The Science of Mindfulness Part 2: The Historical and Conceptual Foundations of Mindfulness

Dive deeper into the science of mindfulness and explore discourses around the historical and conceptual foundations of mindfulness.
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog

This is the second installment of our series on the special mindfulness-themed issue of the Current Opinion in Psychology journal. The issue compiles research from over 100 academics in the fields of mindfulness, spirituality and psychology. Here we explore contributions to the special edition’s first section: Historical and Conceptual Foundations of Mindfulness.

Find the bibliography at the end of this article. Get an overview of the large collaborative project on the science of mindfulness in our introductory blog article.

What Is Mindfulness?

In the first paper of the journal, scholar-monk Bhikkhu Analayo begins with a foundational premise: How can we study mindfulness without agreeing on what “mindfulness” is?

Analayo suggests that the semantic ambiguity surrounding the definition of the term mindfulness is a barrier to properly studying the benefits and potential of mindfulness-based practices. Analayo calls for interdisciplinary dialogue between academics in Buddhist studies and psychologists, to deepen understanding between the definition of mindfulness and its clinical application:

I argue for the need for academics in the field of Buddhist studies to supplement current definitions of mindfulness with detailed surveys of its actual operation from the viewpoint of the particular Buddhist tradition in which they specialize.”

By asking not only what mindfulness is but also what it does, Analayo explores variations in Buddhist definitions of mindfulness and its specific functions, and the benefit of increased attention to semantic detail in future academic studies. He calls for “mutual respect” and “clear recognition of basic differences” to appreciate the broad field of mindfulness practices and understandings. Analayo concludes:

More attention to details will help to put research on MBIs on a robust footing and provide it with a historical background that reaches back far beyond the late seventies of the twentieth century.”

Mindfulness And Ethics

Tibetan Buddhist scholar Jinpa Thupten explores what’s lost when “mindfulness” is secularized and taken out of the Buddhist context, in which mindfulness cannot be separated from ethics and compassion.

Mindfulness, argues Thupten, should be recognized as a modern phenomenon, and it is important to understand that there’s no exact Buddhist correlation. Mindfulness today is a morally neutral construct, and its connection to ethics and compassion should be considered independently.

[In] the contemporary secular context, mindfulness is conceived as paying attention to present moment experience or events in a particular way that avoids bringing any evaluations or judgment to what is being observed.”

Thupten recognizes “the lack of clarity regarding the key concepts” of secular mindfulness and invites the voice of Indo-Tibetan Buddhists leaders as he explores historical definitions of mindfulness in texts by Vasubhandu, Shantideva, and the First Panchen Lama. Thupten warns of the divorce of mindfulness from compassion, referring to Mathieu Richard’s example of the ‘mindful sniper.’ Yet in his conclusion, he promotes seeking not a marriage between modern mindfulness and Buddhism, but a clarity:

It would be tragic if, through contemporary appropriation of Buddhist practices, the entirety of Buddhist practice is reduced to meditation, and meditation, in turn, is reduced to contemporary mindfulness.”

By understanding the two as separate, practitioners are welcome to experience the full essence of each independently, should they wish to do so.

Mindfulness And The Subconscious

William S Waldron explores how early Buddhism and later Indian Buddhist traditions understood the unconscious habits that drive our behaviors, and how this historical understanding may be relevant to today’s clinical application of psychology.

Waldron points out the contrast between early Buddhist definitions of mindfulness and contemporary secular definitions as emphasized by Jon Kabat-Zinn. He suggests adapting historical definitions of mindfulness into our present-day understanding of the ‘cultural unconscious’ to “transform our impulses, dispositions, and affective and cognitive afflictions at the deepest levels of our psyches.”

Mindfulness And The Self

Philosopher and psychologist James Giles further elaborates on the relationship between modern mindfulness and the historical Buddhist understanding of mindfulness, this time through the lens of the Buddhist conception of the Self. His paper explores the limits of mindfulness-based training without an accompanying understanding of the Buddhist concept of no-self. 

Giles briefly explains the relevance of Buddhist no-self theory and recognition of the root delusion of self as the basis for human suffering. While he agrees that mindfulness-based interventions help relieve human suffering, he argues that

by ignoring the no-self experience, teachers and practitioners are falling short of achieving what mindfulness was originally employed to achieve.”

Interestingly, Giles veers from the opinion of scholars such as Jinpa Thupten, arguing that the Buddhist concept is not inherently “ethical” save for the sense that its goal is to alleviate suffering. As contemporary mindfulness has this same goal, he places the two on equal footing here, but points instead to the differences in the definition of self. 

Giles goes on to present a brief definition of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, and how the mistaken belief in an independently existing self lies at the heart of all suffering. He argues that when mindfulness is practiced properly, even outside the Buddhist context, one may, in fact arrive at a realization of no-self. However,

if contemporary mindfulness is practiced without the goal of removing identification with the constructed self-image, and thus achieving no-self, then ultimate psychological well-being cannot be achieved.”

How To Define Mindfulness After All?

The first section of this special mindfulness issue is completed by two other insightful papers: Martine Batchelor explores the vedanās—or feeling tones—, their impact on our behavior and how practicing mindfulness can have a profound influence on both, the feeling tones and behavior. John D Dunne, Evan Thompson and Jonathan Schooler draw on different Buddhist theories and other findings in the field of metacognition to propose a sustained, non-propositional version of meta-awareness that can provide more clarity for its characterization.

These six impactful papers ask us to establish a definition of mindfulness that is itself mindful of the historical and cultural context from which contemporary mindfulness was born. The contributing authors do not call for parallelizing the historical and secular understandings of mindfulness, but to create clarity regarding inevitable common grounds and significant differences.

All authors share their own nuanced opinions on how the past, present, and future of mindfulness should best be defined and practiced to help alleviate, or fully cease our suffering.

Bibliography: Learn more by reading each of the articles in Current Opinion in Psychology.

Bhikku Analayo, “Adding historical depth to definitions of mindfulness,” Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 2019, 11-14.

Jinpa Thupten, “The question of mindfulness’ connection with ethics and compassion,” Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 2019, 71-75.

William S Waldron, “Mindfulness and Indian Buddhist conceptions of unconscious processes” Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 2019, 28-31.

James Giles, “Relevance of the no-self theory in contemporary mindfulness,” Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 2019, 298-301.

Martine Batchelor, “Mindfulness theory: feeling tones (vedanas) as a useful framework for resources,” Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 2019, 20-22.

John D Dunne, Evan Thompson and Jonathan Schooler, “Mindful meta-awareness: sustained and non-propositional,” Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 2019, 307-311.

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