So what is mindfulness?
Thousands of years of engagement have demonstrated the potential of meditation to mediate human lived experience. Society has embraced contemporary forms of meditation such as mindfulness, which now have essential roles in a range of secular settings. In a contemplative science context, the term ‘mindfulness’ was first translated in 1881, although a precise English definition was never authoritatively established. Today mindfulness refers to a family of traditional meditation methods, a large number of contemporary interventions and the complex mental states and traits that are the objects of these practices. Since the 1970s scientists and clinicians developed interpretations and imitations of the traditional form(s) of mindfulness. The most famous of these contemporary approaches is mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), which is a sub-set of methods known as mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs). Today, thousands of scientific studies have made claims supporting the benefits of mindfulness practices. However, there are growing concerns within the experimental and clinical communities about the reliability of mindfulness research.
Where are we now?
Experimental psychology uses two different approaches to study mindfulness. The first is to investigate people who practice traditional forms of mindfulness, methods such as vipassanā and śamatha. However, it has been more common for experimenters to train participants in modern techniques and to measure any effects that occur empirically. Frequently comparing changes in the mindfulness group to the ‘waiting list’ group (who receive no training). Experiments like these have indicated beneficial effects of mindfulness, leading to its proliferation across many areas of society including, schools, hospitals, prisons and the workplace. But, experts working in contemplative science have identified two pressing problems, the science supporting mindfulness is unreliable and that there is an absence of theoretical cohesion.
Why critical mindfulness
The ‘mindfulness revolution’ led to the growing use of contemporary meditation and mind training methods across society. This expansion has been supported in part, by a legitimacy derived through extensive scientific approval and a presumed conceptual relationship with Buddhist practices. If both of these prepositions are questionable, how can the growth of mindfulness be understood? Exploring the trajectory of mindfulness, notwithstanding these contradictions requires an interdisciplinary approach available to historians of science. It is clear that traditional mindfulness, like Buddhism itself, is dynamic and can evolve. In due course, contemporary mindfulness may be seen as part of this process, or as something entirely different. By identifying the intersections between meditation and science, the means of knowledge creation and exploitation will be illuminated.
The critical mindfulness project; share and collaborate
This critical investigation of the transition of meditation to mindfulness is a three years PhD research project that began in September 2019. It does not exist in isolation; it is built on the work and others and draws on resources from several disciplines. As such it rejects the notion of a normative form(s) of mindfulness. Human society is a vibrant and dynamic collaboration, and this study welcomes prompts and signposts from mindfulness stakeholders or interested observers. If you have an interest in this subject area, you can contribute to the debate in several ways.
- Firstly, add your comments wherever you see a text box, we need to debate the issues raised on this blog, for and against the different positions taken.
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- Suggest resources that we can link to or issues we should be discussing.
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Stephen Gene Morris | Canterbury | 31 August 2019
Talking about mindfulness
It is inevitable that mindfulness and other practices adopted from Buddhism will find new applications in the modern West, where worldviews and lifestyles are so different from those of southern and eastern Asia. If such practices benefit those who do not accept the full framework of Buddhist teaching, I see no reason to grudge them the right to take what they need.
1 Bodhi, Bhikkhu. “What does mindfulness really mean? A canonical perspective.” Contemporary Buddhism 12, no. 01 (2011): 19-39.