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 PositivePsychology.com, we have been discussing several different aspects of mindfulness.

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.

Before you read on, we thought you might like to download our 3 Mindfulness Exercises for free. These science-based, comprehensive exercises will not only help you cultivate a sense of inner peace throughout your daily life but will also give you the tools to enhance the mindfulness of your clients, students, or employees.

You can download the free PDF here.

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

Idols in 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.

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

Buddha as Spiritual Center 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).

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

How Mindfulness Went From East to West Thich Nhat HanhPerhaps 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.

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

Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and Joseph Goldstein the Insight Meditation Society 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.

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 PositivePsychology.com 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 that 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.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our 3 Mindfulness Exercises for free.

If you wish to learn more, Mindfulness X© is our 8-module mindfulness training package for practitioners which contains all the materials you’ll need to not only enhance your mindfulness skills but also learn how to deliver a science-based mindfulness training to your clients, students, or employees.

  • Gaiswinkler, L., Unterrainer, H.F. (2016). The relationship between yoga involvement, mindfulness and psychological well-being. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 26(1), 123-127.
  • Hacker, P., Davis, Jr., D.R. (2006). Dharma in Hinduism. Journal of Indian Philosophy, 34(5), 479-496.
  • Hatcher, B.A. (2007). Bourgeois Vedanta: The colonial roots of middle-class Hinduism. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 75(2), 298-323.
  • 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.

About the Author

Joaquín Selva, Bc.S., Psychologist is a behavioral neuroscience researcher and scientific editor. Joaquín was both a teaching assistant and a research assistant and conducted research that led to the publication of three peer-reviewed papers. Since then, his work has included writing for PositivePsychology.com and working as an English editor for academic papers written by non-native English speakers.

Comments

  1. Norma

    As a student of mindfulness I found this article extremely helpful, and I intend to re-read Kabbat- Zinn as a starting point in my efforts to develop a more mindful life. Thank you so much.

    Reply
  2. Xo

    Thank you Joaquin for sharing this information. I think you did a great job putting this together for the readers. It’s to the point and clear. If readers want to find deeper info on certain points – there’s plenty of information out there that can further elaborate.

    Reply
    • Nicole Celestine

      Hi Xo,
      Glad you enjoyed the article. Yes, there’s certainly plenty more to read in books and on the web. For more reading, we have a free mindfulness toolkit available for download here which might be of interest to you.
      – Nicole | Community Manager

      Reply
  3. MBSR_Man

    hey great way to be mindfull about all of these things

    Reply
  4. Jacqueline Harriott

    I am not a graduate or student of any training programme but a student of My Mindfulness Domain. I am 67 years old and my life experience has imposed on me the inevitable unhealthy stress mode and needing to please others scenarios. At this stageI my life l am desperately wanting to take this journey of discovery so by starting from scratch l will become connected and discover what is right for me. Therefore this article is a useful stepping stone in my humble understanding of the origins and expansion of Mindfulness in the West.

    Reply
  5. Victoria Mathis

    I’m a graduate of MBSR Jon Kabat Zinn, Saki Santorelli and Thich Natch Hann were my teacher’s . You’ve downplayed their groundbreaking work in this article and your reason for doing so is not clear. They begain exploring the mind body connection while doing a practicum at a Boston hospital. The Cambridge center for meditation played an important role for expanding their practice. From the stress reduction and relaxation program they began to teach unique populations of people from all walks of life. It’s really impossible to downplay their role in the practice of mindfulness meditation. Without Jon kabat-zinn, Thach Natch Hann, Saki Santorelli and Florence, there wouldn’t be mindfulness anywhere.

    Reply
  6. susy dyson

    jon kabat zinn is a great promoter of mindfulness as he started using it to cure patients with MBSR mindfulness based stress reduction; as they were not improving despite the same illness and medication, at the clinic in massachusetts i believe in the early 70’s

    Reply
  7. Rebecca

    Interest in Mindfulness in the West is not a new finding, interest has been around as far as I can see since the 70’s.

    Reply
    • susy dyson

      exactly dr. jon kabat zinn introduces MBSR at about that time

      Reply
  8. Himalayan Holistic Yoga

    lovely article! Thanks for sharing this article.

    Reply
  9. Ayurveda School

    Great post thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  10. Angela Geaney

    I’ve also been doing research into mindfulness and it’s not all positive. Some have had very negative experiences. It’s not a one size fits all. Care needs to be applies. I’m not negative towards the practice, but it needs experienced trainers. There’s a reason my medication labels read not to share with anyone, it can be harmful for some.

    Reply
  11. yoga ttc in rishikesh

    Nice Post. Thanks for sharing the information.

