History of Mindfulness: From East to West and Religion to Science

History of Mindfulness: From East to West and From Religion to Science

Here at the PositivePsychology.com, we have been discussing several different aspects of mindfulness for the past few weeks. Recently we explored various ways to learn about mindfulness, practice it, and even study the art of teaching mindfulness to others.

But where did mindfulness come from? And why have so many people in the West recently become so interested in it?

There is no easy answer to this question, but one solution is to trace the lineage of mindfulness from early Eastern religions to its modern, secular presence in Western science.

This article will cover the history of mindfulness; its roots in Hinduism and Buddhism, how it relates to yoga, and how it came to be popular in the Western world. Finally, we will discuss the most relevant aspect of mindfulness for our purposes—how it fits into the field of positive psychology.


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You can download the package with PDF’s for free.


The History of Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a practice involved in various religious and secular traditions—from Hinduism and Buddhism to yoga and, more recently, non-religious meditation. People have been practicing mindfulness for thousands of years, whether on its own or as part of a larger tradition.

In general, mindfulness was popularized in the East by religious and spiritual institutions, while in the West its popularity can be traced to particular people and secular institutions. Of course, even the secular tradition of mindfulness in the West owes its roots to Eastern religions and traditions.

It is important to include that some commentators argue that the history of mindfulness should not be reduced to Buddhism and Hinduism, as mindfulness also has roots in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Trousselard et al., 2014).

That said, most modern Western practitioners and teachers of mindfulness learned about mindfulness in the Buddhist and Hindu tradition, so this article will focus on mindfulness from a Buddhist and Hindu perspective.

This should not be taken as a denial of mindfulness’ roots in the other religions, and interested readers are encouraged to seek out information about mindfulness as it pertains to these other religions. One possible starting point comes from Leisa Aitken, a clinical psychologist and practicing Christian—though this is just one of many options.


A Brief History of Hinduism

Hinduism is widely considered to be the oldest extant religion in the world, but it is hard to trace its history. This is because it initially arose as a synthesis of many religious traditions around the historical region that now makes up India.

In other words, Hinduism has no single founder and no concrete starting point.

In fact, the religious tradition was not even called Hinduism or considered a singular entity until British writers started calling Vedic traditions “Hinduism” in the 1800s.

The earliest traditions, which have since been incorporated into Hinduism, arose more than 4,000 years ago in the Indus Valley— now Pakistan.  These religious traditions continued to develop in Vedic writings 2,500-3,500 years ago. These writings included rituals and the worship of the Gods common to modern-day Hinduism.

Idols in Hinduism.
Idols in Hinduism. Image by Pexels on Pixaby.

About 1,500-2,500 years ago, additional texts were composed which are involved in present-day Hinduism, including texts introducing the concepts of dharma and temple worship.

A few hundred years ago, Hinduism experienced some competition in India with the rise of Islam, but 19th-century reformers revitalized Hinduism and helped tie it to the national identity of India.

This proved to be successful because middle-class Indians started identifying with Hinduism around the mid 19th century (Hatcher, 2007). This connection was then solidified about a hundred years later with the Indian independence movement.

Mindfulness has been intertwined with Hinduism for millennia. From the Bhagavad Gita’s discussions of yoga to Vedic meditation, the history of Hinduism reads in part like a history of mindfulness. Of course, it is only a partial history—another crucial player in the history of mindfulness is Buddhism and it should be noted that even Buddhism owes a great debt to Hinduism.


A Short History of Buddhism

Compared to Hinduism, Buddhism’s history is much more well-defined. Buddhism was founded around 400-500 B.C.E. by Siddhartha Gautama, who became referred to as the Buddha. Gautama is thought to have been born and raised around modern-day India and Nepal. Based on where and when Gautama was raised, it is thought that Hinduism informed his upbringing.

Buddhism and Hinduism share many commonalities—they both arose in the same region and are greatly concerned with the concept of dharma. A concept that is very difficult to define or translate, but includes a way of life that is in harmony with the natural order of the universe.

Despite the shared presence of dharma in both of these philosophies/religions, Buddhism is not a subsect of Hinduism because Buddhism does not concern itself with the sacred writings of the Veda (Hacker & Davis, Jr., 2006).

