A Brief History of Mindfulness & Mindfulness Meditation

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Mindfulness is an idea and practice that has become increasingly popular throughout the world in recent years. However, mindfulness is not actually a new approach to wellness. People have been practicing mindfulness in various forms for thousands of years.

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The history of mindfulness is a somewhat complex topic. This guide is not comprehensive, because no brief guide could be. Still, it can help you better understand where mindfulness comes from, why it has endured so long, and why you may want to leverage it to enrich your own life.

What Is the Origin of Mindfulness?

The general consensus among experts is that Buddhist traditions gave life to mindfulness practices. Many also agree that Hinduism contributed to the rise of mindfulness.

Buddhism and Hinduism share many commonalities. One is an emphasis on living in a manner that is in harmony with the universe and nature. Mindfulness is essentially a path to achieving this goal. To be mindful is to be present in the current moment without judgment.

For example, perhaps you are anxious about your finances. Many people would experience these circumstances in a judgmental way, wishing they could escape the situation. Someone practicing mindfulness would ideally accept their circumstances without dwelling on the pain they may cause. To a truly mindful person, that pain is neither good nor bad. It is simply their current experience.

This example highlights one of the many benefits mindfulness can offer. Someone living in the moment with anxiety may be better equipped to cope with their fears when compared to someone who constantly strives to escape the moment.

Where Does Mindfulness Meditation Come From?

Mindfulness involves living in the moment with awareness and a lack of judgment. Mindfulness meditation, however, is not the only way to practice mindfulness. It is instead one particularly effective way to do so.

Mindfulness meditation is very similar to traditional Hindu yoga practices. Be aware, while yoga as we now practice it in the West derives to some degree from these practices, what we currently think of as yoga is not exactly the same as traditional Hindu yoga.

A primary goal of traditional Hindu yoga practices is to essentially unite the senses so that one can become more aware of their body and their current state. This is very similar to mindfulness meditation.

For example, some who practice mindfulness meditation use breathing exercises to ground themselves in the present moment. They may also practice body scan meditations. These help a person become more aware of their body and overall physical state by focusing on each part of the body in sequence. They may start by focusing on their head, then their neck and shoulders, etc.

Some experts in the history of mindfulness suggest that Buddhist ideas may have an even greater relationship with current mindfulness meditation practices. Buddhism encourages a person to follow a series of steps that will eventually lead them to enlightenment. The first step in this path is sati, which involves cultivating a conscious awareness of the moment and reality in general. Buddhists have used meditation as a way to develop this awareness.

An important point on mindfulness and religion

You may be one of many people who have an interest in taking advantage of mindfulness practices but are reluctant to do so because you follow a religion different from Hinduism or Buddhism. You don’t want to engage in any practice that may conflict with your own religious beliefs.

This is understandable. That said, it is worth noting that many scholars don’t consider Buddhism and Hinduism to strictly be religions. To some extent, they can often be secular philosophies. 

You don’t have to be a Buddhist or Hindu to practice mindfulness. In fact, there are plenty of people who practice mindfulness without being religious at all. Mindfulness is not a strictly spiritual or religious practice. It can simply be a tool to help you live a happier life.

History of Mindfulness in the East

Some of the points in the above section already address the history of mindfulness in the East. Additional details about the rise of mindfulness in the East include the following:

  • The Buddhist text Satipatthana Sutta (which translates to The Discourse on the Establishing of Mindfulness) is likely the text that most thoroughly introduced the idea of mindfulness to people in the East.
  • The fact that Hinduism and Buddhism developed in generally the same regions may account for the rise of mindfulness in that part of the world due to the interplay between the two philosophies.
  • Various Hindu texts, such as the Bhagavad Gita, likely contributed to the rise of mindfulness in the East thanks to their discussions of yoga.

It is important to understand that scholars and historians tend to admit certain questions about the history of mindfulness in the East are difficult to fully answer. We don’t know all the details about how mindfulness came to thoroughly spread throughout this part of the world. What we do know is that mindfulness almost certainly took shape in the East because two mindfulness-centric religions have historically thrived there.

History of Mindfulness in the West

Many factors contributed to the growth of mindfulness’ popularity in the West. That said, most tend to credit Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., as being the individual most responsible for bringing mindfulness to the US. 

Dr. Kabat-Zinn received a degree in molecular biology from MIT in 1971. From the early days of his career, he focused much of his work on the way the interaction between the mind and the body could promote wellness. This led him to study the way mindfulness practices could reduce stress, help people cope with physical and emotional ailments, and essentially live more comfortable and satisfying lives.

