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 important 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 has never been established authoritatively. 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 have developed many modern translations 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 collectively 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?
Put simply, 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 methods and to empirically measure any effects that occur. Frequently comparing changes in the mindfulness participants to ‘waiting list’ participants 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, that the science supporting mindfulness is unreliable in several areas. And that contemporary mindfulness lacks theoretical or operational cohesion.
Why critical mindfulness
The ‘mindfulness revolution’ has led to the burgeoning use of contemporary meditation and mind training methods across society. The rapid growth in mindfulness interventions 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 being reliably challenged, how can the growth of mindfulness be understood? An important task for a historian of science is to investigate why and how mindfulness developed in the way that it has, given the fundamental contradictions that have now emerged. 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 quite different. By studying the intersections between Buddhist practices and science (particularly psychology), the way that knowledge is consumed, interpreted, created and exploited in society can be illuminated.
The critical mindfulness project; share and collaborate
This critical investigation of mindfulness is a three years PhD research project that began in September 2019. It does not exist in isolation, it has been built on the work and support of others and it draws on resources from several disciplines. As such it rejects the notion of a normative form(s) of mindfulness. Human society is a rich and dynamic plane and the architect of this study welcomes collaboration, prompts and signposts from any mindfulness stakeholder or interested observer.
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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. ”Bikku Bodhi1
1 Bodhi, Bhikkhu. “What does mindfulness really mean? A canonical perspective.” Contemporary Buddhism 12, no. 01 (2011): 19-39.