During the first session of my mindfulness certification program at UCLA this year, one participant asked, “Where did Mindfulness come from?”

The instructor joked that many believe Mindfulness to have been invented by Jon Kabat-Zinn some thirty years ago, which is not altogether untrue.

My first response was to immediately say, “Well, it comes from Martin Luther.”

This was met with a degree of puzzlement, and I confess I was intentionally being somewhat inscrutable, but I went on to explain that we cannot understand the secular mindfulness movement without understanding secularism and its history.  And modern secular society is in many ways, though not exclusively, a product of the historical, cultural, and intellectual changes that occurred in Europe beginning with the protestant reformation, and which continued through the scientific revolution, the European Enlightenment, the rise of capitalism, and all of the interconnected ways that medieval period differentiated into “modernity.”

These various changes have come to form the outline of not only what is acceptable to the tastes of the majority of people practicing and propagating mindfulness, but actually define the limits of the reality within which the mindfulness movement functions (or fails to).

I went on to write the following for a class reflection paper, which is in part an enthusiastic book report on David McMahan’s excellent work:

Modernity and Mindfulness

In the last fifty years, the central discourses of modernity have undergone significant shifts that have opened up doorways to the study and practice of mind.  Although there are alternative presentations of what constitutes the modern, for the study of mindfulness in contemporary culture, the aspects of scientific rationalism, the responses of romanticism and its offshoots, the protestant reformation, and the rise of capitalism (and military industrialism) are all essential aspects in understanding how mindfulness has entered our culture, how it has shaped it, and how mindfulness is being shaped by it.  And further, the recent self-reflexive turns of postmodern criticisms of modernity have opened up unprecedented opportunities for fields such as mindfulness to be validated and valued.

David McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism (2008) presents an extremely thorough archeology of how Buddhism and its more secular manifestation in the mindfulness movement has both adopted these discourses of modernity and responded to them.  When we look into why mindfulness is emerging at this time in our culture and the ways that it is emerging, it is apparent how the secularized, de-mythologized, personally validated, pragmatic, and self-reflective body of techniques that mindfulness has to offer are both the product of our modern presuppositions as well as a promised response to its discontents.  This requires a much more extensive treatment, but to generalize:

–Mindfulness allows itself to be transparent to science and rationality, thereby earning a cultural cache that separates it from “religious” claims that are a non-starter for many if not most of those who drive the zeitgeist of our culture.

–Mindfulness presents itself as actually being able to seamlessly complement and improve upon those areas of our culture that are taken as self-evidently valuable such as health, power, productivity, efficiency, creativity, intelligence, and self-knowledge.

–At the same time it offers a “spiritual” path that restores the experience of the sacred in everyday life for those disaffected by both organized religion and the excesses and disappointments of the nihilism of scientific materialism as well as the alienation and ennui inherent in consumerist culture.

–It affirms and promises to deepen the individualistic, psychological, democratic and liberal personal values of modern individuals, while at the same time maintaining a link to traditional norms and practices.

–It affirms an interconnected and ecologically conscious view while not being limited by overly materialistic or magical ways of thinking and behaving.

In sum, mindfulness navigates between the various dimensions of modernity in a way that escapes being identified with any one aspect and yet has the potential to create connection between them in a way that is felt by many to be deeply needed.

This is becoming possible for the first time because of the shift that has occurred within modernity itself that has emphasized a reflective turn.  Not only are we scientists, business people, doctors, and artists, but also we are embodied minds.  Mind as a discourse is emerging in an unprecedented way in every discipline, and as an integrating function between disciplines.  The divide between science and religion, rationalism and romanticism, sense and soul that has been otherwise irresolvable seems to find a new language and common ground in the discourse of “mind.”  Mindfulness, as the prime technique of developing this understanding in a subjective way that is also objectively accountable, has come to occupy a central role, and will continue to do so as the study of mind unfolds.

All of this is not without distortions, risks, and exaggerated promises.  In order to navigate these various and sometimes contradictory aspects of modern culture, the mindfulness movement will somehow need to maintain its ability to avoid being reduced to the claims of instrumental rationality and scientific naturalism.  It will have to continue to distinguish itself from naïve transcendental claims while at the same time keeping itself open to mystery and the inconceivable, while at the same time remaining critical of the caprices of individualistic spirituality.  It will have to maintain an ethical core, especially in the fields of business, medicine, and the armed forces, while at the same time not resorting to transcendental moral authority.  It will have to continue to cater to the concerns of the independent, free, and self-determined individual while redressing the alienation and lack of emotional and relational intelligence that modern individuals suffer.

In short, mindfulness will need to do everything and the impossible.  But as the essence of mind is inconceivable and its aspects are therefore inexhaustible, I remain optimistic.

Traditional Origins of Mindfulness

In considering the “Origins of Mindfulness,” understanding these polyvalent aspects of secular modernity is indispensable.  But what of the traditions themselves?  Where did Kabat-Zinn get his training, and who were their teachers?

