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Root to Rise: Following the History of Mindfulness Back to its Source

The history of mindfulness practice is long and layered, but what can its past teach us about how to live in the present?
by Amy Leonard | Jul 31 2020

A quick look at Google Trends shows that searches for ‘mindfulness’ have been steadily increasing since the early aughts, but the practice itself is far from a modern invention. Mindfulness goes back BCE — not just BG (Before Google) — but there’s no denying that the internet has helped what was once considered an alternative practice enter the mainstream consciousness.

history of mindfulness

Its recent rise to popularity has been so successful that it’s now a pretty bankable term to attach to any product for which you’re seeing ads on Instagram. However, the root of the practice is far more about acceptance than accumulation.

To understand where mindfulness has come from, let’s trace back along its path to explore the history of mindfulness and how it has changed and evolved since it first began to be practiced at least 2,500 years ago.

Mindfulness in Hinduism

Though it’s commonly thought that the origins of mindfulness practice lies in Buddhism, the history of mindfulness actually goes much further back than that and can be linked to the yogic practices of the Hindu people. According to most scholars, the Hindu religion is believed to have begun somewhere between 2300BC and 1500BC in the Indus Valley, near modern-day Pakistan, therefore preceding Buddhism — and therefore, Buddha himself — by a long shot.

Dhyāna in Hinduism is commonly translated as meditation, and means the contemplation practiced during yoga exercises. It is the method by which one attains samadhi, which is a state of meditative consciousness where the mind becomes very still and merges with the object of attention. This feeling of oneness is sometimes reported by modern mindfulness practitioners and those who use psychedelics to attain higher levels of consciousness. In short, dhyāna is the practice of stilling the mind in order to be able to watch your internal comings and goings without getting wrapped up in them. Sound familiar?

Hindu scripture is filled with references to meditation, silence and acceptance, and a wealth of other beliefs and ideas that are shared by Buddhists. The reason for the high levels of overlap are fairly simple. Buddhism was founded sometime around 400-500BC by Siddhārtha Gautama, the man who was to later become known as Buddha. Gautama is believed to have been born in modern-day Nepal and raised between there and modern-day India, which would have meant that he was more than likely brought up either practicing or surrounded by Hinduism. Hey, we all draw inspiration from somewhere, right?

Mindfulness in Buddhism

Though there are many similarities between the two belief systems, the mindfulness that we commonly know and practice today is taken largely from Buddhism and is founded more on Zen principles and the training of sati.

Sati is a Pali word that means the “moment to moment awareness of present events” but also “remembering to be aware of something” which comes directly from Buddhist theory. The closest equivalent we have in English is mindfulness.

Sati is not just an aspect of Buddhism but a core faculty that forms an essential part of the entire religion; it is the first of seven steps towards enlightenment.

In his book, The Way of Zen, Alan W. Watts charts the evolution of Buddhism and the development of Zen specifically. Beginning with the foundations of the philosophies of Taoism and Mahayana Buddhism, Watts deep-dives into all things Zen, exploring how it became a way of life in its own right.

He explains how Zen’s primary focus is to be natural, not striving to be anything in particular, and allowing yourself to be aimless. Essentially, to do nothing. To a Westerner, that may sound like a waste of time, but it’s really about eliminating mental blocks, allowing your mind to operate in its freest, most natural state. Free from all the other noise, you will be able to experience true reality, the present moment, which is the core idea of practicing mindfulness.

The Miracle of Mindfulness is another great resource for relating mindfulness to its Buddhist origins. Written by Vietnamese Zen master, Thích Nhất Hạnh, the book explains exactly how to practice mindfulness, from washing dishes to breathing, and the Buddhist teachings that help shape the practice. From his modest beginnings as a novice monk in the 1940s, Thích Nhất Hạnh has become one of the biggest names in the mindfulness game, a global spiritual leader and peace activist, and his book is a go-to for all things mindfulness.

Mindfulness from East to West

The migration of mindfulness from eastern religions to modern western society can largely be attributed to Jon Kabat-Zinn. Born in New York, Kabat-Zinn was first introduced to meditation by a Zen missionary when he was studying for his PhD in molecular biology at MIT. He went on to study meditation, eventually becoming a student of — you guessed it! — Thích Nhất Hạnh.

In 1979, Kabat-Zinn founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. The foundation for his MBSR program was, in fact, the Buddhist teachings he had learned; he simply removed any mention of or reference to Buddhism, framing the teachings scientifically instead.

Using a combination of meditation, mindfulness, yoga, body awareness and an exploration of the patterns of behavior, feeling, thinking and action, the eight-week MBSR program he created teaches participants how to gain awareness of themselves, their thoughts and feelings, and how to be present in the moment. Not only that, but they learn how to prioritize fulfilling, positive activities and rid themselves of those that are damaging, enabling them to break old negative cycles and find clarity.

It was with the publication of his first book, Full Catastrophe Living in 1990, which detailed his work on the MBSR program and the scientific research showing the medical benefits of mindfulness, that brought more global attention to his work.

His second book, Wherever You Go, There You Are, was published in 1994 and explores the core value of concentration in mindfulness. With step-by-step guides to mindful meditation techniques and exercises, it is a beginner’s bible of practicing mindfulness.

Now a world-renowned and highly-respected professor, Kabat-Zinn is considered a mindfulness guru and the founder of the modern-day secular form of mindfulness familiar to us.

Rather than a trend or pop culture moment, mindfulness as we know and practice it today is the culmination of thousands of years of study — religious, philosophical and scientific.

Learning more about the history of mindfulness and meditation can only strengthen your practice and, in turn, your mind, so explore our catalogue of resources, both here in the magazine and in the Blinkist library. A little learning can go a long way to finding peace of mind.

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