Abstract: Vietnamese-American Perspectives on Western Secular Mindfulness: A Phenomenological Study (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Vietnamese-American Perspectives on Western Secular Mindfulness: A Phenomenological Study

Saturday, January 14, 2023
Laveen A, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
My Ngoc To, MSW, PhD Student, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Background and Purpose: Since its introduction to the West, mindfulness, a practice of open awareness documented extensively within Buddhist teachings, has largely been secularized to facilitate integration into medical and research contexts. Western secular mindfulness (WSM) research has largely drawn from White, high-income, educated participants, and while research efforts to adapt common mindfulness-based interventions to marginalized populations are increasing, far fewer have sought perspectives about WSM from such diverse groups. Recent scholars have noted that WSM’s individualistic lens on self-growth may be incongruent with Asian-American cultural values of interpersonal harmony and spirituality and call for further investigation of perspectives about WSM within Asian-American subgroups. The following phenomenological study builds on this work through gathering Vietnamese-American (VA) perspectives on WSM, looking specifically at how varying aspects of VA identity influence receptivity and access to WSM and how WSM can be readapted to be more culturally relevant to diverse VA communities.

Methods: Twenty-three in-depth, semi-structured interviews were conducted online via Zoom with a national sample of English-speaking VAs ages 18 to 81 (mean 41.1). Participants were predominantly female (56.5% female, 34.8% male, 8.7% nonbinary), Buddhist (43.5% Buddhist, 30.4% other/none, and 26.1% Christian), second-generation immigrants (56.5% second-generation, 43.5% first-generation), and educated (100% had a college degree or were currently attending college). Online social media platforms, flyers, community referral networks, and snowball sampling recruited 13 initial participants. A well-received social media post then recruited 150 more participants, providing a sampling frame to purposively sample 10 final participants for negative case analysis. Interviews included an optional 5–10-minute guided mindfulness practice. Participants were asked about their understanding of mindfulness, reactions to the definition of WSM, reflections on the guided practice, perceived usefulness of WSM, preferences for learning mindfulness, and barriers in accessing mindfulness. Interviews were transcribed and coded using Dedoose qualitative software. Use of reflexive memo-ing and peer debriefing throughout the study upheld rigor and trustworthiness.

Results: Thematic analysis shows that while most participants regarded WSM as widely applicable and preferred secular instruction, many also felt that WSM misses components of spirituality, interpersonal connection, and harmonious living. First-generation immigrants identified Vietnamese cultural traditions such as ancestral worship, Buddhist chanting, and grieving as forms of mindfulness practice, and Buddhist participants viewed WSM as inseparable from Buddhism. Barriers to WSM included lack of exposure, motivation, and financial resources. Barriers perceived to affect older generations more included mental health stigma, language barriers, and “survival mindsets” which prioritizing labor and productivity over self-reflection. Second-generation participants more often identified WSM as beneficial for mental health, addressing privilege and oppression, healing intergenerational trauma, and reconnecting with their roots if culturally adapted.

Conclusion: Findings highlight how age, generation status, and religion influence receptibility and access to WSM among VAs. At the same time, there is a collective VA sentiment that WSM would be more relevant if it included elements of spirituality, interrelatedness, living well, and Vietnamese cultural traditions. Considering the perspectives and cultural locations of participants can help make WSM more accessible to communities that have been excluded from such offerings.