Origins of Mindfulness: Religion, Philosophy, or Psychology?
Mindfulness is seen to have its roots in ancient Eastern, primarily Buddhist, traditions.
However, there are enough references in Hindu scriptures that emphasize on meditation, silence and acceptance, which is what mindfulness is about. We have Upanishads describing meditations, some including a mantra or chant, others not including a chant.
No matter where you look, how you approach meditation or what name you give this practice of being calm and present, the essence seems too similar to even bother with the differences.
Upanishads and Indian Hindu Traditions
These traditions talk of the misidentification with the self instead of a sense of oneness with the larger force of God as the reason for suffering. Consequently they emphasize on silent and meditative practices in order to deepen connection with the whole, to lose the ego and to let the mind get calm so that it can reflect the beauty and wholeness of God. God is mainly seen as the whole of which everything is part (seen as Satchitananda – ever existing, ever conscious, ever new bliss)
The Buddhist Traditions
Buddha sees attachment to self and the consequent creation of desire as the root cause of all suffering. The emphasis again is to lose the ego – to realize that the self is actually empty and to therefore free oneself of attachment and the delusion of a separate self. Buddha sees this as a way to end suffering. Meditation and mindfulness are practices that allow for the space to be created within in order to reach such a suffering-free stage.
However, in my study of philosophy and religions, I have seen that in some form or the other, all philosophies and traditions seem to converge. All have some practice or the other which involves quiet time and silence, trust in a larger universal force (which some call God, others call law of nature (dhamma), life force and so on) and involves concentration and focus within.
The Jewish Kabbalah tradition, the Sufi tradition of Islam and the apophatic prayer tradition of contemplation in Christianity – all have meditation, seclusion, surrender and silence as their basic tenets.
Gaining wisdom through meditation
Wisdom is no one philosophy’s prerogative. Wisdom is available to all of us equally and in fact it is free of any religious or cultural identity. However all religious philosophies and also teachers within each tradition have created what they feel works best, as a way to meditate.
I have serious respect for all these paths. And it doesn’t matter which one you follow, provided your intentions in following a path do not become corrupted by creating clinging or attachment to exclusively that path or by believing that other paths are false or inadequate.
Need for a secular form of practice and disenchantment with organized religion
Of late, a number of us seem to have become disenchanted with organized religion. Religion that says one size fits all. That says one practice is better than the other. I do not personally think it is a problem of any core religious philosophy but that of excessive identification with just one philosophy.
In such a time and space, I find the secular practice of mindfulness and meditation as a practice of deeply understanding oneself, of unparalleled use.
Psychology and Religion
In the earlier times, religions had to include everything that partly now falls under the purview of psychology. Religious philosophies deal with humans after all and therefore with the mind.
Psychology was needed as a separate science where religious protocols became intolerant of the shadow aspects of human beings, of impulses that were considered unholy, or vices that were considered sinful. To preserve their holiness, religions or rather religious followers had to start excluding what they called human shortcomings. While this discrimination could have helped to reinforce the more wholesome path; people who didn’t fall into the format felt lost and a sense of shame or non-belonging. Here is where psychology came to the rescue.
Often, today, the question is asked whether mindfulness meditation is a psychological practice, a philosophical one or a religious one. The difference is merely semantic. It is a practice to access the forever available wisdom that is within all of us and to create space within, so we can live our lives in a more fulfilled manner.
The role of the West in the spread of mindfulness
The secular practice of mindfulness, independent of religious or cultural contexts, was presented in its current form in the late 1970s. It was then that Jon Kabat-Zinn (also known as the founder of modern day mindfulness) launched Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He devised this 8 week program as a way of helping people to deal with situations ranging from general dissatisfaction that we all go through at some level or another to chronic bodily pain.
Various studies since then have documented the benefits of mindfulness to the body and mind, while the MBSR has inspired adaptations that are being employed by professionals across the globe.
There are various programs incorporating mindfulness that have been created. The programs frequently used by professionals include Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) for depression, Mindfulness-based Relapse Prevention (MBRP), Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT), and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).
There have been many neuroscience studies in the last decade emphasizing the positive role mindfulness plays in promoting good mental health.
While western scientific research has validated and opened up the practice of mindfulness to the entire world, the depth of concepts are still deeply embedded in eastern philosophy, which will be often referenced on this site.