The history of Mindfulness in one word is Buddhism.
Mindfulness seems to be popping up all over the place now, but without the traditional Buddhist philosophy or standards.
Is this a good thing or naive and reckless?
Most of what’s been written about Mindfulness history paints it positively, but much has also been written recently debunking many myths, exposing lies and challenging Buddhism to its core.
Hinduism was already old when the Buddha was born 2500 years ago, in India. Mindfulness was part of the Hindu teachings, and is today core to the self inquiry teachings of ‘Oneness’ Hindu thought, as was taught by Ramana Maharshi and his followers. Mindfulness is a core of the Buddha’s teaching. He also taught a philosophy of life around it, and spoke of the implications and results of practicing mindfulness. Unlike Jesus, who had very few people recording his teachings during his life, the Buddha had many people recording what he said.
Buddhism then spread through India to much of the Far East over the next 2000 years. Wherever Buddhism spread it took on aspects of local culture and religion, creating different colours and flavours. Tibetan Buddhist thought, ceremony and philosophy is heavily influenced by the Shamanistic Bon religion that was already there, Chan Buddhism in China took a lot of Confucian and Taoist thought, and the Japanese Zen is infused with Japanese culture.
Some cultural flavours of Buddhism are positive or neutral, while others are not nice at all. For example, in many Buddhist countries it is commonly thought that women are inferior to men, cannot be ‘Enlightened’. The best they can hope for is to be reborn as man. Places with these beliefs even to this day include Tibet.
In Buddhism mindfulness has always been seen as as an extremely good thing to do, but one that requires intense practice & dedication. Someone can only teach after many years of practice under the direct instruction of a Buddhist Teacher. Also, your teacher says when you are ready to teach & gives you license to. Implicit to Buddhist teaching is that there are many dangers and hazards to practicing mindfulness which are the downfall of the unguided, naive and reckless.
Recent History of Mindfulness
Alongside a steady decline of the established Christian church in the West, there’s been a growing groundswell of alternative culture. In the early 20th century came the theosophists and spiritualists, then the beatniks of the late 1950’s led by Bob Dylan and Allan Ginsburg etc, to the hippies of the late 1960’s. Now there is acceptance of alternative culture, psychology, green ideas, and a multiplicity of faith and religious thought.
There has been a tendency over the past 50 years in the West to revere Eastern religions, especially the Buddhist Tibetan, Japanese Zen, and Thai Vipassana teachings. Teachers coming to the West have attracted large followings who see them as mystics, ‘Enlightened Beings’, ‘Non-Returners’ and such like, often even in the face of strong evidence to the contrary.
Buddhist monasteries, communities and centers with live-in teachers began to appear in Europe and USA in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and were publicised by people like Ram Dass (Richard Alpert), Timothy Leary and The Beatles, through books and media coverage.
The internet has had a huge effect on the spreading of Buddhist teachings, through websites, forums and YouTube. In the last few years the counselling and psychotherapy world has started using mindfulness as a tool to help help people with emotional issues. In just the last 5 years this has led to mindfulness being taught on its own, with no added skills or tools required. It has quickly spread in a almost viral way, with thousands of people with little training teaching it. It’s even gone mainstream, being advocated by public health services like the NHS in Britain. Research showing its benefits if practiced only for a few weeks are quoted everywhere. Much of the quick spread may be down to its inherent simplicity.
The recent explosion of mindfulness teaching is totally at odds with 2500 years of Buddhist teachers saying tread carefully… This can be seen as a blessing or a curse, as I talk about here…
There is also a dark subplot to the recent history of mindfulness…