When describing being mindful, bestselling author and meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn famously said it means “wherever you go, there you are.” Increasingly, it seems that wherever we go, there we encounter the term mindfulness in our daily lives. Mindfulness, the process of nonjudgmentally noticing and attending to the present moment, has been adapted for many modern uses. Businesses use it to help workers de-stress and increase productivity, schools use it to help kids learn better, the military uses it to make soldiers more resilient, and elite athletes use it to improve their fitness and performance. We see mindfulness referenced in magazines, books, television, and movies. Celebrities and famous physicians tout its health benefits in the media. There are countless apps you can download on your smartphone right now to develop and practice your mindfulness skills. But even though mindfulness has found its way into our everyday lexicon, most people don’t really know where the idea comes from in the first place.
In fact, our modern notion of mindfulness dates back some 2,500 years as first described in ancient Buddhist texts. From these texts in the late 19th century, the ancient Indian (Pali) word sati was first translated to the English mindfulness. What did sati originally mean? Scholars think that early Buddhists used the term to describe remembrance of the teachings of the Buddha. Siddhartha Gautama, known as “the Buddha” or “the awakened one,” lived in India in the 5th century BC. He taught mindfulness as a quality or virtue that leads to enlightenment. The original texts describe ways of cultivating mindfulness through meditative practices that are still commonly used today. They involve observing and bringing awareness to one’s breath, body posture, and everyday activities like eating. Mindful meditation is thought to allow us to see our experiences as they really are in their true essence, instead of the way our minds typically filter and distort them.
Today, people all around the world continue to practice versions of the Buddha’s original teachings. But in the late 20th century, mindfulness started to attract the attention of secular scholars and researchers. This ushered in a new era of research on the ways that mindfulness can benefit people’s psychological and physical health outside of a religious context, perhaps though altering the body’s stress response. In these ways, the original concept of mindfulness has continued to evolve and expand as we have found new ways of applying it in our modern lives, making it just as relevant today as it was to people who lived some 2,500 years ago.
Brandon A. Gaudiano, Ph.D.
Brandon A. Gaudiano, Ph.D. is a psychologist at Butler Hospital and associate professor of psychiatry at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University. He is the editor of a new book titled Mindfulness, which is a part of Routledge’s “Major Themes in Mental Health” Series. Mindfulness is a four-volume set that contains some of the seminal works on this topic, covering research and theory on the history, assessment, and applications of mindfulness. A series of Talks Your Health posts highlight each of the four topics covered. Volume I focuses on the historical and philosophical roots of mindfulness. Volume II focuses on cognitive neuroscience and assessment methods. Volume III focuses on clinical interventions incorporating mindfulness. Volume IV focuses on nonclinical applications of mindfulness.