What is mindfulness and how did it become so popular in the US?
Mindfulness is an English translation of the Pali word sati (smrti in Sanskrit). This is not to be confused with outdated practice of Indian widows immolating themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre which is called sati in Sanskrit. The Pali word Sati is also translated as awareness, attention and presence of mind.
Since sati can mean the placing of attention, many different meditations would be considered mindful. There are a few different forms of mindfulness mentioned in the sutras. Some examples are anapanasati, satipatthana and vipassana.
.Jon Kabat Zinn popularized the term mindfulness in the US when he started the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program at University of Massachusetts Medical School. The mission of the program is to help patients to respond more effectively to stress, pain, and illness.
He had studied with both Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn. One of the techniques he teaches in the MBSR program is the body scan which he learned from S. N. Goenka.
The Current State of Mindfulness in the United States
Presently, the term mindfulness is overused and oversold. Granted cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been in great need of mindfulness meditation, because if you aren’t aware of most of your thoughts, how can you reframe them? Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) all have a mindfulness component.
Using mindfulness, a patient becomes much more aware of their thoughts and feelings. Over time as a gap forms between their thoughts, they begin to experience themselves as a “space” (shunyata) in which thought and feelings take place. There is peace in this spaciousness.
It is my impression that many therapists consider mindfulness as a panacea for anxiety and depression. As some one who has both anxiety and depression and as someone who has practiced mindfulness for years, I can say mindfulness does quiet my mind during anxiety and depression and it is more peaceful than the alternative. However, I become acutely aware of my anxiety or my depression. Perhaps as my mindfulness practice deepens, my relationship to these experiences may change…or not.
I fear that patients who are told mindfulness is the solution to what ails them will feel like failures if they don’t find relief in the practice. I has taken me close to 40 years to be as mindful as I am. What about the patient who has only practiced it for three months and has monkey mind every time she or he meditates?
On the other hand, people who are just now beginning to meditate have resources I didn’t have. There are many online meditation courses. Headspace is an example: https://www.headspace.com/ It’s not a substitute for a teacher, but it is much better than a book and you have access to a guided meditation on a daily basis.
The mindfulness craze has gone beyond therapy and stress-reduction. You can buy “Mindful Mints” which are supposed to reduces stress and there is a butcher called “Mindful Meats.”
To make mindfulness more accessible to the patient and to get the scientific community to take it more seriously, Jon Kabat Zinn stripped it of its Buddhist trappings. As a Buddhist, I am concerned about practitioners mastering mindfulness without training in ethics (sila) and in cultivating qualities like equanimity, compassion, loving-kindness or sympathetic joy (the Brahmaviharas) or generosity, honesty or patience (three of the paramitas).
From mindfulness you can achieve wisdom (prajna), which is insight into the three marks of existence (trilakṣaṇa) and emptiness (shunyata). However, what is the result of insight without compassion? Will we produce generations of highly-present rogues and hyper-aware stoics? After all, the Buddha said that both prajna and compassion (karuna) are required for enlightenment.
Suggested Reading: “Beyond McMindfulness”
©2016 Stephen L. Martin
Painting: Abstract Painting of Marcel Duchamp by Katherine Sophie Dreier