The Muddle of Mindfulness

One of the most common buzz words going around today in the fields of health, medicine and psychology is mindfulness.  You hear it popping up in discussions on wellness, nutrition, education, business, sports, etc.  Seminars, classes and conferences are being offered at universities, medical centers, and professional organizations around the world.  For example, in May of 2004 the National Institutes of Health held a daylong symposium called “Mindfulness Meditation and Health.”  The original mindfulness program developed at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center is now used by over 700 hospitals worldwide.[1]  It is obviously something that is very popular.

What is mindfulness?  One definition comes from Dan Harris, news anchor for ABC News.  He has written a book on mindfulness and meditation called 10% Happier.  In an online video Harris defines the term this way:  “Mindfulness is the ability to know what’s happening in your mind, right now, without necessarily taking the bait and acting on it.”[2]  Jon Kabat-Zinn, the premier mindfulness guru, defines mindfulness this way:  “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; On purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”[3]  In other words, mindfulness is an awareness of the moment, a technique for controlling your reaction to what happens in life.

Dan Harris also notes that there is one way to acquire mindfulness—meditation.  This is not surprising, since mindfulness is a practice that is basic to Eastern religious experience, especially Buddhism.  “Right mindfulness” is one of the paths of the Buddhism Eightfold Path.  It is an integral part of Buddhist thought and religious discipline.  One book on mindfulness, The Rough Guide to Mindfulness, admits the meditation/Eastern religion connection:  “Yes, mindfulness has its roots in Eastern religious traditions, but it has become a secular and scientifically proved approach to mental wellbeing.”[4]  We agree with the assessment that mindfulness is rooted in Eastern religion.  However, as will be demonstrated below, it has not left these roots behind.  Mindfulness has not become secular, even if it has become secularized in its terminology and presentation.  It is essentially Buddhism repackaged for an American audience.

The mindfulness movement basically began with one man, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a noted micro-biologist.  He is a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.  While Kabat-Zinn was a student at MIT he was already a practitioner of yoga.  He was introduced to Zen Buddhism in lecture given by Philip Kapleau, a well-known Buddhist teacher.  He was so impacted by this that he became a student of Korean Zen master Seung Sahn.  Later Kabat-Zinn attended a retreat by Thich Nhat Hanh, the world renown Vietnamese Buddhist teacher.  Kabat-Zinn adapted Nhat Hanh teachings on mindfulness and applied them to the treatment of medical conditions.  Thus mindfulness was created out of Buddhist teachings with a medical application.  In of his influence on Kabat-Zinn, it is not surprising that some have called Thich Nhat Hanh “the father of mindfulness.”[5]

In 1979 Kabat-Zinn developed a program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).  He states that the idea for this program came to him in a ten-second vision that occurred during a meditation retreat.[6]  The program is a combination of Buddhist meditation techniques and Hatha Yoga, or “mindful yoga practices” as one writer put it.[7]  His 1991 book Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness (Delta, 1991) outlined how to practice the program he had created.  Later his work was featured in a PBS special hosted by Bill Moyers called Healing and the Mind, which propelled Kabat-Zinn and mindfulness into national prominence.  Thus the mindfulness movement was born.

It is evident that mindfulness is based on Eastern religious belief and practice.  However, there has been a purposeful choice to package the practices of mindfulness in non-religious terms. For example:  “From the beginning, Kabat-Zinn felt that using explicit Buddhist terms—such as calling pain, suffering or stress by the Sanskrit word dukkha—would be off-putting and carry baggage that already-burdened people did not need to bear.”[8]  Or consider the example of an advocate of mindfulness:  “Marion Stork recently began teaching mindfulness-based stress reduction, after years as a meditator, because she thought it was a way to reach people who would never come to a meditation center. She says many people she encounters in the program ‘would never go to a therapist or pick up a book, never mind go to a Buddhist meditation center. But if a doctor says, “I’m recommending this,” they say matter-of-factly, “OK.”  Once they do the training, it’s completely up to them what path they follow, but if they connect with it—not everyone does—they may be quite willing to go to a class or take a program at a meditation center.’”[9]  In other words, the Buddhist origins of mindfulness are downplayed, and the practice is presented in medical and psychological terms—which makes it attractive and acceptable to people from various religious backgrounds.  As Saki Santorelli, the Director for the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, has noted that the mindfulness program is all about moving “meditation and mindfulness from the familiar territory of the monastery and meditation hall into the nitty-gritty diversity of everyday human affairs.”[10]

Indeed, Kabat-Zinn goes on to say:  “The challenge we are faced with in mindfulness-based stress reduction is how to make use of a vocabulary, structure and format that will invite people into the deep practice of meditation in a way that lets the practice be American. That has happened in every country Buddhism has ever gone to. There are many differences between the Buddhist traditions, yet the heart of it is dharma. At this stage, for Buddhism to become Buddhism it may have to stop being Buddhism. Meditation is not a collection of techniques that belongs to any group. It is a way of being.”[11]  Note that dharma refers to the teaching and practice of the Buddha.  Thus, Kabat-Zinn is admitting that what he has done is repackage Buddhist principles and techniques into a seemingly non-religious product that Americans will buy into with no problem.  However, when he began this effort, he was concerned that his repackage might actually damage the Buddhist teachings inherent in his system.  So he consulted with a number of knowledgeable Buddhists about how to “protect the dharma”[12] as he phrased it himself.

