What exactly is mindfulness, and where does it come from?

Quote from "Mindfulness‐Based Interventions in Context: Past, Present, and Future"

by Jon Kabat-Zinn, University of Massachusetts


As pointed out by Baer, mindfulness has to do with particular qualities of attention and awareness that can be cultivated and developed through meditation. An operational working definition of mindfulness is: the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment. Historically, mindfulness has been called “the heart” of Buddhist meditation (Thera, 1962). It resides at the core of the teachings of the Buddha (Gunaratana, 1992;Hanh, 1999;Nanamoli & Bodhi, 1995), traditionally described by the Sanskrit word dharma, which carries the meaning of lawfulness as in “the laws of physics” or simply “the way things are,” as in the Chinese notion of Tao. One might think of the historical Buddha as, among other things, a born scientist and physician who had nothing in the way of instrumentation other than his own mind and body and experience, yet managed to use these native resources to great effect to delve into the nature of suffering and the human condition. What emerged from this arduous and single-minded contemplative investigation was a series of profound insights, a comprehensive view of human nature, and a formal “medicine” for treating its fundamental “disease,” typically characterized as the three “poisons”: greed, hatred (aversion), and ignorance/ delusion (unawareness). 

Of course, the Buddha himself was not a Buddhist. One might think of dharma as a sort of universal generative grammar (Chomsky, 1965), an innate set of empirically testable rules that govern and describe the generation of the inward, first-person experiences of suffering and happiness in human beings. In that sense, dharma is at its core truly universal, not exclusively Buddhist. It is neither a belief, an ideology, nor a philosophy. Rather, it is a coherent phenomenological description of the nature of mind, emotion, and suffering and its potential release, based on highly refined practices aimed at systematically training and cultivating various aspects of mind and heart via the faculty of mindful attention (the words for mind and heart are the same in Asian languages; thus “mindfulness” includes an affectionate, compassionate quality within the attending, a sense of openhearted, friendly presence and interest). And mindfulness, it should also be noted, being about attention, is also of necessity universal. There is nothing particularly Buddhist about it. We are all mindful to one degree or another, moment by moment. It is an in-herent human capacity. The contribution of the Buddhist traditions has been in part to emphasize simple and effective ways to cultivate and refine this capacity and bring it to all aspects of life. In this regard, mindfulness certainly received its most explicit and systematic articulation and development within the Buddhist tradition over the past 2,500 years, although its essence lies at the heart of other ancient and contemporary traditions and teachings as well, approaches that can be of great value in refining one’s own practice, insight, and teaching (see, for example, Chuang Tsu, 1964; Krishnamurti, 1999; Lao-tsu, 1988; Maharaj, 1973; Maharshi, 1959; Thakar, 1972; Tolle, 1999). 

Mindfulness is the fundamental attentional stance underlying all streams of Buddhist meditative practice: the Theravada tradition of the countries of Southeast Asia (Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, and Vietnam); the Maha-yana (Zen) schools of Vietnam, China, Japan, and Korea; and the Vajrayana tradition of Tibetan Buddhism found in Tibet itself, Mongolia, Nepal, Bhutan, Ladakh, and now large parts of India in the Tibetan community in exile. It should be noted that these traditions all have various schools, subtraditions, and particular texts that they revere more than others, so the actual practices and emphases regarding mindfulness can vary considerably, even within one tradition, such as Theravada or Zen (Goldstein, 2002). Nevertheless, mindfulness, as elucidated by the Buddha in two discourses, the Anapanasati Sutra (Rosenberg, 1999) and the Satipathana Sutra (Thera, 1962), is the core teaching and constitutes the foundation upon which all of these various forms and traditions rest. In these traditions the actual practice of mindfulness is, however, always nested within a larger conceptual and practice-based ethical framework oriented towards nonharming (an orientation it shares with the Hippocratic tradition of Western medi-cine). This “view” includes a skillful understanding of how unexamined behaviors and what Buddhists would call an untrained mind can significantly contribute directly to human suffering, one’s own and that of others. It also includes the potential transmutation of that suffering through meditative practices that calm and clarify the mind, open the heart, and refine attention and action. 

Over the past 40 years or so all of these Buddhist traditions have taken root in the West to one degree or another (Bachelor, 1994; Fields, 1992), and have by this time been taken up by several generations of Westerners, who practice these methods in their own lives on a daily basis as well as through participation in periodic teacher-led, intensive meditation retreats, which can last from a weekend to 3 months or more (see, for example, Goldstein, 1987;Gold-stein, 2002; Goldstein & Kornfield, 1987; Walsh, 1977, 1978). This phenomenon represents a cultural shift that may be only in its infancy. Nevertheless, it provides a range of rich resources for personal practice and dialogue that can contribute toward the training and development of a cohort of highly competent teachers, from a wide variety of professional backgrounds, committed to the effective delivery of authentic mindfulness-based interventions in various settings. 

Mindfulness is often spoken of synonymously as “in-sight” meditation, which means a deep, penetrative non-conceptual seeing into the nature of mind and world. This seeing requires a spirit of perpetual and persistent inquiry—as in, “What is this?”—toward whatever arises in awareness, and toward “who is attending,” “who is seeing,” “who is meditating.” Its role in deep inquiry and the cultivation of insight have led some to argue that that mindfulness provides a unique perspective that can inform critical issues in cognitive science, neurophenomenology, and attempts to understand the cognitive underpinnings of the nature of human experience itself (Varela, Thomp-son, & Roach, 1991).