How mindfulness was reinvented by removing its Buddhist roots

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How mindfulness was reinvented by removing its Buddhist roots

Mindfulness as we know it today was invented in the 19th and 20th centuries, when Buddhism clashed with modernity. In the process, its Buddhist roots were gradually removed.

Classical Buddhist mindfulness
For most modern people, ‘mindfulness’ means concentrating on the present moment, with a quiet mind, and without judgement. What few realise however, is that mindfulness has a very different meaning in the Buddhist traditions from which it emerged. The early Buddhist definition of mindfulness (Pali: sati) was actually ‘to bear in mind’ or ‘to remember’.[1]

Here, mindfulness is simply the capacity to retain an object in consciousness, without forgetting it, regardless of whether this object is in the past, present, or future. Mindfulness can therefore involve memory, imagination, and even ethical judgement.[2] Many classical texts compare mindfulness to a guard or sentinel who protects the mind from unwholesome thoughts and impulses, which means that it ‘bears in mind’ a certain ethical framework.[3]

The goal of classical mindfulness
Mindfulness was traditionally never seen as a goal in itself, but only as a tool in the larger ethical project of eliminating one’s ‘mental afflictions’, which (allegedly) cause all psychological suffering.[4] [5] The most fundamental of these, which is ‘delusion’, could not be eliminated by simply paying attention to the present moment, but only by deeply investigating the nature of phenomena.[6] This investigative process is called ‘insight’ (vipassana) meditation, which is often (wrongly) equated with modern mindfulness.

The traditional claim is that vipassana meditation will only be fully effective if one first develops exceptional concentration, which requires months of sustained retreat practice.[7] A good analogy for this is that you can only do proper astronomy research if you have a very stable and clear telescope. Likewise, you can only sustain your meditative investigations if your attention has attained a certain level of stability and vividness, which requires training. A common benchmark for this is the ability to sustain unwavering concentration on a single object for four hours straight.[8] This is partly why vipassana practice was out of reach for laypeople, and even for most monks.

The reinvention of mindfulness during the vipassana revival
Prior to the 19th century, most Buddhists never meditated at all. They thought they were living in a ‘degenerate age’ where attaining liberation (nirvana) was virtually impossible. All one could hope for was to improve one’s future lives by avoiding harm and doing good deeds.[9] This was true for most monks as well.[10] It was only during the 19th and 20th centuries that certain Asian modernisers started promoting Buddhist meditation for laypeople. This movement, known as the ‘vipassana revival’, was partly a reaction to European colonialism, which presented Western science and Christianity as superior to the local traditions they encountered. The Buddhist modernisers therefore decided to use their strategy against them, and started presenting Buddhism (and meditation) as if it was more rational and scientific than the Western traditions of the colonisers.[11]

The Burmese revival: Ledi and Mahasi Sayadaw
The Burmese monk Ledi Sayadaw (1846-1923) spearheaded this movement in 1904. His approach was still quite traditional, because he insisted that philosophical study was necessary for effective vipassana practice, but he also departed from tradition by dismissing the importance of first training one’s attention skills. This was partly in order to make vipassana accessible to laypeople who were not professional meditators.[12]

He was then followed by Mahasi Sayadaw (1904-1982), who set the standard for how mindfulness would be practised in the West.[13] He departed from tradition even further than Ledi, by saying that there was no need for philosophical study or deep concentration, and that genuine insight could be attained in a short 10-day retreat.[14] This made it extremely easy to export around the world. He also made two major changes to mindfulness itself. Firstly, he started defining it as non-reactive and non-judgemental awareness, and secondly, he introduced the popular technique of ‘noting’, where one mentally labels each thing that appears in consciousness.[15]

Postmodern, Western mindfulness
It was Mahasi’s notion of non-judgemental and thought-free awareness that was eventually transported to the West by one of his students, called Nyanaponika Thera, who started calling it ‘bare attention’. It was then incorporated into modern psychology, where it was defined as ‘non-elaborative, present-centered, non-judgmental awareness’.[16] The idea that mindfulness is ‘all-accepting’ was particularly emphasised, because it seemed to have a therapeutic effect on stress and chronic pain. However, this also divorced it completely from ethical judgement.[17]

