From Self-cultivation to Self-care: Cross-Cultural Biopolitics in Body-mind Literature
Meditation is an ancient Buddhist method of cultivating mindfulness – enhanced awareness of the present moment – in the mind and body through focused breathing. In Tai Chi and Qigong, controlled breathing is combined with gentle physical exercise in standing or sitting positions. Recent neuroscientific studies using fMRI scans have shown that meditation can significantly improve cognitive processing and have been proven effective in preventing relapses of depression. Tai Chi and Qigong have also been found to improve physical and psychological health in chronically ill patients. Thousands of body-mind self-help books are published every year, with autobiographical manuals by patient-turned-practitioners like Dan Harris’ 10% Happier becoming bestsellers. The rhetoric of self-care in these texts suggests that the mind can be retrained through manipulations of the body and breathing, and that patients have the power to heal themselves. Drawing on personal experiences of depression or cancer, they present stories of healing through mindfulness and how meditation led them on a journey of self-discovery. I call these narratives of ‘active healing’. The rise of body-mind books has created a culture of self-care that encourages self-control over the body and mind, and radically changed perceptions of Eastern meditative traditions. Applying post-colonial and Marxist-Feminist frameworks, this project examines some of the most popular books about mindfulness, Tai Chi, and Qigong published in the West since the 1980s in relation to classical body-mind manuals and analyses how these texts adopt the language of Western individualism into a language of self-empowerment to fashion narratives of ‘active healing’. It studies how the mythologisation of body-mind practices as ‘miracle healing’ influence our understanding of the histories of body-mind traditions and aims to increase understanding of these texts so that they can be used efficiently to help patients become self-conscious readers and users of body-mind practices.