Buddha as Spiritual Center of Buddhism.
Buddha as Cornerstone of Buddhism. Image by El Caminante on Pixaby.

In general, Buddhism is a religion (blurred with philosophy, like many religions) that aims to show its followers the path to enlightenment. Since the Buddha’s lifetime, it has split into several different traditions—including Theravada Buddhism and Zen Buddhism.

Today, Buddhism is most often thought of by non-practitioners in the terms of Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama, an individual who is thought to be an enlightened teacher of Tibetan Buddhism.

Mindfulness may be even more involved in Buddhism than it is in Hinduism, as mindfulness (Sati) is considered to be the first step towards enlightenment. In fact, some sources even consider the English word “mindfulness” to be a simple translation of the Buddhist concept of Sati.

The fact that mindfulness is such a crucial aspect of Buddhism, combined with the fact that many Western influences in mindfulness studied under Buddhist teachers, shows that Western mindfulness is largely indebted to Buddhism.


How Mindfulness Relates to Yoga

There is a lot of overlap between mindfulness and yoga, both historically and presently. Many yoga practices incorporate mindfulness and some mindfulness meditation practices, such as the body scan, are very similar to yoga as they both involve awareness of one’s body.

One study examined this idea by measuring mindfulness in people who practice yoga (Gaiswinkler & Unterrainer, 2016).

The researchers found that people who practice yoga regularly had higher levels of mindfulness than people who were only slightly involved with yoga or who were not involved in yoga practice.

This indicates that yoga is positively correlated with levels of mindfulness and that some forms of yoga and some forms of mindfulness are striving for the same goals.

Interestingly enough, while the origins of yoga coincide with the origins of Hinduism, so does the recent rise of yoga’s popularity in the West coincide with the rise of mindfulness. This underscores the intertwined nature of Buddhism, Hinduism, mindfulness, and yoga.

But how exactly did all of these ideas, particularly mindfulness, gain so much popularity in the West?


How Mindfulness Moved From East to West

Perhaps the biggest influence on bringing mindfulness from the East to the West, at least recently, was Jon Kabat-Zinn. Kabat-Zinn founded the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the Oasis Institute for Mindfulness-Based Professional Education and Training.

This is where Kabat-Zinn developed his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, an eight-week program aimed at reducing stress.

Kabat-Zinn learned about and studied mindfulness under several Buddhist teachers, including Thich Nhat Hanh (an influential and popular figure in Western mindfulness himself). This gave him an Eastern foundation in mindfulness that he integrated with Western science to develop MBSR.

How Mindfulness Went From East to West Thich Nhat Hanh
Thich Nhat Hanh. Image by Wikimedia Commons.

This integration with Western science was a crucial aspect in helping mindfulness gain widespread popularity in the West.

MBSR served as an inspiration for another mindfulness-based therapy program, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). This therapy is aimed at treating Major Depressive Disorder.

This and other integrations of science and mindfulness helped popularize mindfulness in the West, particularly for audiences accustomed to Western science and unfamiliar with Eastern practices.

One reason that it took a Westerner to adapt and popularize Eastern traditions for a Western audience is the different worldviews prevalent in each hemisphere. A discussion of some of these differences (such as individual versus institutional thinking, and cyclical versus linear thinking) can be found in a TED talk from Devdutt Pattanaik.

Aside from academic science, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and Joseph Goldstein also played a crucial role in bringing mindfulness to the West when they founded the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in 1975.

The IMS helped introduce mindfulness meditation to the West, and the combination of mindfulness meditation and MBSR helped popularize mindfulness in the West within both clinical and non-clinical populations. Of course, the IMS is just one of many organizations that have helped popularize mindfulness meditation in the West, and in the United States in particular.


Mindfulness’ Role in (Positive) Psychology

Mindfulness plays an important role in both the greater field of psychology and positive psychology specifically. MBSR and MBCT have become accepted tools for psychologists to treat a variety of patients.

Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and Joseph Goldstein the Insight Meditation Society
Insight Meditation Society. Image Retrieved by URL.

Mindfulness meditation has become a useful tool in positive psychology for anyone looking to increase their levels of well-being and MBSR has also become popular in non-clinical populations.

Western science has evolved to the point where it can evaluate the effectiveness of practicing mindfulness— making mindfulness an attractive option for those who are skeptical of Eastern traditions.