Awareness of the work Dr. Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues were engaging in spread outside of academic and scholarly environments when he began publishing non-academic books on the subject. A PBS special, Healing and the Mind, also brought more attention to his work.

As more individuals in the west began learning about mindfulness, a number of important figures and celebrities started to promote it as well. This heightened the impact of the work Dr. Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues had already been doing.

Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation are now fairly well-recognized ideas and practices in the West. We have apps and magazines that promote mindfulness meditation. Coaches of pro sports teams have leveraged mindfulness training to improve player performance. Even some schools are incorporating mindfulness meditation sessions or programs to address everything from attention problems to behavioral issues among young students.

This is not to say the history of mindfulness is a complete story. The opposite is true. Recent developments such as these indicate the history of mindfulness may be just beginning.

Where Can You Find Mindfulness and Mindful Meditation Today?

Do you have an interest in using mindfulness to improve certain aspects of your life experience? For instance, perhaps you have recently lost someone close, and want to find meditations for grief that can help you overcome your pain. Mindfulness programs or books can offer what you are looking for.

Studies indicate mindfulness can also help you better endure chronic pain. There is even research suggesting mindfulness can boost concentration and focus.

The most well-known benefit of mindfulness is also one that virtually any person in today’s busy world may want to take advantage of: stress reduction.

The main point to understand is that mindfulness can offer some form of life-enhancement to anyone who practices it. The following resources can help you do so:

Classes

Regardless of where you are in the country, odds are good you can find some mindfulness meditation classes in your area. Examples of places that might offer mindfulness training include the following:

  • Universities and community colleges
  • Libraries
  • Health clubs
  • Yoga studios
  • Hospitals or medical centers
  • Buddhist monasteries

Search the internet for mindfulness classes near you. There’s a good chance they won’t be difficult to find.

Books

Books on mindfulness are abundant. Dr. Kabat-Zinn has published many. Browse his list of published books to see if any of the titles call out to you. 

(Tip: The benefits of mindfulness practices often overlap with the benefits of gratitude practices. See our list of books about gratitude to learn more.)

Dr. Kabat-Zinn is also by no means the only person who has written books on this subject. All you have to do is Google “mindfulness books” and you will find plenty of options from which to choose. Additionally, the section of your local bookstore’s magazine rack that features health and wellness magazines will potentially offer mindfulness-centric publications.

Audio programs

Learning mindfulness can be easier for some when they start by listening to audio programs that guide them through their first meditations. Although there are CDs and digital downloads that offer this “training,” you can also find many such programs for free on YouTube and similar platforms. Search for “mindfulness meditation” on YouTube to easily find them.

Apps

Many apps also provide access to guided mindfulness meditations. These apps may feature additional tools as well, such as mindfulness tips, journals you can use to track your progress, and more. Again, a simple Google search will help you find the type of app you are looking for.

Many podcasts can also help you develop your ability to be more mindful in the present moment. While podcasts might not always offer guided meditations, they might feature discussions on the benefits of mindfulness, the history of mindfulness, and other topics that can at least inspire you to remain focused on your goal to cultivate this essential quality. Get started by checking out our list of positive podcasts.

Friends & family

Some resources are so obvious that, ironically, we overlook them. This is an example of such a resource.

Mindfulness meditation has become very popular. That means it’s not unlikely that some of your friends or family members already practice it. If so, ask them if they can help you learn how to practice mindfulness yourself. They may be very happy to do so. If they are a beginner, the insights and lessons they offer might not be as helpful as those an expert can provide, but they could at least get you started on your path towards mindfulness.

The History of Mindfulness: Why it Persists

Once more, although it may seem that mindfulness is a new idea, as the history of mindfulness shows, it has actually been around for a very long time. There is a simple reason this is the case: it works. Hopefully, along with answering your questions about where mindfulness comes from, this guide has given you reason to incorporate mindfulness practices to a greater degree in your own life.


Sources:
  1. “About the Author.” Guided Mindfulness Meditation, Stress Reduction Tapes, Mindfulnesscds.com.
  2. Fossas, Andres. “The Basics of Mindfulness: Where Did It Come From?” Well Doing, Welldoing Ltd., 27 January 2015, Welldoing.org.
  3. Natale, Nicol. “8 Highly Successful CEOs and Celebrities Who Practice Meditation.” Everyday  Health, Everyday Health, Inc, 14 August 2018, Everydayhealth.com.
  4. Olendzki, Andrew. “The Meaning of Sati.” Tricycle, Tricycle, 2020, Tricycle.org.
  5. Selva, Joaquin. “History of Mindfulness: From East to West and Religion to Science.” Positive Psychology, Positive Psychology, 14 February 2022, Positivepsychology.com.
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