Non-dualistic mindfulness
This modern definition of mindfulness is actually much closer to non-dualistic forms of mindfulness that one finds in Zen and Tibetan Buddhism.[18] In non-dual mindfulness, consciousness becomes aware of its own nature, rather than merely focusing on sensory or mental objects. When these innovations started emerging around the 7th century, they were seen as very unorthodox by the Buddhist mainstream, because their classical sources told them that consciousness without a corresponding object was impossible.[19] The 8th-century master Kamalashila even said that meditators who aim to stop thinking would be reborn in a special hell realm as mindless zombies for 500 aeons (millions of years).[20]

Multiple mindfulnesses?
We can therefore see that there are multiple styles of mindfulness in different traditions. While some authors tend to portray certain styles of mindfulness as more authentic or authoritative than others, there is no need for this. Different styles exist alongside each other, because Buddhism has never had a pope-like authority who decides what is orthodox or heretical. In fact, many Buddhist traditions profoundly disagree with one other.[21] The main thing to avoid is confusing one style for another when we talk about ‘mindfulness’.

Common ground
What all forms of mindfulness do seem to have in common is their interruption of our habitual identification (i.e. ‘cognitive fusion’) with the contents of our mind. This allows us to see thoughts as thoughts, rather than immediately believing their content.[22] This is probably the main mechanism behind the stress reduction people experience from mindfulness, because it breaks the spell of our daydreams about past dramas and future catastrophes.[23] As it turns out, being stressed is quite difficult if you pay attention.

Timo Pieters

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[1] Robert H. Sharf – Mindfulness or Mindlessness (ASI 2013): minute 7:46-8:53.

[2] George Dreyfus, ‘Is mindfulness present-centered and non-judgmental? A discussion of the cognitive dimensions of mindfulness’, in: Contemporary Buddhism 12:01 (2011), 41-54. p. 45.

[3] Analayo Bhikkhu, Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization (Birmingham: Windhorse Publications, 2003), p. 50.

[4] Analayo, Satipatthana, p. 65.

[5] Dreyfus, ‘Is mindfulness present-centered…’, p. 51.

[6] Alan Wallace, Minding Closely: The Four Applications of Mindfulness (Snow Lion, 2011), p. 69.

[7] Wallace, Minding Closely, p. 89, 231. Ledi Sayadaw’s Insight Revolution.

[8] Wallace, Minding Closely, p. 108. This benchmark is called ‘access to the first dhyana (meditative stabilisation)’.

[9] Erik Braun, The Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013), p. 137.

[10] Erik Braun, ‘Meditation en Masse’, in: Tricycle Magazine (Spring 2014), p. 1.

[11] David McMahan, The Making of Buddhist Modernism (Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 16, 35, 50

[12] Erik Braun, The Birth of Insight, p. 122, 127, 143.

[13] Ledi Sayadaw’s Insight Revolution.

[14] Robert H. Sharf – Mindfulness or Mindlessness (ASI 2013): minutes 6:37 – 7:38.

[15] Here, one labels a thought as a thought and a sound as a sound, and so forth. The Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw, The Progress of Insight. Kandy: The Buddhist Publication Society, 1994. p. 8.

[16] Dreyfus, ‘Is mindfulness present-centered and non-judgmental?’, p. 42.

[17] Scott R. Bishop, M. Lau, S. Shapiro, et. al., Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11:3, Fall 2004.

[18] Robert H. Sharf – Mindfulness or Mindlessness (ASI 2013): minute 15:39 – 17:54. In Indo-Tibetan Buddhism it was called ‘reflexive awareness’ (Tibetan: rangrig), because awareness becomes aware of itself.

[19] John D. Dunne, “Buddhist Styles of Mindfulness: A Heuristic Approach.” In Handbook

of Mindfulness and Self-Regulation, edited by Brian D. Ostafin, Michael D.

Robinson, and Brian P. Meier, 251–70. New York: Springer, 2015. p. 262-263.

[20] Robert H. Sharf – Mindfulness or Mindlessness (ASI 2013), minutes 23:55 – 24:29. Kalpa (aeon).

[21] For example, Tibetan (tantric) Buddhism teaches that sexual desire can be used as a resource on the path to enlightenment, while Theravada Buddhism claims that it is always an obstacle to spiritual progress. Nida Chenagtsang, Karmamudra: the Yoga of Bliss (Sky Press, 2018). Kama Sutta: Sensual Pleasure.

[22] Dr. John Dunne – Emory University – Dereification: The Main Mechanism of Mindfulness?, minutes 15:11-19:35.

[23] Ibid.