As mindfulness can be practiced in many different ways for many different uses, it is a perfect tool for any Positive Psychology practitioner’s toolbox.

In fact, a group of researchers recently attempted to directly integrate mindfulness with positive psychology in an intervention they called the Positive Mindfulness Program (Ivtzan et al., 2016).

The goal of this study was to combine mindfulness training and positive psychology interventions for the purpose of increasing the well-being of participants.

The researchers were successful in doing so—showing that positive psychology and mindfulness can be combined in a research setting.


Mindfulness Practice and Philosophy

So what is mindfulness, and what does the practice of mindfulness look like? Mindfulness can come in lots of different forms—it could be a yoga practice that involves mindfulness, it might involve setting aside time for mindfulness meditation sessions, or it could involve practicing mindfulness during everyday activities (such as washing the dishes, as Thich Nhat Hanh advocates).


Mindfulness can be practiced individually or as part of a group during a retreat. In fact, mindfulness is so easy you can practice it anywhere!

Mindfulness can be practiced for the sole purpose of becoming more mindful and there are several mindfulness practices and organizations which are aimed at specific groups of people.

One example is the Mindful Warrior Project, which is just one of the groups aimed at helping military veterans use mindfulness to increase their well-being post-combat. There are also various groups focused on teaching mindfulness to children, such as the Kids Programme from Youth Mindfulness.

The point is that no matter who you are or what your daily life consists of, there is most likely a mindfulness practice tailored to you. This versatility makes it accessible to all who are willing to learn and put in a little bit of time.

This is a key part of the philosophy of mindfulness, whether it is practiced religiously or in a secular matter. After all, mindfulness practitioners are all striving for the same thing, whether they call it mindful awareness or enlightenment. Very few (if any) mindfulness traditions are based on restricting their teachings to an exclusive group.


A Take-Home Message

origins of mindfulness positive psychology Mindfulness is a tradition which has a rich history steeped in religious and, more recently, secular institutions.

The fact that it has found so many devotees among both religious and secular communities shows the universality of its teachings.

Anyone looking to start practicing mindfulness can choose their preferred starting point, whether it be Hindu scripture which is thousands of years old or recent Westernized teachings.

This brief overview of many historical aspects of mindfulness is by no means exhaustive, but we hope it serves as a starting point for readers to learn more about mindfulness and how to practice it.

Knowing the history of mindfulness is not necessary to begin practicing it, but knowing the roots of mindfulness can help you pick the tradition and practice that will be most useful for your life and your needs.

After you have found one that works for you, come back and let us know in the comments below! You might just inspire someone to start a mindfulness practice in their own lives.

  • Gaiswinkler, L., Unterrainer, H.F. (2016). The relationship between yoga involvement, mindfulness and psychological well-being. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 26(1), 123-127. doi:10.1016/j.ctim.2016.03.011
  • Hacker, P., Davis, Jr., D.R. (2006). Dharma in Hinduism. Journal of Indian Philosophy, 34(5), 479-496. doi:10.1007/s10781-006-9002-4
  • Hatcher, B.A. (2007). Bourgeois Vedanta: The colonial roots of middle-class Hinduism. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 75(2), 298-323. doi:10.1093/jaarel/lfm005
  • Ivtzan, I., Young, T., Martman, J., Jeffrey, A., Lomas, T., Hart, R., Eiroa-Orosa, F.J. (2016). Integrating Mindfulness into Positive Psychology: a Randomised Controlled Trial of an Online Positive Mindfulness Program. Mindfulness, 7(6), 1396-1407.
  • Trousselard, M., Steiler, D., Claverie, D., Canini, F. (2014). The history of Mindfulness put to the test of current scientific data: Unresolved questions. Encephale-Revue de Psychiatrie Clinique Biologique et Therapeutique, 40(6), 474-480. doi:10.1016/j.encep.2014.08.006

About the Author

Joaquín Selva is a writer who was first introduced to psychology through behavioral neuroscience research. This research experience was focused on addiction with the hopes of ultimately helping people change their habits. Joaquín was born in Nicaragua, now lives in the United States, and believes positive psychology teachings can improve people’s lives in both countries.


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  4. Angela Geaney

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