A Brief History of Mindfulness in the USA and Its Impact on Our Lives
As a counselor, it is unfortunate that I wasn’t provided any formal education to prepare me to use mindfulness in a clinical setting, but after becoming personally aware of mindfulness and its theories, I realized that throughout my time with clients I was naturally using mindfulness techniques!
Historically, the arrival of mindfulness to the US is attributed to Jon Kabat-Zinn. Kabat-Zinn is Professor of Medicine Emeritus and creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Kabat-Zinn was first introduced to the philosophy of Buddhism while he was a student at MIT. Later, in 1979, he founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where he adapted Buddhist teachings on mindfulness and developed the Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program. He later renamed the program “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” (MBSR), removing the Buddhist framework and eventually downplayed any connection between mindfulness and Buddhism, instead putting MBSR in a scientific context. To this day Kabat-Zinn downplays the connection of mindfulness to Buddhism, yet I feel his downplaying of Buddhism is a means of bringing mindfulness into the mainstream of clinical practice; which has recently occurred.
In 2013 Kabat-Zinn wrote this definition: “Mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to the internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment, which can be developed through the practice of meditation and other training.” According to Robert Sharf, “the Buddhist term translated into English as ‘mindfulness’ originates in the Pali term sati and in its Sanskrit counterpart smṛti. Smṛti originally meant ‘to remember’, ‘to recollect’, ‘to bear in mind’. … [S]ati is an awareness of things in relation to things, and hence an awareness of their relative value. Sati is what causes the practitioner of yoga to ‘remember’ that any feeling he may experience exists in relation to a whole variety or world of feelings that may be skillful or unskillful, with faults or faultless, relatively inferior or refined, dark or pure.”
If we compare the above understanding of Sati to another, earlier, definition of mindfulness from Kabat-Zinn we find the influence of Buddhism in Kabat-Zinn’s thoughts. He describes mindfulness as “a means of paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
Recent interest has emerged for studying the effects of mindfulness on the brain using neuroimaging techniques, physiological measures and behavioral tests. A recent Harvard study showed that through meditation, a mainstay of mindfulness, the brain was able to create new gray matter. Increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection was discovered in this study. “It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life,” says Britta Hölzel, first author of the paper and a research fellow at MGH and Giessen University in Germany. “Other studies in different patient populations have shown that meditation can make significant improvements in a variety of symptoms, and we are now investigating the underlying mechanisms in the brain that facilitate this change.”
The Harvard study is but one of many studies and research on mindfulness and its effectiveness in clinical settings. Research data not only proves efficacy, but shows that mindfulness is not a fad. Centuries ago Buddhists understood the transforming power of mindfulness; and today, through scientific research, we confirm that the Buddhists were correct.
How does the study of mindfulness translate into daily practice, or even as something important in my life? A bit over 5 years ago I made a significant job change which “forced” me, as a type A person, to slow down. At the time I wasn’t yet consciously aware that I was beginning to live mindfully. As I slowed myself internally and externally, I focused my thoughts and attention to the present moment. No longer was I dwelling on my past nor anxious about my future. This was quite the change for me as I used to be the king of anxiety and worry!
It was during this time I’m my life when I discovered Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness I mentioned above: “a means of paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” Personally, the two key phrases in this definition which I feel are important are “on purpose” and “nonjudgmentally”. To find our inner-peace we need to consciously make the choice to spend time every day focusing our attention on what is happening around us and within us. Our focus is not meant to judge what is happening, just to notice it, to experience it. As we become aware of our surroundings and inner self, we become aware of life’s joys and potential. In this state of focused awareness we are enabled to discover solutions and so feel a sense of hope.