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Vipassana Meditation and the Embodiment of the Self


Vipassana Meditation and the Embodiment of the Self

Western society has never been more interested in interiority. Indeed, it seems more and more people are deliberately looking inward—toward the mind, the body, or both. Michal Pagis’s Inward focuses on one increasingly popular channel for the introverted gaze: vipassana meditation, which has spread from Burma to more than forty countries and counting. Lacing her account with vivid anecdotes and personal stories, Pagis turns our attention not only to the practice of vipassana but to the communities that have sprung up around it. Inward is also a social history of the westward diffusion of Eastern religious practices spurred on by the lingering effects of the British colonial presence in India. At the same time Pagis asks knotty questions about what happens when we continually turn inward, as she investigates the complex relations between physical selves, emotional selves, and our larger social worlds. Her book sheds new light on evergreen topics such as globalization, social psychology, and the place of the human body in the enduring process of self-awareness.


"Pagis’s monograph supplies a valuable and accurate description, as well as a highly sensitive analysis of the happenings in the Goenka Vipassana centers. It weaves together personal experience, theory, and interviews with others to create an elegantly persuasive account that contributes a unique and important exposition to the growing literature of the new cultural field of Buddhist meditation outside Buddhist Asia and also to the sociology of secularity and religion in postmodern times. In addition, it contributes a sensitive phenomenological account of meditation practice that is all the more important now, considering the current flood of quantitative studies on the effects of mindfulness."

Journal of Buddhist Ethics

“This striking ethnography sticks in one’s mind: rooms full of silent meditators coordinating their body rhythms on a tacit channel, observing sensations over every inch of their bodies, and washing away pains not by seeking their causes but by detached attention. Pagis depicts meditation in a secular age, not as religion but as bodies among bodies giving each other space to repair the inroads of too much social self.”

Randall Collins, University of Pennsylvania

“Pagis’ beautifully written, brilliantly argued ethnography of meditation makes three major contributions: it shows how some of our most private experiences are socially enabled; it demonstrates how our selves are not only linguistically but sensuously mediated; and it reveals how attention is not merely a faculty but a practice. All three have profound consequences for understanding the sociality of human beings.”

Andreas Glaeser, University of Chicago

Pagis’s book is a tour de force for those interested in social constructivist theories of self-development; sociologists of religion, spirituality, and Buddhism; and meditators. The book would provide excellent contributions to sociology courses on these topics. The book is not only carefully constructed, painstakingly grounded in various historical and sociological literatures, but written in an interesting and accessible manner, which students either at the undergraduate or graduate level would enjoy.

American Journal of Sociology

"Pagis weaves theory, participant interviews, and her own personal experiences seamlessly together, resulting in a reading experience that continually surprises, engages, and persuades. Inwards is a welcome addition to the growing body of literature on the secular and religious study of meditation and should be considered essential reading for those interested in the transformative powers of interiority."

Tyler Carter | H-Net

"Inward is an extensive and comprehensive investigation into the lives of vipassana meditators, and the practice’s effects and consequences. This ethnography engages deeply with perennial topics of the social construction of the self along with the diffusion of Asian religious practices globally."

Religious Studies Review

Table of Contents

Note on Terminology

1          Turning Inward
2          The Popularization of Meditation
3          Collective Solitude
4          Meditation in Daily Life
5          Negotiating Intimate Social Relations
6          Becoming a Meditator: Life Course Orientations
7          Bodies, Selves, and the Social World

Methodological Appendix: Ethnography of Experience


ASA Theory Section: The Theory Book Prize
Honorable Mention

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