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History of Mindfulness in a nutshell

The word Mindfulness has become increasingly popular in the last decades.

If you do a quick research on Google you’ll find 200,000,000 results (more or less) of guided meditations, trainings, articles, quotes and memes.

But where does Mindfulness comes from? Why so many people in the Western Hemisphere are suddenly so interested?

The best way to answer this complex question is to trace a timeline from early eastern religions to its modern secular presence in Western science.

Mindfulness is involved in various religions and traditions, from Hinduism to Buddhism to Yoga and non-religious meditations, and people have practiced it for thousands of years.

While roots can be found in Judaism, Christianity and Islam as well, the majority of Western practitioners and teachers learned about Mindfulness from Eastern traditions, so this article will focus on Buddhist and Hinduism perspective.

Hinduism and Mindfulness

Hinduism is one of the most ancient religion in the world.

It doesn’t have a definite ‘starting point’ as it arose as synthesis of many local traditions.

In fact it wasn’t even be called Hinduism until the early 1800, when British writers started using this word to refer to the Vedic traditions.

The earliest of those traditions can be traced to the Indus Valley (now Pakistan) more than 4000 years ago.

Additional text were developed 3500-2500 years ago including rituals and the worship of the Gods and up to 1500-1200 years ago when it was incorporated the concept of Dharma and temple worship.

From the Bhagavad Gita’s discussions of Yoga to the Vedic Meditation, Mindfulness is a heavy part of Hinduism.

We can even say that the history of Hinduism reads, in part, as the history of Mindfulness.

In part, because the other crucial player in the history of Mindfulness is Buddhism.

Buddhism and Mindfulness

Buddhism has a more defined history than Hinduism.

It was founded around 450 bC by Siddhartha Gautama, who became referred as the Buddha.

Gautama is thought have been raised following Hinduism precepts in Nepal and India, therefore Buddhism shares many aspects with Hinduism, such as the concept of Dharma, but it’s not considered a branch of Hinduism because it doesn’t refers to the Sacred Writings of the Veda.

Since the Buddha’s lifetime, it has split into several different traditions such as Theravada Buddhism, Zen Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism.

The latter is most often thought of by non-practitioners (with the Dalai Lama, thought to be and enlightened teacher of Tibetan Buddhism)

Buddhism is a religion that aims to show its follower the path of enlightenment, achieved by taking several steps, the first being Mindfulness (translation of the Sanskrit word Sati).

This makes Mindfulness a crucial aspect of Buddhism, and the fact that many western influences in Mindfulness studies were under Buddhist teachers, shows that western Mindfulness is mainly indebted to Buddhism.

Mindfulness goes west

Jon Kabat-Zinn is considered by many, the father of western Mindfulness.

He learned about and studied Mindfulness under several Buddhist teachers, including Thich Nhat Hahn. This gave him a knowledge qnd understanding of this discipline that would make him understand the potential and value that could have brought to the western medicine.

Kabat-Zinn (PhD) founded in the ’80 the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the Oasis Institute for Mindfulness-based professional education and training, where he developed his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program (MBSR), aimed to reduce stress in 8 weeks. MBSR inspired the creation of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) aimed to treat Major Depressive Disorder.

The integration of western science has been a crucial aspect that helped Mindfulness gaining popularity in the West, mainly because the different worldview in each hemisphere would have required an ‘adaptation’ and a separation of the religious element for an audience used to western medicine, but unfamiliar with eastern practices,

Aside Clinical practice, it’s important to mention the role of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), founded in 1975 by Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein.

IMS introduced the Mindfulness Meditation that helped popularise the practice amongst non-clinical population.

Mindfulness today

During the past 10 years, Mindfulness has been integrated in many fields, with the purpose of developing efficient way to manage stress and improve general well being.

Educational institutions including Elementary and Secondary schools, started developing Mindfulness program to help students to manage emotions, but also to help teachers to build compassion and empathy.

In the business world, Mindfulness is getting increasingly popular to the point many Companies (such as Procter & Gamble, Google, Apple…) incorporate the practice in the Company’s culture.

While the introduction of mindfulness in the work environment is still at its early stage, it has been proven beneficial to lower levels of frustrations, lower absenteeism and in general increasing employee’s wellbeing, however its worth to mention that the long term potential effect requires further assessments.

As many of the disciplines who have achieved a ‘mainstream’ status, it’s fair to mention that there has been some criticism toward what is called ‘McMindfulness’, which is the marketing of a constructed dream as it was an identity makeover. Creating a de-naturalization of the discipline in favour of a $4Bn industry that offer a set of easy solutions neglecting the root causes of social discomfort and a reinforcement of consumer capitalism.

Knowing the history of Mindfulness is not necessary to start practice, however it’s important to know its roots in order to be the owner of your path and to make the correct steps toward a long lasting mindful way living.

I hope this brief, and by not any means exhaustive, history of Mindfulness will give you a starting point to learn more about this practice and the many ways it will help improve your life.