Buddhist mindfulness

Many of the concepts and practices of mindfulness which are now taught in secular mindfulness courses come from the Buddhist tradition. This doesn’t mean mindfulness is uniquely Buddhist – all cultures have various practices which encourage a state of mindfulness. However, mindfulness, or sati, as it’s called in Buddhism, has been researched and developed for more than 2500 years in the Buddhist tradition since it forms a fundamental part of what is known as the ‘eight-fold noble path’. It is considered a key element of the Buddhist way of life, together with ethics and insight. The Buddha emphasised sati as a foundational practice, one of the keys to learning how to become less entangled in our self-centered thoughts and delusions. He also understood that mindfulness takes diligent practice – it’s not something to be learnt so much as practised again and again. In Buddhism, sati is practised not to help us feel better or become more efficient at work, but to support realisation into the fundamental nature of existence, such as impermanence, no-self and emptiness. It assumes a world view where these concepts are accepted. And although modern physics seems to show some interesting parallels with Buddhist concepts, the Buddhist notions of no-self and emptiness are quite different to Western secular or Christian understandings of the self and the spiritual path. Sati helps to deconstruct our sense of self until we understand that there is no independently existing self – every aspect of who we are is contingent on external forces and conditions.

Sati is also closely linked to ethics in Buddhism – our speech, our jobs, our intentions and actions are all part of the eight-fold path. Buddhist teachers sometimes criticise secular mindfulness teachers for taking mindfulness out of the ethical context in which it is taught in Buddhism. My experience in teaching and practising mindfulness is that a more mindful life does lead to greater awareness of how our behaviours impact on ourselves and others. Many of my students have reported choosing their words more carefully, for example, when they’re having that difficult conversation with their teenager or their colleague, and how this led to a much better outcome for all. I do agree though with Buddhist teachers and also with Jon Kabat-Zinn that mindfulness is a way of life, not a method. When mindfulness becomes no more than a tool to achieve an immediate end, such as reducing staff absenteeism, then most of its gifts and richness are lost.

We are fortunate nowadays that we don’t need to be a Buddhist or join a sect or follow some guru in order to learn meditation and experience its benefits. The work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and others who have brought mindfulness from the Buddhist context into the Western clinical setting has made learning mindfulness accessible to many more people, and this has been of tremendous benefit. Very few of those learning mindfulness now would want to become a signed-up Buddhist, and they don’t need to be. Yet we can learn from Buddhism and allow mindfulness to be within our own ethical, spiritual and philosophical framework, rather than just something we want to learn as a quick-fix to a particular problem in our life.

Weekly practice idea:

Do you see mindfulness as a way of life rather than a method? What does this mean for you? Allow yourself twenty minutes to reflect on this question – what emerges for you?

Anja Tanhane

Four meanings of mindfulness

Mindfulness has certainly become very popular – when the US army, Capitol Hill, major corporations and Silicon Valley all embrace mindfulness, you know it’s gone mainstream. On the whole, this is positive – a wonderful antidote to our overly busy and hectic lives. Yet, as with anything which becomes popularised, there is the risk that mindfulness is becoming increasingly superficial. From mindful colouring books to thousands of mindfulness apps, suddenly everyone is doing mindfulness. More disturbingly, mindfulness is sometimes taught by inexperienced teachers to vulnerable people in a way which may do harm. I’ve heard staff members say, ‘oh yes, we teach mindfulness to all our mental health clients’, but when I talk to the staff about mindfulness, they have no idea what it is. And while mindfulness can be taught to clients with mental health issues in certain contexts, the teaching needs to be done by highly qualified and experienced practitioners.
It occurred to me that we really need to start using different words for mindfulness, depending on how it’s used. Part of the problem is that mindfulness is an English word which means ‘paying attention’ or ‘being thoughtful and considerate’. It was then appropriated to also describe sati, the Buddhist concept of non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. Then, when the practice of mindfulness became legitimised in the West based on thousands of scientific studies, its meaning broadened to include different kinds of meditation. We used to talk about the relaxation response, guided imagery meditation, transcendental meditation and so on, but suddenly all we ever seem to hear about is mindfulness meditation. From there we come to mindful colouring books and apps, which have their place, but are a world removed from sati.
So we have Buddhist mindfulness, or sati, which needs to be taught by a Buddhist teacher. Then there is therapeutic mindfulness, such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and similar programs, which is usually (though not always) taught by experienced meditators who have been trained to deliver these programs safely. We then come to relaxation mindfulness, which can be taught through CDs and apps and the occasional workshop. This way of using mindfulness can be helpful for stress management, but it doesn’t really explore key mindfulness concepts such as non-judgmental awareness, non-striving and acceptance. In the field it’s sometimes called Mindfulness Lite or McMindfulness. As for adult colouring books, they help to slow people’s minds down, which is beneficial – but they really have nothing to do with mindfulness as such.
In the next four weeks, I will explore these different categories of mindfulness. I’ll describe them as Buddhist mindfulness (sati), therapeutic mindfulness, relaxation mindfulness, and recreational mindfulness. Of course these categories are not distinct – they overlap, and within the various streams there are many variations. But perhaps, over time, we can come up with new words to describe the different ways of using mindfulness, and acknowledge the skills of those who have been trained to teach Buddhist and therapeutic mindfulness.

Weekly practice idea:
Which aspects of mindfulness do you feel most drawn to? You might well be using mindfulness in these four different ways, or you may be exploring one area in particular. Are the four categories meaningful to you, or can you come up with your own description of mindfulness?
Anja Tanhane



‘Among us, in our own daily lives, who is not reverently grateful for the protections of life – food, drink and clothing.’

From ‘Torei Zenji’s Bodhisattva’s Vow’

Who indeed? I suspect most of us spend very little time being reverently grateful for the drink of water in the morning, the biscuit eaten with a cup of tea, the jumper we put on when the sun goes down. Sometimes in winter I’m glad of a thick pair of socks to pull on, but I can hardly claim to be wearing them with reverent gratitude. We take just about everything for granted, and it’s easy to feel deprived in the midst of plenty. Continue reading “Gratitude” »