Friday, 9 January 2015

The origins of modern-day secular mindfulness

Origins of mindfulness


Mindfulness as a word first entered the English lexicon as "myndfulness" in 1530 (John Palsgrave translating the French pensée), as "mindfulnesse" in 1561, and finally as "mindfulness" in 1817. The first use of the word from a Buddhist perspective was in 1921 when Thomas Rhys Davids (then Prof of Comparative Religion at Manchester University) used the word to translate the ancient Indian-Pali word "sati". Before this "sati" was translated as meaning recollection, recall, or remembrance.

Sati is an essential element of Buddhism. It appears in the Buddha's noble eightfold path as the seventh element ("correct" or "right" mindfulness), and is part of the practices of ānāpānasati, satipaṭṭhāna and vipassana. Anāpānasati means mindfulness of breathing ("ānāpāna" is a Sanskrit word relating to inhalation and exhalation). (See here for a simple Zen mindfulness of breath meditation spoken in most of the world's main languages). Satipaṭṭhāna is the practice of applying mindfulness in everyday life, maintaining as much as possible a calm awareness of our body, feelings, mind state. This practice is emphasised in Buddhist practice in order to cultivate an understanding of the constantly changing nature of all things. The word vipassanā means insight into the true nature of reality, but Vipassana as a style of meditation (emphasising the practice of ānāpānasati) was popularised in the West in the 20th Century by Burmese meditation masters Mahasi Sayadaw and S. N. Goenka.

Zen Buddhism also began to find its way into the West in the 20th Century through the writings of D.T. Suzuki and his teacher Soyen Shaku (who spoke at the now infamous 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago). Zen practice contains a strong thread of mindfulness, famously emphasised by Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. Anāpānasati (or susokukan in Japanese) is also one of the first meditation practices you will be given when you start out in Zen.
"In mindfulness one is not only restful and happy, but alert and awake. Meditation is not evasion; it is a serene encounter with reality."
–  Thich Nhat Hanh in "The Miracle of Mindfulness"
Sitting by lake Walden
As a reaction to the "predominantly reductionist and materialistic" culture that began to dominate the West in the 19th Century, Henry Thoreau wrote his famous book Walden – a reflection on simple living in the natural surroundings of the American north-east near Boston. Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests that, in many ways, the ideas discussed by Thoreau could really be seen as a predecessor to the current interest in mindfulness.


Mindfulness moves into the clinical setting


In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme at the University of Massachusetts, heralding the first move of mindfulness into the clinical setting.

Jon Kabat-Zinn got his PhD in molecular biology in 1971 from MIT, and was first introduced to meditation by Zen teacher Philip Kapleau Roshi (author of the "Three Pillars of Zen"). He went on to study at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, founded in 1975 by Vipassana teachers Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield, and Joseph Goldstein.

His genius was to realise that the Buddhist practice of mindfulness could be adapted and applied in the secular world to help chronically ill patients cope with stress and pain. His initial programme sparked the now enormously successful application of mindfulness ideas and practices all across the clinical (and non-clinical) world for the treatment of a variety of conditions in both healthy and unhealthy people.

His MBSR programme was inspired mainly by teachings from Buddhism. Kabat-Zinn's body scan, for example, was derived from a meditation practice called "sweeping" taught by the Burmese master U Ba Khin and his student S. N. Goenka. Incidentally, the body scan practice can also be traced back into the Zen tradition (in turn probably influenced by Taoism), where it was taught by Zen master Hakuin in the 1700s as the soft-ointment meditation (Nanso No Ho in Japanese).

Kabat-Zinn's 8-week MBSR began to get increasing notice with the publication of his first book "Full Catastrophe Living" in 1991, and his second book "Wherever You Go, There You Are" in 1994. By 2000 many MBSR clinics had opened across the US, and interest started spreading abroad.

Mindfulness in the UK


Based on the pioneering work of Philip Barnard and John Teasdale at Oxford University in the early 1990s (who were rooted in the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) tradition), Zindel Segal (University of Toronto), Mark Williams (Oxford University) and John Teasdale created the mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) programme in 2002. Inspired by the structure and content of the MBSR course, the MBCT course is an 8-week therapeutic intervention designed specifically to prevent relapse in depression.

Barnard and Teasdale’s (1991) theory associates an individual’s vulnerability to depression with the degree to which he/she relies on only one of the modes of mind. According to the theory, the two main modes of mind are the “doing” mode and “being” mode, and a healthy mind is one that is able to move easily between the two as circumstances change. The being mode is not focused on achieving specific goals, but is more concerned with accepting and allowing what is happening in the moment without any feeling of wanting to change it. The idea is that by emphasising the "being mode" MBCT brings about lasting positive emotional change, and is therefore ideally suited for the treatment of depression.

The MBCT course has been highly successful and in 2004 it was recommended by the National Institute for Clinical and Health Excellence (NICE) as "an effective treatment for people who suffer from recurrent episodes of depression". As a result it is now available on the NHS. However, the uptake of MBCT in the UK health service has been quite variable.

Despite its original purpose, MBCT has now been scientifically proven to help people not only with depression, but also with a whole range of mental health problems such as anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, and insomnia.

And it has spurned a whole host of exciting related programmes – like the Mindfulness in Schools Project, which offers a 9-week course in mindfulness for secondary-school children.




I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

I'd love to hear from you

Leave a comment below, join the discussion.

Pass it on

Enjoyed this post? Then please tweet it, share it on Facebook or send it to friends via e-mail using the buttons below.

1 comment:

  1. Good sharing, to practice Vipassana meditation, you need to learn mindful every moment, even you are eat, talk, walk. I learn from a guru with 30 years experience. He is Ajahn Wimoak and you can get his MP3 teaching for free download at: http://www.kidbuxblog.com/ajahn-wimoak/
    Feel free invite Ajahn to your Vipassana meditation center.

    ReplyDelete