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Mindfulness: Diverse Perspectives on its Meaning, Origins and Applications

Mindfulness is an ancient technique used in many meditative religious traditions, and has inspired an entire industry in the fields of health and psychology. It is now very popular among modern physiologists, neurologists, and physicians. Many studies have asserted that mindfulness offers numerous benefits, such as stress reduction, deep relaxation, and more positive states of mind. Since the 1970s, research on mindfulness has significantly influenced several schools of psychology and neuroscience.

The recently published book Mindfulness: Diverse Perspectives on its Meaning, Origins and Applications, edited by Mark Williams and Jon Kabat-Zinn, presents 18 articles that were originally published in volume 12, issue 1 of Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal (May 2011). The journal issue soon became the most popular in the series, and for the benefit of wider audiences, was therefore republished as a book. Its content introduces the concept of mindfulness, explaining its aims and integrating its approaches in areas such as medicine, psychology, healthcare, and education. From another perspective, the book traces the historical development of mindfulness in the Buddhist tradition and highlights how it leads to direct insight.

Book cover. From Oxford Mindfulness.

The article by Williams and Kabat-Zinn, “Mindfulness: diverse perspectives on its meaning, origins, and multiple applications at the intersection of science and dharma,” forms the introduction, and also lends its title to the book as a whole. Other contributors include household names in Western Buddhism like Bhikkhu Bodhi, Georges Dreyfus, Martine Batchelor, Sharon Salzberg, and Rupert Gethin.

The founder of the Institute for Medical and Social Care Research and the Centre of Mindfulness Research and Practice at Bangor University, Williams is one of the foremost scholars working on psychological models for treating depression and suicidal behaviors. Kabat-Zinn is professor of medicine emeritus and founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Both are pioneers in applying mindfulness to a range of health conditions, from psoriasis to various aspects of chronic pain, with emphasis on anxiety and stress reduction.

The articles constitute an excellent collection of qualitative pieces focusing on the application of mindfulness practice. The second article, “What does mindfulness really mean? A canonical perspective,” by Bhikkhu Bodhi, gives a systematic explanation of the meaning and function of mindfulness meditation from the Pali Canon. He says, “Mindfulness is the chief factor in the practice of satipatthana, the known system of Buddhist meditation. In descriptions of satipatthana two terms constantly recur: mindfulness (sati) and clear comprehension (sampajanna). An understanding of these terms based in the canonical texts is important not only from a philological angle but also because such understanding has major bearings on the actual practice of meditation” (p. 19)It is noteworthy that from Bhikkhu Bodhi’s article we can glean an understanding of the original concept of mindfulness and the nature of the experiential practice which leads to insight. This unique perspective from a monastic provides a good balance to the overwhelmingly secular concerns of modern mindfulness practice today.

While mindfulness is originally an Asian religious concept, since the 1970s it has gradually been adopted by Western psychology as a powerful systematic practice in therapeutic intervention, and has been dramatically transformed into a modern “medicine.” It was perhaps inevitable, therefore, that both mindfulness and other related practices from Buddhism would be newly applied in areas like modern education and business leadership.

Williams and Kabat-Zinn mention in their article how mindfulness was transmitted from the Buddhist era to modern times: “Indeed, given the zeitgeist of the late 1970s, the probability that Buddhist meditation practices and perspectives would become integrated into the mainstream of science and medicine and the wider society to the extent that they already have at this juncture, and in so many different ways that are now perceived as potentially useful and important to investigate, seemed at the time to be somewhat lower than the likelihood that the cosmic expansion of the universe should all of a sudden some to a halt and begin falling back in on itself in a reverse big-bang . . . in other words, infinitesimal” (p. 3). However, it should be noted that contemporary mindfulness training is often taught in clinical and modern university settings as an isolated practice, lacking the holistic spiritual context which supports the development of genuine mindfulness training as taught by the Buddha.

There are other excellent articles in this volume, such as “The Buddhist roots of mindfulness training: a practitioner’s view,” by Edel Maex; “Mindfulness and loving-kindness,” by Sharon Salzberg; “Meditation and mindfulness,” by Martine Batchelor; “Mindfulness in higher education,” by Mirabai Bush; and “’Enjoy your death’: leadership lessons forged in the crucible of organizational death and rebirth infused with mindfulness and mastery,” by Saki F. Santorelli, which can all be used both to guide personal practice and in professional applications. While the insights of these mindfulness teachers are very welcome, we should also bear in mind that the contemporary advancement of mainstream mindfulness training could well be detrimental in guiding people to a true understanding of mindfulness as taught by the Buddha.

If psychotherapists and neurologists can draw upon Buddhist mindfulness practice so that people can overcome anxiety and depression, their work will make an immense difference. Although it is already wonderful if modern physicians find that mindfulness helps patients to overcome mental pain and illness, it would be even better if practicing mindfulness meditation and developing loving kindness could really help people find physical and emotional peace.

Mindfulness: Diverse Perspectives on its Meaning, Origins and Applications,  edited by Mark Williams and Jon Kabat-Zinn, was published by Routledge in 2013. 

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