The History of Mindfulness: How did mindfulness get started?

Mindfulness is a natural human capability, such as the capability to speak a language or to be creative. Therefore it is reasonable to assume that some form of both mindfulness and awareness of it must have occurred “as old as time,” even in prehistory, for example.

However in written and oral tradition it was the Buddha who gave the teachings that constitute the most significant body of understanding of mindfulness.  The story of the Buddha and his life is the story of his discovery of the power and depth of mindfulness, and his development of a systematic and thorough methodology to cultivate this capability all the way to its natural consequence — enlightenment and liberation from human suffering. Current forms of mindfulness and meditation training draw upon the exact same methods and teachings that were recorded and practiced for the past 2500 years.

What changed recently is that mindfulness meditation and its surrounding ethos, part of many Eastern cultures for millennia, came to relevance in the West.  Although Buddhism and Western civilizations occasionally intersected in remote history, it wasn’t until the 19thcentury that a smattering of influential Western intellectuals began to take notice, including philosophers, writers and converts (Nietzsche, Arnold, Schopenhauer, Blavatsky, Thoreau, Dahlke).  The trickle turned into a stream in the 20th century with the introduction of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism to the West. However the beginning of its true popularization might be traced to the counter-cultural movement of the late 1950s and 1960s including spiritual seekers such as Ram Dass (born Richard Alpert and once a Stanford-trained psychologist) looked to Hinduism and Buddhism in the East for fresh insights to spiritual and psychological questions. Yoga, which was considered esoteric and “New Age” back then, is now found in every health club and fitness center and no longer considered alternative. In the 1970s a group of American meditators such as Joseph Goldstein (founder of Insight Meditation Society) returned from India and established meditation centers that gained traction in the US.

However the stream became a roar when the Age of the Brain coincided with the growing interest in mindfulness, and the novel and accessible technologies of brain imaging allowed discoveries about the benefits of meditation that captured the modern world’s imagination and created what Malcolm Gladwell would call a tipping point in public consciousness, leading to a sea change in modern culture.  If the change continues, we might look back to this phase in human history and view it as a pivot as important to world as the Age of Enlightenment or other sea changes in global consciousness.

While it was the Buddha in 500 BCE that first taught about mindfulness and its power to liberate the human mind from suffering, it would be a mistake to think that mindfulness is a “Buddhist” thing or an “Eastern thing.”  The famous Sermon on the Mount of Jesus is a teaching about compassion, arguably the most famous speech about compassion ever given — yet no one would think that you have to call yourself Christian to experience compassion.

Rather, mindfulness, like compassion, is not itself a fad, or a new thing, but actually an inborn human capacity. Like logic, or creativity, or language, mindfulness is a part of the human package — an especially profound one which can be cultivated to improve almost everything a person does.

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