Mindfulness, from East to West

About mindfulness: what it is, where it comes from and why it's everywhere now

14 June 2019 - 7 min read

By Erika Hoopes

Ever wonder why mindfulness is everywhere now? It has certainly become a buzzword in modern culture. We see it popping up all over in bookstores, yoga studios, corporate wellness, and Instagram ads. There are over 1,000 apps dedicated to mindfulness and millions of people using them. Education and healthcare programs around the globe have even started integrating mindfulness into their curriculum and services. But what exactly is it, and where does it come from?

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness means “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” At least this is how Jon Kabat-Zinn, the man largely responsible for bringing mindfulness to western medicine, defines it.

Perhaps a more traditional definition would be from Zen Master Dogen, who describes mindfulness as “an intimacy with experience, with all things.”

For our understanding, we might also think of mindfulness as the opposite of being in “autopilot” mode.  In autopilot mode we think, speak, and act without awareness, usually because our minds and attention are somewhere else. In a state of mindfulness, we are fully attentive to and aware of the present moment.

Although mindfulness is simple, it is not how we tend to live. Sometimes we’re too caught up with whatever happened or might happen to actually experience whatever is happening now.

Where does mindfulness come from?

People started practicing what we call “mindfulness” over 2,500 years ago in Northern India. It began in the communities surrounding the river Ganga, when social and economic changes started redefining what it meant to be “successful." Climbing the social ladder in terms of status, wealth, and power became more and more relevant and desired. Relatable today?

Perhaps surprisingly, some of the wealthiest and most highly respected individuals in these societies discovered that despite their worldly accomplishments, they were not happy. Also relatable?

In search for happiness, these individuals renounced their wealth and possessions and went into the wilderness to “turn inward.” They concluded that the key to happiness is not found through worldly success; rather, everything you need to be happy is already inside of you. So they explored this idea in solitude, in nature, through meditation.

These individuals, known as “seekers,” would pave the way for practices like yoga and meditation. Some of these seekers, like the Buddha, would go on to share their experiences and spread the idea that happiness can be found within.

For many generations, the teachings were passed down through spoken word. The earliest text we can study about mindfulness is the Satipatthana Sutta, which comes from the Theravada Buddhist tradition and is roughly translated to “The Discourse of Establishing Mindfulness.” This text introduces the very teachings of mindfulness that we now see today popping up in the West through apps, ads, and self-development books. But how did these ancient teachings from the East become a craze in modern western society?

Why is mindfulness everywhere now?

Modern western culture has a tendency to value science and trust in whatever can be proven. Although we’ve known about meditation for a long time, it wasn’t until science could confirm its effects that a major interest developed in the West. After all, if we’re going to sit in meditation for any amount of time, many of us want to know that it works, and we’d like to know why.

Meditation has been around in the West in Buddhist temples as early as the first major wave of Asian immigration to the US in the 1850s. About a hundred years later, as the hippie movement started growing, many westerners were inspired by eastern religion and spirituality and started to explore meditation for themselves. Because it was associated with religion and spirituality, however, it still wouldn’t become mainstream. Not until it could be considered a secular practice based in science.

Largely thanks to Jon Kabat-Zinn, now it is. After studying meditation under Buddhist teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh, Kabat-Zinn removed the Buddhist framework from the teachings and developed a secular technique which he called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Now in a scientific context, mindfulness meditation and its benefits could be proven through data and research.

Ever since, the practice has rapidly spread throughout the West. More and more research has been done to study the impact of mindfulness, and scientists are recognizing mindfulness as an important part of mental and even physical health. With our fast-paced modern society suffering from burnout, stress, and all kinds of other issues, meditation has become a game changer. And because it has concrete benefits and involves no necessary religious affiliation, many different kinds of people have started meditating, from medical patients, to corporate employees, to children in the classroom.

So now we know what mindfulness is and where it comes from. With millions of people discovering how it can change their lives, we are lucky that these practices are now even more accessible for people of all backgrounds, beliefs, and religions. As for any major trend, however, there is some concern that the term “mindfulness” could become diluted or commercialized and lose its true meaning. So as we continue to share the power of this practice with our communities, let’s honor its roots with respect and gratitude for all the good that ancient wisdom can bring into our world.

 Want to practice mindfulness? Book a class, be welcome