A journey of the mind
Eight thousand miles from the rolling wheat fields of Pullman, Julia Cassaniti, assistant professor of anthropology, climbed off her motorbike and walked into the Buddhist monastery Wat Suan Dok.
Legend claims the 650-year-old shrine houses a relic of Gautama Buddha, the 5th century B.C.E. sage and scholar whose teachings are the basis of Buddhism.
Cassaniti made the journey to the ancient site, located near the city of Chang Mai, Thailand, to learn from the monastery’s monks about Sati, one of the seven factors of Buddhist enlightenment.
Sati loosely translates into English as mindfulness. It is a concept that helped shape Southeast Asian life and culture over a period of more than 2,000 years. At the most basic level, it signifies a moment-to-moment awareness of the present.
“It is this omnipresent concept in Southeast Asia that people connect to the practical and spiritual aspects of their lives,” Cassaniti said. “Someone might say I am mindful when I am driving, planting in the fields, or meditating. It can be interpreted and applied in many different ways.”
Over the last 30 years, mindfulness has become a hip term among clinical and cognitive psychologists in the United States. The practice of focusing one’s attention on the feelings and sensations of the present moment is a tried and tested method to deal with anxiety, depression, and a host of other mental ailments.
“There is a lot of research out there on the psychological applications of mindfulness,” Cassaniti said. “However, to date, there has not been a comprehensive study of how people in countries with a long history of Buddhist influence practice mindfulness in their day-to-day lives.”
Cassaniti’s goal is to rectify this. She worked with WSU anthropology alumnus Justin Van Elsberg (’13) and Chang Mai University graduate student Santi Leksakul to interview and survey people in Thailand about what mindfulness means to them in 2013. Earlier this year, Cassaniti returned to the region and conducted additional interviews in Sri Lanka and Burma with the help of local research assistants at the University of Perideniya and Mandalay University.
Cassaniti’s team conducted 650 interviews and 150 surveys of monks, psychiatric workers, university students and a range of people living in the rural countryside over the course of the project. She is currently working with Van Elsberg, WSU anthropology graduate student Jessica McCauley and WSU anthropology undergraduate Gina Piehl, to summarize their findings and hopes to publish the research next year.
Van Elsberg recalls riding through the streets of Chang Mai with Leksakul on a small motorcycle, searching for prospective interviewees. Heavy congestion, narrow streets, and vehicles traveling at high speeds makes driving in Thailand an adventure at its best and extremely dangerous during rush hour.
”I would really make an effort to mentally attend to the driving environment and understanding the flow of traffic,” Van Elsberg said. “You have to be in the moment and fully aware of who and what is around you.”
Many of the people the researchers interviewed in Chang Mai said they used mindfulness in a similar, practical fashion. Students claimed mindfulness when studying. Mental healthcare practitioners would talk about being mindful when working with unruly patients.
“In the city, when we asked students or doctors about mindfulness they would discuss how being mindful can help them ace a test or how it relates to the teachings of Freud,” Van Elsberg said. “However, once we got into the more rural areas outside of Chang Mai, our conversations about mindfulness became more rooted in religion.”
A different interpretation
Where there was less western influence, Cassaniti’s team found mindfulness had not only practical applications in peoples’ lives but also more spiritual aspects.
Monks at isolated monasteries would talk for hours about letting go of attachments and accepting change.
“I remember a particular monk telling me the desk in front of me is moving,” Cassaniti said. “He said you really want things to stay the same, but everything is constantly changing and you have to learn to accept it.”
Villagers in rural areas would discuss how being mindful helped them focus both on day-to-day tasks and on placating evil spirits or the ghosts of ancestors.
“It was very interesting to see how interpretations of mindfulness changed from one area to another,” Cassaniti said. “Our hope with this research is to illustrate that mindfulness is not a universal concept but, rather, varies depending on the social context of the people who practice it.”
For his part, Van Elsberg said working with Cassaniti and being immersed in another culture gave him a new and more open mindset.
“Getting out in the field and seeing a completely different way of life firsthand really changes your perspective on things,” he said. “People’s beliefs are influenced by the social environment they live in. You have to take this into consideration before you can delve into their psychological world.”