation in psychotherapy. Secondly, I propose that authors, experts and journalists, through mediation and remediation, could calibrate and adjust this knowledge making of Buddhism a therapy of sorts, when presenting the ideas to different publics. Moreover, in the relocation to new arenas of Buddhist philosophy, new attitudes towards managing emotions in psychological practices were formed and disseminated. I suggest that such self-regulating techniques need to be historicized and interpreted in the broader context of shifting relations between individuals and societies.

Having the circulation of knowledge as the methodological foundation-stone, three different processes knowledge-formation will be studied. First, when fiction-, travel-, and meditation books were widely published in Europe in the 1920s and ’30s. In this material, a narrative can be traced on how Buddhist practices could work as a way to liberate and understand “the Self”. The second period is set in the 1950s, and the beginning of the 60s when Zen Buddhism as a way of handling emotions was mediated to broader publics in North America through lectures and mass media. Third, the process on the medicalization of contemplative practices will be analysed, primary in a Swedish context in the 1990s and early 2000s, when mindfulness was broadly implemented into health-care systems and psychology programs. Questions raised in this last part of the research are on the relation between self-regulating techniques and socio-political issues.

By examining these processes, the study argues that transnational mediation of Buddhist practices produced not only a new kind of emotion-knowledge in psychology, but also in society.