Mindfulness has become popular in the modern world for stress relief, emotional management and maintaining mental focus. However, it is not a trendy cultural moment or therapy. In reality, mindfulness finds its origins back to more than 2500 years.
What are the origins of mindfulness? Knowing them helps you gain a deeper understanding and more meaningful practice. This article offers a comprehensive review.
Mindfulness is an ancient technique with modern benefits.
Mindfulness is the capacity to focus on the “present” moment. However, its ancient religious origins gave more meaning to this practice than simply being present. It embraces “living a wholesome life and having loving-kindness to all sentient beings” (Kuan, 2007, Visionpsychology).
“Mindfulness traces its origins back to various religious and secular traditions. These include Hinduism, Christianism, Muslim, Buddhism before the modern secular practices. There are many mindful practices. They range from a variety of meditation traditions to yoga and Tai Chi. Most recently, there are more and more non-religious mindful techniques and awareness-raising therapies. Indeed “people have been practicing mindfulness for thousands of years, whether on its own or as part of a larger tradition” (PositivePsychology).
Understanding the origins and philosophy of mindful practices brings us a broader insight and practice depth. So what are the origins of mindfulness? Let us look into some of them.
The root of mindfulness in Hinduism
Many think that mindfulness practice lies in Buddhism. Well, the history of mindfulness actually goes much further back. It firstly links to the yogic practices of the Hindu people. They dated somewhere between 2300BC and 1500BC in the Indus Valley, near modern-day Pakistan.
Hindu scripture has many references to meditation, silence, and acceptance. These are all important elements of modern mindfulness.
For example, “Dhyāna” in Hinduism means contemplation. It is practiced during yoga exercises. In this method, one attains samadhi – a state of meditative consciousness. The mind becomes very still and merges with the object of attention. It observes its internal comings and goings without being lost in them. (Visionpsychology)
Similarly, the Sanskrit term smriti means “remembering“. The idea is to remember ourselves and to be present with the relationship between ourselves and the objects of our awareness. “Mindfulness is a preparatory practice for raja yoga. It leads to the advanced attainment of higher states of consciousness. Ultimately, one seeks the union with the Divine as the omnipresent and loving consciousness within us” (Hinduism Today)
Mindfulness in Buddhism
In general, Buddhism teaches mindfulness as a way toward enlightenment (Nandan & Jungubhai, 2013). Buddhism was founded around 400-500BC by Siddhārtha Gautama (the Buddha). Buddhists use meditation among others to bring about a state of ultimate consciousness. It allows personal attunement with a higher purpose in life.
In Buddhism, Sati (from Pali: सति; Sanskrit: स्मृति smṛti) is mindfulness or awareness. It is a spiritual or psychological faculty (indriya) that forms an essential part of Buddhist practice (Wikipedia). Sati means the “moment to moment awareness of present events”. It also means “remembering to be aware of something”. It is the first factor of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment.
To attain the omniscient transcendental wisdom, Buddhist practitioners train mindfulness not only in formal meditation. Being present in daily activities such as walking, sitting, eating, working…is also important. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama encourages Buddhists to “cultivate awareness and mindfulness during the post-meditation periods” (The Dalai Lama, Stages of Meditation, Rider, 2001, 63).
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist Zen master brought mindfulness to popularity in the West. He introduced simple yet profound teachings on mindful practices in daily life. His book ‘The miracle of mindfulness’ has been an inspiration for generations of Buddhist and non-Buddhist practitioners in modern times.
Mindful practices in Christianism and Islam
Although importantly influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism, the history of mindfulness goes beyond these two practises. Mindfulness also has roots in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Trousselard et al., 2014).
In Christianity, “Jesus speaks of the innermost I Am. It is the essence of the identity of every man and woman, every life-form in fact. He speaks of the life that you are. Some Christian mystics have called it the Christ within” (Eckhart Tolle).
Another well-known example in Christianity would be Brother Lawrence. He emphasized being aware of the ‘Holy Spirit’ in “Practising the Presence of God” (Lawrence, 2004).
Islam also emphasizes mindfulness as seen in “Muraqabah”. It means having a continuous awareness: Allah is always watching (Al-Jawziyyah, 2016 – Visionpsychology).
The basic premise of Mindfulness in Islam is that there is a pure core (THE FITRAH) within everyone. Every child is born with it irrespective of caste, creed, and religion. Muslims assess this purity through the practices of Mindfulness.
“Retrieved from the dark layers of life’s sullying experiences and polished. It will lift our heart, mind, and body into wellness, peace, and happiness”. (Mahmudahinstitute.org)
Secular mindfulness brought to the West
As secular practices, mindfulness was brought to the West only very recently. It was first introduced in the 1970s by Kabat-Zinn in academic and medical contexts. He provided mindfulness training as a method for stress reduction. He founded the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
Aside from academic science, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and Joseph Goldstein also played a crucial role. They brought mindfulness to the West through meditation practices. They founded the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in 1975.
Mindfulness has been since then introduced in many institutions. For example, medical institutions, wellness, sports, schools, and others. Most of them are under the form of secular meditation, yoga techniques and awareness training.
As a result yoga has gained considerable popularity in the last 30-40 years in the West. Many fitness organizations and private studios in western countries offer yoga without the explicit religious component.
Tai Chi is another practice involving mindfulness. It is gaining popularity in western society. While not as popular as Yoga, Tai Chi offers individuals who struggle to ‘stay still’… another way of practicing mindfulness. (Visionpsychology)
As a conclusion
Let’s go back to your question: “What are the origins of mindfulness?“. I hope the article brought you some clearer ideas. Indeed, mindful practices as known today in the modern world, trace their origins back to ancient times.
Mindfulness was practiced as early as Hinduism dating back between 2300BC and 1500BC. These were the ancient yoga practice of meditation, silence and acceptance.
Later on, in Buddhism, it is considered the first factor of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment. For example… Sati, mindfulness, or awareness, forms an essential part of Buddhist practice. The practice was taught by Buddha 2,5000 years ago. In modern times, many traditions such as Tibetan or Zen schools teach mindfulness.
Mindfulness also has roots in other religions. For example, practicing the Presence of God (Christianity) or having a continuous awareness of Allah (Islam) are examples of mindful practices.
Secular mindfulness practices in the West started only recently in the 1970s. They have the main objectives of stress reduction or mind focus enhancement.
Connecting to the origins of mindfulness and its ancient rooted philosophy brings in-depth and more effective practices. This is because mindfulness is not only a tool or therapy. It allows the Practitioners to learn to connect genuinely with their higher Self. We can then encompass a profound vision. Consequently, our mindful practices become a truly life-changing experience.