Julia Cassaniti (Public Lecture): Remembering the Present: Mentality and Mental Health in Theravada Southeast Asia

This talk will discuss an ethnographically based research project on the mindfulness practices of monks, psychiatrists, and lay Buddhists recently carried out in the Theravāda countries of Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka. Drawing from data collected from over 600 participants, I map out some of the ways that mindfulness, as understood through its Pali-language root sati, is associated in Southeast Asia to psychological processes in ways that are different from how they are usually understood in other cultural contexts. I attend especially to what I have called the TAPES of mindfulness: Temporality, Affect, Power, Ethics, and Selfhood, and demonstrate how each suggests new perspectives for thinking about the complicated relationship between culture and mind. I begin with a case study of a man named Sen staying at a psychiatric hospital in Chiang Mai, and through an examination of the meanings that he and his family and friends make of his problems show some of the connections that local ideas about the mind have to the wider circulation of Buddhism across Asia and around the world.

Dr. Julia Cassaniti received her PhD from the University of Chicago, and conducted postdoctoral work as a Culture and Mind Fellow at Stanford University. With a research focus on Buddhism and cognition in Southeast Asia, Dr. Cassaniti is interested in the ways that religious ideas are interwoven into the psychology of everyday life. She has been conducting ethnographic research for the past thirteen years in a rural area in Northern Thailand, focusing on a range of phenomena that speak to constructions of religion and subjectivity, and to their implications in the wider world of health and well-being. Her first book, Living Buddhism: Mind, Self, and Emotion in a Thai Community (Cornell University Press, 2015), recently won the American Anthropological Association’s 2016 Stirling Prize for Best Published Book in Psychological Anthropology, offering an ethnographic analysis of impermanence and karma through personal engagements with everyday experience. Dr. Cassaniti publishes broadly on these issues of affect, agency and religion in Asia in journals of medical anthropology, psychological anthropology, and Buddhist Studies, and is presently completing a new book on mindfulness practices across the Theravāda world of Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Burma.

More information about the Center for Southeast Asian Studies Friday Forum series.