Roots of mindfulness

Jack Kornfield, a co-founder of Insight Meditation Society, has done a lot to make mindfulness available to Westerners (photo by Marcy Harbut)

The mindfulness movement, now spreading to newer and newer corners of the modern world, started approximately in the 60’s and, in a historical context, cannot be separated from its birth time. After WWII more and more people’s attention turned towards the Eastern lifestyle, values, practices. Especially the spiritual schools of East and South Asia attracted more and more visitors while growing number of Asian spiritual teachers travelled to the West. Some really enthusiastic young people dug deep in spiritual studies, especially Buddhism, and found ancient meditation practices benefitting themselves as well as their environment.

The core of these meditation practices is mindfulness, which is the bare and non-judgemental attention directed to the experiences as they unfold moment-to-moment. When we practice this way we put aside expectations, speculations and just abide in what comes up. I like to describe this process as “befriending the reality as we perceive” without wanting to change, cure or modify it anyway. Among general benefits of this practice calmness, openness, clear-seeing and the new skill of stopping rumination could be mentioned. More scientifically we could call them “improving emotion control”.

Many of the, mostly quite young, people who experienced the benefits of mindfulness practice in the 60’s and 70’s started popularizing Buddhist meditation. Some did it in Buddhist contexts, where we often call it Vipassana or Insight meditation, while others took away all the Buddhist references and put the practices in a totally secular context, creating scientifically approved programs like MBSR. In the latter case, over decades Buddhist teaching was replaced by more and more evidence-based theory from research on mindfulness practice.

So today mindfulness may mean a Buddhist approach as well as a secular one. Interestingly, in many non-English languages mindfulness solely refers to the secular view. Mindful.Works and deal with mindfulness in a secular way only.

The term mindfulness comes from the first English translation of Satipatthana Sutta or The Foundations of Mindfulness, a cc. 2500-year-old Buddhist scripture comprehensing all uses of mindfulness, the synonims of which could be ‘clear awareness’, ‘bare attention’, ‘alert attention’ (although I emphasize that attention is mindfulness is calm rather than tensed). The Sutta describes various fields of life mindfulness is to be used, finally encompassing every aspect of human life. Mindfulness, from this point of view, is not a technique, but a view pervading all of life. An art or even science of living if you like so.

Contemporary mindfulness theory has simplified those aspects into three:

  1. bodily sensations (feeling of the body and perceptions through the 5 senses),
  2. thoughts,
  3. emotions.

Sensations in the body are of outmost importance because anything we encounter inside (in the mind) or outside (in the world) has an impact on the body as well – and vice versa. Research on mindfulness contributes a lot to the emerging science examining body–mind relations.

During the last few millenia many people benefitted from practicing mindfulness, but most of them were monks, nuns, yogis or yoginis who dedicated their life to reach the goal of Enlightenment. Modern vipassana and mindfulness movements have brought this view much closer to everyday people, resulting in millions of people practicing mindfulness meditation worldwide.

Secularizing mindfulness has brought new problems, however, and secular mindfulness receive critics from some Buddhist teachers for lacking moral values. Embarrassing phenomena like using mindfulness in military or to gain more profit in stock market exist, indeed. Another controversy is when mindfulness is suggested as a fast, general solution to fix problems – a promise that could not be farther from reality. All these and similar things are now commonly called as McMindfulness (after the fast-food chain), a phrase reflecting the status of mindfulness today.

Despite unpleasant sides, mindfulness remains and will remain a gentle approach to open up to real opportunities of life, find inner balance and accept continuous change, the only permanence in this life. The media buzz, controversial uses, other McMindfulness phenomena will certainly fade away together with the fashion changes – it is just a matter of time…

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