It is fairly well known that mindfulness finds its roots in Buddhist theory and practice.  Training in nonjudgmental, purposeful attention to the present moment cannot be said to be the exclusive province of any one person or particular tradition, and has resonance with practically all of the contemplative traditions within the major world religions, but it is without a doubt most developed and elaborated upon in the Buddhist tradition.

Within the Pali canon, the Satipatthana Sutta, or the “Discourse on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness,” and the Anapanasati Sutta, the “Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing” are the teachings attributed to Shakyamuni Buddha that come closest to being a textual origin of the teachings and practice of mindfulness.  The word “sati” in both titles is what is normally translated as “mindfulness,” which eventually led to its present interpretation as “purposeful, nonjudgmental attention to the present” in the secular West.

As is the case with any foundational text, it is the development of the interpretations of the text throughout history that communicate its truth.  Similarly, Buddhist textual history, and the history of Buddhadharma in general, is interesting not only for the wealth of the profound insights it communicates, but for the richness and diversity of its interpretations that reveal ever more facets of that profundity.  To understand what happens to the theory and practice of sati from this point onward is to understand the very changes that Buddhism experienced within the Indian context and then with each translation into new cultures and lands it encountered in its spread throughout the world.

To elaborate on these evolutions of Buddhism (and by extension the interpretations of mindfulness) is beyond the scope of this essay, but it does not seem unfounded to claim that beyond the mindfulness preserved and interpreted in the Pali canon, we can also look to all the various ways various Buddhist cultures interpreted and implemented those teachings.  Within India, we could look into the various Mahayana and Vajrayana versions of the four foundations of mindfulness.  And further afield we might then look into seeing mindfulness through Burmese, Thai, Tibetan, or Vietnamese lenses, and so forth.

This is important for two reasons.  First, the transmissions of mindfulness we have received in the contemporary West are coming with a particular spin.  Second, the mindfulness movement up to this point has been influenced by only a small portion of the many possible sources and interpretations of sati; we are now entering a novel period in history where many of the world’s Buddhisms are presenting themselves to the secular world through the lens of secular Mindfulness.

As for the first point, in a recent article in Tricycle, “Losing Our Religion,” Robert Sharf points out that if one is practicing Vipassana meditation in America (and therefore the strains of mindfulness that have been influenced by it, such as Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR):

chances are good that you are using techniques established by Mahasi Sayadaw or U Ba Khin, two twentieth-century Burmese meditation teachers. Yet these two teachers were controversial within the Theravada world precisely because of the emphasis they placed on the rapid attainment of experiential states, especially sotapatti, or “stream entry.”

In other words, these traditions have a particular context and goal, and this in turn affects the type of mindfulness that is practiced and how it is understood.  Controversy aside, it is important simply to be aware of the sources of a particular approach so as to make the practice more beneficial to people here and now.

Another example of the importance of understanding these origins and their implications can be seen in Eric Braun’s work.  Braun traces the development of insight meditation in Burma and shows how British colonialism influenced its development into a presentation that gave a novel primacy to meditation practice and meditative experience, a privileging of practice that when it was later brought back to the West, came to fit well with the secularized, de-mythologized, personally validated, pragmatic, and self-reflective modern sensibilities outlined above.

As Braun shows in the spring 2014 Tricycle article, “Meditation en Masse: How Colonialism Sparked the Global Vipassana Movement,” through the displacement of the Burmese monarchy by British forces, Burmese Buddhists lost their most important patron and source of support, and the British colonial expansion was equated with an attack on the Dharma itself.  This inspired a defensive upsurge of activity, both in the lay communities and among monastic leaders, massively increasing the degree to which laypersons had access to Buddhist teachings and the practice of meditation.  Through these and other factors, popularized meditation became a galvanizing force within the culture against the perceived colonial threat, even to the point of becoming patriotic.  The leaders of these movements, most notably Mahasi Sayadaw and U Ba Khin, went on to define the lineages of Vipassana practice that were later encountered by a number of the Westerners who were in turn the pioneering influences of the secular mindfulness movement.  As Braun writes, “Ironically, the ancient wisdom they had sought for the West—authentic meditation teachings and practices—had already been indelibly transformed by colonial influence only decades earlier.”

There is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy here, but my purpose is not to critique these presentations but rather point out that the field of mindfulness has been created through a very diverse confluence of contexts, and if we have the goal of developing the most appropriate and authentic presentation of this truly beneficial way of living and dying, we must appreciate the many origins of “mindfulness.”

Along those lines, the second point I mentioned above about newly emerging secular versions of the various Buddhist (and quite possibly non-Buddhist) lineages acknowledges and expresses the many-faceted nature of mindfulness.  When we allow there to be many origins of mindfulness, and when we appreciate and respect that they are coming from a variety of profound sources, the door is open for fresh and potentially revolutionary influences to enter into the mindfulness movement.  From my own side, it is inspiring to see how readily the somatic approaches of the Vajrayana and the awareness practices of the highest yogas of Mahamudra and Dzogchen in the Tibetan tradition can be translated into a secular context.  This of course opens up the whole dizzying question of authentic translation and transmission, but as I said above, I remain optimistic.

– LK