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History of Mindfulness

Hello! And welcome to the inaugural post in a series of writings around the topic of mindfulness! Today, I’d like to talk about the history of mindfulness, where it comes from, and how we’ve gotten to where we are today.

Luckily, mindfulness has become increasingly popular in the West, helping to bring more clarity, relief, awareness, and peace to millions of people. But it’s helpful to have an understanding of the history and lineage of this process, to better understand not just what mindfulness is, but how it helps.

What we consider mindfulness in the West comes primarily out of the Buddhist practice of meditation. Of course, meditative and contemplative practices can be found in every religion (Hinduism has dhyana practices and many others; Judaism has Kabbalah; Christianity has Christian Mysticism; Islam has Sufism, etc). For a variety of historical reasons, however, the strain of meditation that really took off in the West comes from the tradition of Buddhism. I’ll talk more in depth about the three main branches of Buddhism in another post, but for now, it’s enough to know Buddhism spread out of India (where the historical Buddha was born) and all throughout East, Southeast, and Southern Asia.

In the 50’s and 60’s, Buddhism started to spread to the US, gaining footholds in the Beat Movement in the 50’s, which heavily inspired the Hippies and the Counter-Culture of the 60’s and 70’s. It so happened that Zen Buddhism, the branch of Buddhism popular in Japan, was the first form of Buddhism to really take off among Americans. It’s important to note Buddhism has been in America for centuries, particularly among the Asian immigrants who came to the West to help build the railroads, but those early forays of Buddhism to this continent didn’t really take root with the dominant culture; it was seen as foreign, and potentially dangerous. Yet at the turn of the century, Japanese Zen monks were traveling to the West Coast to give lectures, and young Americans started to get interested in Buddhism and meditation.

The 70’s saw a surge in interest around Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism, with the popularity of the Dalai Lama and the invasion of Tibet, further increasing the presence of Buddhism in America. And, of course, there were various Theravadin centers (the third main form of Buddhism) being established in the US around this same time. It wasn’t until the late 90’s, however, when these streams of Buddhism were combined with Western Medicine and Psychology, which would be the origins of what has come to be known as Mindfulness.

Jon Kabat-Zinn was a medical doctor at the University of Massachusetts, Shrewsbury campus. He was trained in both Zen and Theravada meditation. He was named the head of the chronic pain clinic at UMass, and as there were no effective treatments for chronic pain at the time, he decided to apply Buddhist meditation techniques to help his patients cope with their pain. Astounded by the effectiveness of this approach, he decided to apply his scientific training and run randomized, controlled clinical trials testing the effectiveness of this meditation approach on chronic pain. Throughout the 80’s he published many academic journals showing the effectiveness of Buddhist meditation techniques on reducing chronic pain, improving life satisfaction, and increasing happiness among this chronic pain population. He also worked on taking the core meditative principles from these Buddhist practices, divorcing them from their cultural and religious contexts (specifically, Japanese Zen Buddhism), and applying best practices from the scientific literature and his own experiments. This combination came to be called Mindfulness, as distinct from Meditation; while the terms are sometimes used synonymously, mindfulness has come to designate those meditative practices which have been removed from the Buddhist context and have been subject to scientific study, whereas meditation tends to refer to those practices that take place within a Buddhist (or other religious) context. It’s important to note that the practices might be the exact same (i.e. coming back to the breath, or practicing mindful walking), yet the distinction between these terms refers to the larger cultural context they hail from.

In the 90’s, and especially increasingly in the past decade, mindfulness has exploded onto the Western cultural consciousness. Kabat-Zinn started publishing books in the 90’s (Full Catastrophe Living and Wherever You Go, There You Are among others), and the fact that this mindful approach was amenable to scientific investigation meant that a large corpus of studies establishing the benefits of mindfulness for a host of situations and contexts started to emerge. After a decade or so of quiet publishing by many scientists, the stage was set for mindfulness to light up the general population. Mindfulness appears on TV shows, magazines, all across the internet, and is starting to help more and more people live happier, more loving, peaceful, and stress-free lives.

As we continue to explore the benefits of mindfulness together, here and elsewhere, I think it’s helpful to have a sense of what this term refers to, and where it came from. Future posts will expand upon some of the topics touched on today, and more importantly will provide specific recommendations and resources for learning about and applying mindfulness in your daily life! Because while it’s important to intellectually understand mindfulness, the practice doesn’t start paying dividends until you start applying it in your own life. So, here’s to continuing this mindful journey together!

Justin LaPlante is a visiting faculty member in Clark’s Psychology Department.