Mindfulness practices have become internationally popular in the past decade, but their roots reach 2,500 years into the past.
While these practices have assumed different forms over the millennia, their purpose has remained constant: to end suffering. The current wave of mindfulness therapies, mindfulness coaching, mindfulness exercises, etc., owe most (or perhaps everything) to a stress-reduction program developed in the late 1970s by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts.
The effectiveness of this eight-week program, aptly named Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), to lower stress and enhance wellbeing has been – and increasingly is – supported by thousands of scientific research studies (click here to download a review article from 2012).
The success of MBSR in healthcare settings sparked what is now called “The Mindfulness Movement," the widespread application of MBSR and other mindfulness practices into numerous areas of life, including primary schools, prisons, professional sports, finance, and even the British parliament, among many others. According to a recent article in Time magazine, The Mindful Revolution, there are now thousands of certified MBSR instructors in more than 30 countries.
Anyone with internet access can enter the terms “MBSR UK" into Google to access a wealth of information and beginning dates for local MBSR courses. Mindfulness practices are often taught secularly, but their roots reach back to the early teachings of the Buddha.
Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn revealed that his MBSR program is based on a type of Buddhist meditation called Vipassana (in fact, the idea to develop the program came to him while actually meditating). Digging deeper, the word Vipassana comes from the ancient Pali language of India, and is often translated to English as “clear awareness" or “insight".
The technique itself is based directly on the historical teachings of the Buddha who presumably used the technique to attain nirvana (i.e., a profound insight resulting in the end of suffering). And according to those teachings, mindfulness is one of two key qualities that are developed when doing vipassana meditation (with concentration being the other quality).
The connection between mindfulness and Buddhism is clearest, however, in the ancient text known as the Satipatthana Sutta; translated into English as The Discourse on the Establishing of Mindfulness (the word sati means mindfulness). Therein, the Buddha lays out the first-ever set of mindfulness instructions, guiding the practitioner to place careful attention on four different aspects – or foundations – of experience:
- The body (e.g., the breath)*
- Sensations or feelings
- The mind/consciousness
- Mental contents
*Note that the Buddha's first foundation of mindfulness is the body (which includes the breath), and it is no coincidence that many modern mindfulness practices begin by focusing on one or both of these aspects.
It is important to remember that modern mindfulness practices are often taught secularly – that is, with little or no mention of their Buddhist connections. Mindfulness practice is often described as a form of mental training as a result, and this can be a helpful and accurate way to understand it. But, there is a wealth of knowledge and insight concealed in its Buddhist roots and I would encourage mindfulness practitioners to explore them too.
The renowned social psychologist Jonathan Haidt put it well: "The Dhammapada [a collection of the Buddha's teachings] is one of the greatest psychological works ever written, and certainly one of the greatest before 1900. It is masterful in its understanding of the nature of consciousness, and in particular the way we are always striving and never satisfied. You can turn to it – and people have turned to it throughout the ages – at times of trouble, at times of disappointment, at times of loss, and it takes you out of yourself. It shows you that your problems, your feelings, are just timeless manifestations of the human condition. It also gives specific recommendations for how to deal with those problems, which is to let go, to accept, and to work on yourself. So I think this is a kind of tonic that we ambitious Westerners often need to hear".
In subsequent articles of this basics of mindfulness series, I will explore the effects of mindfulness practice on our minds and bodies, provide detailed mindfulness practice instructions that anyone can try, along with a list of helpful references to support your own mindfulness practice.