Student Spotlight: Daniel Anderson receives a 2015 Summer Research Fellowship

Congratulations to Daniel Anderson for receiving a 2015 Summer Research Fellowship from GMU!  Daniel took a moment to reflect on his journey to GMU, his current research, and how he plans to use the fellowship this summer, so check out what he has to say below:


1) What was your academic and/or professional journey that led you to pursue a PhD in Cultural Studies at Mason? 

This is my second attempt at a PhD.  I began a PhD program in literature at a university on the west coast, and made it through the coursework and qualifying exams, but I never finished the book report.  There were two reasons for this.  For one, my personal life was in a shambles due to deaths and very serious illnesses in my immediate family, and my own health issues.  I also came to realize that I was not yet prepared to work within a discipline while doing the kind of interdisciplinary work that I really wanted to participate in.  I became interested in Cultural Studies through Raymond Williams and the Birmingham School; I found it impossible, within the terms available to me around 2004-5, to do challenging, interdisciplinary work of that kind.

What remained but to drop it and try again?  Mason’s Cultural Studies Program was attractive to me because I saw in it the opportunity to learn how to do the kind of work I admired, and to be challenged by a new environment as a heretofore lifelong creature of the West Coast. 

I learned a lot this way.


2) What is the focus of your research? 

My dissertation is a critical history of mindfulness in North America.  Mindfulness is a meditation technique derived from Buddhism that is now ubiquitous in the workplace and the university.  It is strongly associated with appeals to well-being, happiness, stress relief, and performance enhancement.  There is also a kind of utopian streak to it—in canonical mindfulness texts, one can find meditations on uneven development under globalization, for instance.

So far, the historical scholarship on mindfulness tends to situate it as a natural extension of Buddhism’s interaction with “modernity,” variously defined.  I think it has less to do with any logic internal to Buddhism than with contemporary social conditions.  The neoliberal environment is the definition of stress, and mindfulness promises both stress relief and a leg up in a competitive work environment.  But as mindfulness is summoned in this context, certain recognizably Buddhist traces inhere in it, such as compassion and happiness.  I am considering mindfulness and concomitant discourses primarily in “Western Buddhist” advice books, in the workplace, and in the university.

My preparation for this project is a bit unusual, and personal.  I attended a lecture by Slavoj Zizek in late 2002; his ostensible topic was 9/11, but his comments on “Western Buddhism” triggered my interest in pursuing this topic, or hailed me into it.  I have practiced Buddhism since 1997, and have been a novice priest in the Tendai Buddhist tradition for nearly five years now.  My training in this context, and my long observation of this discourse, informs my research.


3) What are your specific plans for the summer that this fellowship will enable?

Mainly, I will focus on reading recent scholarship across disciplines to understand how mindfulness and concomitant discourses are constructed as an object of knowledge, particularly in psychology and business.  I will also attend a five-day conference at San Francisco State in June, and a Buddhist retreat this summer at a rural retreat center in Colorado, the latter in order to better understand how the expectations laid on mindfulness impacts convert Buddhist communities beyond the ones I have been personally involved with.