Mindfulness seems innocent.  But it is not.  It is a method for conditioning the mind and training the individual to approach life with a certain perspective—an Eastern mystical worldview.  It is a psychological experience with spiritual undertones.  One of the basic differences between Eastern mysticism and Christianity is found in their differing views of the nature and importance of personal experience.  Christianity does not reject or deny the significance of experience.  Indeed, the Christian faith is predicated upon the idea of an individual having a personal, transformational encounter with the risen Savior, Jesus Christ.  However, this experience is grounded in objective truth and reality.  It based on the historical facts of the life, death and resurrection of Christ.  It is also gauged and validated by the truth of the Holy Scriptures.  In Christianity there is a dynamic interplay between subjective experience and objective truth.  In Eastern religion experience is primary.  Although there are numerous sacred writings, these vary and may differ greatly, and are not necessary considered the standard for experience.  But that is acceptable, for it is the experience of the individual that is most important.  That is why on his deathbed the Buddha would instruct his followers, “Be your own light.”  In other words, don’t look for another Buddha, or another source of teaching, you must experience your own spiritual awakening.  This stress on experience is noted in the video by Dan Harris mentioned above, as well in another online video presentation from mindfulness instructor Susan Salzburg, posted on the Huffington Post website.[13]  Harris observes that to meditate does not involve “believing anything in particular.”  The focus is on the experience, on what you are feeling in the moment.

Consider these quotes about Buddhism, from a practicing Zen Buddhist priest:  “Buddhism is not a belief system.  It’s not about accepting certain tenets or believing a set of claims or principles.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It’s about examining the world clearly and carefully, about testing everything and every idea.  Buddhism is about seeing.”[14]  “When the Buddha was asked to sum up his teaching in a single word, he said, ‘awareness’… Not awareness of something in particular, but awareness itself—being awake, alert, in touch with what is actually happening…. It is about relying on the immediate experience of this present moment.”[15]  Compare this with mindfulness:  “Jon Kabat-Zinn, a world authority on the use of mindfulness training in the management of clinical problems, describes mindfulness as: ‘paying attention in a particular way, on purpose’… Mindfulness is about waking up, connecting with ourselves and appreciating the fullness of each moment of life.”[16]  No wonder Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the mindfulness movement, would observe, “Mindfulness is considered the heart of Buddhist meditation….”[17]

From the perspective of a Hindu or Buddhist believer the goal of mindfulness is an experience called Samadhi.  Samadhi may be defined as a blissful awareness of true reality.  When someone experiences Samadhi, one “sees” the unity of all things.  You recognize your own unity with the Ultimate, the Universal Soul, the Supreme Reality.  Thus, you also are aware of your own inherently divine nature.  Obviously, this experience of “divine union” is not just a mental technique or psychological method.  It is a religious experience of a deeply spiritual and religious nature.  It is Eastern mystical religion.  Yet, it is this patently religious experience that is being promoted at hospitals, clinics, universities, and schools across the country.

For the Christian, mindfulness workshops, retreats and training programs are things to be avoided.  It may seem innocuous and harmless.  But without realizing it a person experiencing mindfulness training is exposing himself to another worldview, in fact, another religion.  Does this mean that Christians should not meditate or practice contemplation?  Indeed, we should.  We all could benefit from slowing down, relaxing our minds and bodies, and learning to calm ourselves.  Further, meditation itself is a valuable part of the Christian spiritual experience.  But the focus in Christian meditation, in our contemplative practice, is not ourselves, our health, or our own mind or body.  Instead, our focus is God and His word.  If we want peace in a hurried, stressful world we should train ourselves to meditate on the Prince of Peace Himself.  Have we forgotten:  “You will keep Him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on You, because He trusts in You” (Isaiah 26:3).  The answer is not in trying to be “a light unto yourself,” but in fixing our gaze on the Light of the World.  That is true enlightenment.


[1] Anderson Cooper.  “Mindfulness.”  CBS News.  60 Minutes.  December 14, 2014. Accessed 8/3/15.

[2] Amanda Chan.  “Why Mindfulness Is A Superpower.”  Yahoo Health.  April 13, 2015.  Downloaded 8/3/15.

[3] Bodhipaksa.  “What is Mindfulness?”  Wildmind:  Buddhist Meditation.  Accessed 8/3/15.

[4] Albert Tobler and Susann Herrmann.  The Rough Guide to Mindfulness.  New York:  Penguin Group, 2013, p. 14.

[5] Sylvia Thompson.  “The Father of Mindfulness.”  The Irish Times online.  April 10, 2012.  Accessed 8/3/15.

[6] Suza Scolara.  “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction:  An Interview with Jon Kabat-Zinn.”  Huffington Post.  March 20, 2015. Accessed 8/3/15.

[7] Barry Boyce.  “Jon Kabat-Zin:  The Man Who Prescribes the Medicine of the Moment.”  The Lion’s Roar website.  May 1, 2005.  Accessed 8/3/15.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Lindsay Holmes.  “This Simple Meditation Video Will Convince Even the Non-Believers to Start Practicing.” Huffington Post.  April 10, 2015.  Found at  Downloaded 7/31/15

[14] Steve Hagen.  Buddhism Plain and Simple:  The Practice of Being Aware, Right Now, Every Day.  Rutland, VT:  Tuttle Publishing, 2013, p. 11-12.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Tobler and Herrmann.  The Rough Guide to Mindfulness, p. 2-3.

[17] Ibid.

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