In Search of the “Original” Mindfulness

phil jackson nicks mindfulness meditation

Words evolve; they change meaning over time. Get over it!

Virginia Heffernan has written an eloquent but ultimately convoluted critique of the Mindfulness movement. Some of her more amusing and insightful comments are reprised below, but let’s get to the heart of what’s problematic about her article.

Had Ms. Heffernan been alive in Elizabethan times, one imagines she would have panned Shakespeare’s plays for their impure “Continental influenced” language. The Bard rather brazenly borrowed and invented words, and developed disruptive forms of theater that initially annoyed many in the establishment.

It was ever thus and ever shall it be. Meanings of words, of entire concepts change from decade to decade, from century to century and, of course, from widely different culture to another.

What exactly does the word “jazz” mean in 2015 – especially compared to 70 or 80 years ago? How about the word “gay” or “queer”? Another example of a word that has changed its meaning over time: “artificial” — it used to mean “full of artistic or technical skill.” In the realm of religion, just consider the Catholic Church’s concept of “indulgences” in 14th and 15th centuries and compare it to the way the word is used now.

Yes, we don’t use Mindfulness in the same way a related word might have been used in the Pali language 2,000 or more years ago any more than we use the word “angst” as Goethe used it in the original German in the late 1700s.

More to the point, wide-ranging concept like “self” and “mind” have always had meanings that are contentious and highly dependent on context, in time and in place. In fact most people would struggle to compose a succinct definition of the word “mind” right now, without confusing it with the word “brain.” And how does the concept of “mind” relate to the concept of “cognition”? All this is fodder to endless academic debate.

I would assert that those who talk about something as great as the human condition can invoke, when choosing their vocabulary, the “Humpty Dumpty” provision, which is a sub section of “Poetic License.” This refers the passage in Alice in Wonderland:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

As for the tone of scorn that Ms. Heffernan spread across the Mindfulness movement, what alternatives does she suggest? Sticking with the status quo in education and mental health? Or more anti-depressants? More Freudian psychotherapy? More cognitive-behavioral coaching? More fiber in your cereal? Mandatory cold showers every morning?

The article also contains one of the most jaw-droppingly obvious statements I have ever seen in a major newspaper:

“No one word, however shiny, however intriguingly Eastern, however bolstered by science, can ever fix the human condition.” Well, yes – it’s hard to argue with that.

As I have noted earlier, it’s possible to write book-length long definitions of what one or another person wants the word “mindfulness” to mean. Or we can keep it absurdly simple as say that it means the opposite of “mindlessness.” Or we can devise a definition somewhere between these two extremes.

Still, let’s not throw the bathwater out with this cranky baby of an article. Here are a few highlights:

…Mindfulness may be that hefty word now, one that can’t readily be dismissed as trivia or propaganda.

…In the late 19th century, the heyday of both the British Empire and Victorian Orientalism, a British magistrate in Galle, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), with the formidable name of Thomas William Rhys Davids, found himself charged with adjudicating Buddhist ecclesiastical disputes. He set out to learn Pali, a Middle Indo-Aryan tongue and the liturgical language of Theravada, an early branch of Buddhism. In 1881, he thus pulled out “mindfulness” a synonym for “attention” from 1530 as an approximate translation of the Buddhist concept of sati.

…The translation was indeed rough. Sati, which Buddhists consider the first of seven factors of enlightenment, means, more nearly, “memory of the present,” which didn’t track in tense-preoccupied English. Mindfulness stuck, but may have saddled the subtle sati with false-note connotations of Victorian caution, or even obedience. (i.e. Mind your manners!)

…Mindfulness finally became an American brand, however, a hundred years later, when the be-here-now, Eastern-inflected explorations of the 60s came to dovetail with self-improvement regimes. In the 1970s, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist in New England and a longtime meditator in the Zen Buddhist tradition, saw in Rhys Davids¹s word a chance to scrub meditation of its religious origins. Kabat-Zinn believed that many of the secular people who could most benefit from meditation were being turned off by the whiffs of reincarnation and other religious esoterica that clung to it. So he devised a new and pleasing definition of mindfulness, one that now makes no mention of enlightenment: The awareness (( peacefulness or serenity )) that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.

…It’s an intimately attentive frame of mind. It¹s a relaxed-alert frame of mind. It¹s equanimity. It¹s a form of the rigorous Buddhist meditation called vipassana(“insight”), or a form of another kind of Buddhist meditation known asanapanasmrti (awareness of the breath). It’s M.B.S.R. therapy (mindfulness-based stress reduction).

…There’s a mindfulness-training program that¹s very logical and very calm, quiet, and we’ve started the process with this team, announced Phil Jackson, the president of the New York Knicks, last year. When Amare Stoudemire, a power forward then with the team, was asked whether he thought mindfulness training would help him, he replied: “It will definitely help, for sure. It just keeps you focused on the task at hand. It keeps you in tune.”


…Mindfulness as “keeping in tune” has a nice ring to it. But it’s focused on the task at hand² that appeals to managers, like Jackson, who are conscious of performance goals.

…(Mindfulness) has also come to inform high-minded prescriptions for raising children. Evidently they’re no longer expected to mind their manners; we are expected instead to mind their emotional states.

Links: New York Times article