    Reply
  12. yoga teacher training in goa

    Yeahh.Nice Post. Thanks for sharing the information

    Reply
  13. yoga teacher training in goa

    Yeahh.. Awesome work guys. Thanks for sharing

    Reply
  14. yoga teacher training rishikesh

    This article is really so interesting. Thanks for sharing. Keep it up guys.

    Reply
  15. yoga teacher training rishikesh

    This article is really so interesting. Thanks for sharing the information

    Reply
  16. Steve Rayl

    Hello, I appreciate the information that you shared. I am researching the term “mindfulness” as compared to the term “meditation”. While reading and listening to others use the term mindfulness it seems it is the same as meditation or at least borrowed heavily from it. So why the change??? Is meditation seeped so deeply into its religious references that it is not so easily “sold” to the public as easily as mindfulness? If so doesn’t this do a great disservice to the true and deeper meaning of this practice?
    I’m sure there are positive in roads to this “new” term, but it’s a lot like teaching a child to say four instead of using their fingers to express this mathematical concept. Saying the word four leaves the number to stand alone whereas using your fingers helps one to realize that four fingers is a part of five and so on.

    Reply
    • NISHIT Kumar SINHA

      I may be wrong in my understanding and would appreciate if you point it out.
      Meditation is a practice, similar to Yoga, or Vipassana or other concentrative meditation practices, and mindfulness-based interventions like MBSR, which is another form of meditation – all these help in enhancing the state of mindfulness.
      Beyond that, mindfulness is also present at the dispositional level, or so to say individual trait level. There are individuals who would be more mindful than others at any given time. In all probability, there comes the need to coin a different term.

      Reply
  17. anna raon

    Hi, I am very happy to read this article. Its really interesting and too good.

    Reply
  18. Stacey

    Thanks for sharing this and for the references!!!

    Reply
  19. Rishi yog

    This is an interesting article.Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  20. Mini Singh

    How about the role of the yogi Paramhansa Yogananda (Autobiography of a Yogi)? Everyone talks about Jon Kabat-Zinn and Thich Nhat Hanh. But Swami Paramhansa Yogananda played a crucial role in spreading the mindfulness message across the West.

    Reply
  21. Yoga Teacher Training Course in Rishikesh

    HI,
    Nice Post, Thanks for sharing lovely information. Keep Posting

    Reply
  22. Jorge

    Hi there,
    Thanks for your time writing this piece.
    I would like to know if it is possible to quote this work in a paper I’m writing

    Reply
  23. yoga school rishikesh

    Nice Post. Thanks for sharing the information.

    Reply
  24. MANJUL

    There is correction to this article. Indus valley CIvilization is not origin of YOGA or Hinduism .. Its history is much more deeper that what thought in west. Vedas are more than 20 thousand old. Even its time still not clear . Goal of Yoga or mediation is to get realization of oneness with universe where Universe is within you and your are in universe(Brahaman).

    Reply
  25. Kristina Ron

    Wonderful information. I am very happy and delighted to read this post as it has almost everything which a person needs to know about mindfulness. Thank you for sharing

    Reply
  26. Caroline

    Great reading! Thank you!

    Reply
  27. Maggie

    Hi Joaquin,
    Beautifully written piece. I teach mindfulness to high school students through a non-profit called Peace in Schools. If you’re ever in Portland, I’d love to have you audit a class! I think you’d enjoy it 🙂
    Warmly,
    Maggie

    Reply
  28. Vince

    Hi, Joaquin.
    I am interested in mindful intercultural communication as my graduate school study. I really would like to find out how mindfulness (yes, the Buddhism roots) found its way to intercultural communication. I know for a fact that Professor Langer developed the concept and application to psychology and this was then adopted by Dr. Stella Ting-Tomey, a communications expert, for her mindful intercultural communication. Your knowledge on how this came to be – from Buddhism to intercultural communication – would be appreciated. If you could also suggest sources to consult, I would appreciate it greatly. Many thanks.

    Reply
  29. parker

    i am happy to read this post. thank you for this sharing.

    Reply
  30. ILeana Sune

    Love your article! Found it both insightful and interesting. Thank you!

    Reply
  31. Grace

    Hello and thank you for the informative history of Mindfulness.
    I am a long time practitioner and am currently putting together a Mindfulness-based program for delivery into the wellness arena. I would apprecicate using parts of your history as a handout to participants. May I do so? – with due acknowledgement to yourself of course.
    With kind regards
    Grace

    Reply
    • Joaquin Selva

      Hi Grace,
      I am happy to hear you enjoyed the piece and found it to be informative. You are more than welcome to use parts of it in your program. I hope your students find it helpful as well. Thank you for reading!

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *