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Psychological Mindfulness
How Psychology!
defines Mindfulness!
The great translator Rhys Davids coined the word ‘mindfulness’ in
1881 as a translation of sati (attention). ‘Mindful’ as an adjective dates
from the 14th Century, but ‘mindfulness’ as a noun starts with Rhys
Davids. Let me emphasis this point: ‘Mindfulness’ had no currency before
Rhys Davids. He invented the word as a translation for sati. This also
explains why it is generally associated with Buddhism. !
This neologism opened the floodgates for new possible usages.
‘Mindfulness’ can now be used to describe a cognitive function
(attention), a therapy (MBSR), a state of mind (equanimity), a meditation
practice (Vipassana), a popular movement, a character trait and the
essence of Buddhism itself. ‘Mindfulness’ now applies to all of these in
ways that the word ‘attention’ could never do. This is the conglomeration
of phenomena that for convenience I refer to as Psychological
Mindfulness (PM).!
When Kabat-Zinn reinvented ‘mindfulness’ yet again, he virtually had
a clean slate to work with. In 1979, there were no more than two or three
readily available books on The Satipatthana Sutta. He certainly knew
Nyanaponika’s ‘The Heart of Buddhist Meditation’ (1962). He may also
have read Soma Thera’s ‘The Way of Mindfulness’ (1941) which was the
book that I started with in 1975.!
Much of what the pioneering writers said now seems idiosyncratic, but
there was no one outside of the monasteries to debate with them. The
field of English language literature on early Buddhism is still tiny, and
Psychological Mindfulness
there is very little dialogue between the players. Modern scholarship has a
more accurate understanding, but it seems to operate in an entirely
different universe from meditators, monks, psychologists and popular
In the East, the teaching of Buddhism remains an oral tradition. The
original texts are in languages (Pali and Sanskrit) that are just as dead as
Latin. No young monk could possibly understand a text without a senior
monk to decipher it. This gives senior monks enormous freedom to
interpret the texts according to their own intuition and their immediate
pedagogic and social goals, which they do without apology. Nyanaponika
admitted that his key interpretive idea of ‘Bare Attention’ is not even
found in the Satipatthana Sutta. !
Kabat-Zinn’s new definition undoubtedly arose in the informal oral
context of meditation instruction. It is quite loose – more descriptive and
allusive than definitive – and he frequently rephrases it to suit his
purposes in talks and articles. Researchers struggle to make it work, and
one has questioned whether it can be regarded as a definition at all. David
Vago summed up what he called, ‘the major problem in the field right
now’ in 2012: ‘There remains no single “correct” or “authoritative
definition” of mindfulness and the concept is often trivialised and
conflated with many common interpretations.’1 35 years on from the birth
of MBSR, it is still a work in progress.!
This epistemic field of vague language, lack of boundaries and general
confusion about what, why and how has nonetheless had a positive effect.
It has encouraged any number of writers and health professionals to
develop their own applications and definitions. (Does mindfulness work
with toddlers or the criminally insane? Why not? Let’s try it out.) !
An evolving definition!
So what is mindfulness? A commonsense answer would be that it is a
Standard Meditation Practice, such as I described in Chapter 1. Focusing
on the body for relaxation and mental calm is certainly a necessary if not
sufficient requirement. Few people think of mindfulness as being
anything other than a meditation practice, but it is rarely defined this way.!
In 1994 Kabat-Zinn defined mindfulness as: ‘Paying attention in a
particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and
nonjudgmentally’. Although this states that PM has a purpose, Kabat1
David Vago. 2012.
Psychological Mindfulness
Zinn doesn’t spell out what it is. This places tremendous weight on the
concluding word ‘nonjudgmentally’. By default, it seems that the purpose
of mindfulness is to achieve a state free of all judgements. !
In theory, this could mean noticing stimuli but not making judgements
about them. This is obviously hard to do. In clinical practice however, it
means either inhibiting or down-valuing existing judgements, particularly
when they are automatic and self-destructive. In the Satipatthana Sutta,
this correlates to reducing the emotional charge of stimuli to as close to
neutral as possible.!
In 2003, Kabat-Zinn presented a revised ‘working definition’ of
mindfulness as: “The awareness that emerges through paying attention on
purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of
experience.”2 (My italics.) !
The difference is significant. PM is no longer a form of attention. It is
the emergent quality of ‘awareness’ that arises from paying attention. This
implies that you would start a meditation in a non-mindful state and
gradually achieve it as you approach some degree of body-mind stillness
(passaddhi) or equanimity. This new definition reorients PM away from
‘attention’, (which is a perpetually volatile cognitive function), to a
relatively stable and ideal ‘state of mind’. This definition uses secular
language but it correlates well with the Buddhist concept of ‘emptiness’ or
‘Buddhamind’ (bodhicitta).!
The word ‘nonjudgmental’ is just as prominent in both translations but
it remains problematic. Strong and uncompromising as it seems to be
(‘Making judgements is wrong!’), a definition built on a negative is
difficult to grasp. To define something by what it is not is odd. How can
we imagine the absence of something? We would have to hold a
conception of it in mind to negate it. And why not ‘non-anger’ or ‘nondesire’ or ‘non-anxiety’ instead? Presumably all negations are identical.!
I find ‘nonjudgmental’ both peculiar and profound. The word
resembles a Zen koan that we have to grasp through intuition rather than
logic. As a result, PM is commonly explained by using other descriptors
such as acceptance, compassion, friendliness and interest. These all have
the incidental effort of pushing the meaning of mindfulness further from
‘attention’ and more towards ‘an ideal state of mind’.!
For example, in 2003 Kabat-Zinn added, “The words for heart and
mind are the same in Asian languages; thus ‘mindfulness’ includes an
Kabat-Zinn. 2003. Mindfulness-Based Interventions in Context. p.145.
Psychological Mindfulness
affectionate, compassionate quality within the attending; a sense of openhearted friendly presence and interest.”3 (See Thanissaro’s criticism
When I was a young meditator, I was encouraged to look into my heart
and listen to ‘the Buddha within’ (the bodhicitta). This approach effectively
sidelines the historical Buddha and the whole tradition, but it is quite
common in Tibetan and Zen Buddhism. Kabat-Zinn’s efforts to intuit and
describe this ideal state of mind are in keeping with this approach, and it
has encouraged many other writers to do the same. In the absence of any
standards, any journalist or popular writer can likewise have a go at
defining mindfulness with little fear of criticism.!
There is little doubt that meditation is a highly beneficial practice, but
the definitions, and the theories as to how it could work are very much
lacking. Nonetheless, we still need to get a handle on this unwieldy
conglomeration of meanings if we are to examine it at all. I would suggest
a short definition and a long one. The short PM definition goes like this:
‘Mindfulness is a nonjudgmental, accepting state of mind’. The longer PM
version goes like this: ‘Mindfulness is a nonjudgmental, accepting,
compassionate, open, curious, present-centred state of mind.’!
How does PM compare with Sati?!
So how do the definitions above compare with sati as I described it in
Chapter 13? Firstly, PM is considerably more complicated than sati. It
contains more essential adjectives and qualifiers. Secondly, sati refers to a
cognitive function (attention), whereas PM refers to an ideal meditative
state of mind, or to ‘a particular orientation to present-moment
experience.’4 Thirdly, the purpose of sati is to make good judgements (‘the
conscious perception and evaluation of something’), whereas PM is
invariably described as a nonjudgmental state. !
Buddhists and scholars have repeatedly criticised PM on this last point
but their pop-guns have had no effect on the PM juggernaut. For example,
Thanissaro Bhikkhu says: “We often hear mindfulness described as a
nonjudgmental state but that was not how the Buddha saw it.”5 !
Kabat-Zinn. 2003. Mindfulness-Based Interventions in Context: Past, Present, and Future.
Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10, p.145
Bishop. S. et al. 2004.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu. 2008
Psychological Mindfulness
In 2004, Scott Bishop et al. converted Kabat-Zinn’s definition into more
academic language. They defined mindfulness as: “A kind of
nonelaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centred awareness in which each
thought, feeling or sensation that arises in the attentional field is
acknowledged and accepted as it is.”6 The Buddhist scholar B. Alan
Wallace is highly critical of this definition. In his book The Attention
Revolution, he says: “This modern understanding departs significantly
from the Buddha’s own account of sati and those of the most authoritative
commentators in the Theravadin and Indian Mahayana traditions.”7 !
Wallace supports his point by quoting at length from an early text
called the Milandapanha. He summarises: “Sati calls to mind wholesome
and unwholesome tendencies. It sees ahead to the outcomes of these
tendencies: it identifies particular tendencies as either beneficial or
unbeneficial, helpful or not helpful.”8 Wallace goes on to say: “Rather than
refraining from categorizing experiences in a nonjudgmental fashion, sati
is said to distinguish between wholesome and unwholesome, beneficial
and unbeneficial tendencies. The contrast between ancient and modern
accounts is striking.” !
There is no mystery in general about what sati means. It has been
exhaustively analysed in the original commentaries. It would be fair to
say that no serious Buddhist scholar would agree with the psychological
definition of sati as ‘nonjudgmental.’ It is completely unsustainable. There
is not a skerrick of evidence for it in the original texts and there is a
mountain of evidence to the contrary. So how did sati become
nonjudgmental, accepting and compassionate? Thanissaro Bhikkhu in his
fine article ‘Mindfulness Defined’9 makes a perceptive observation. Each
of those terms is found in the original texts, but they don’t apply to sati ! "
Thanissaro points out that ‘nonjudgmental’ correlates much better
with the Buddhist term upekkha than with sati. Upekkha is that state of
stillness and serenity in which all one’s affective responses to the world
have vanished. The absence of valence means no ‘approach or withdraw’
tendency, which means no judgement or decision to act in any way.!
Thanissaro also comments that the word ‘acceptance’ is much closer to
the Buddhist term sukha (contentment) than to sati. Sukha is a kind of deep
unshakeable happiness independent of circumstances. Thanissaro says
Bishop.S. 2004.
B.Alan Wallace. 2006. p 62.
B.Alan Wallace. 2006. p 61. I have slightly abbreviated this quote.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu. ibid
Psychological Mindfulness
that it includes the sense of present-moment enjoyment: “Appreciating
the moment for all the little pleasures it can offer: the taste of a raisin, the
feel of a cup in your hands.”!
He goes on to say: “I’ve heard mindfulness described as ‘affectionate
attention’ or ‘compassionate attention’, but affection and compassion
aren’t the same as mindfulness. They’re separate things.” (‘Compassion’
equates loosely to the Pali words metta or karuna but it is quite unrelated
to sati.)!
Thanissaro continues: “Popular books offer a lot of other definitions of
mindfulness, a lot of other duties it’s supposed to fill, so many that the
poor word gets totally stretched out of shape. It even gets defined as
Awakening, as in the phrase – a moment of mindfulness is a moment of
Awakening – something the Buddha would never say.“10!
Thanissaro’s conclusion is very sensible: “It’s best not to load the word
mindfulness with too many meanings or to assign it too many
functions.”11 Pali and Sanskrit, the two languages of the texts, are both
capable of highly refined psychological distinctions. This subtlety is
destroyed when one word is expected to serve a range of often
contradictory meanings.!
Thanissaro’s analysis also explains why the modern definitions of
mindfulness have failed to gel. Sati means attention. This is a single
unified function: the perception and evaluation of something prior to a
response. PM however defines mindfulness as attention (sati) + being
nonjudgmental (upekkha) + acceptance (sukha) + compassion (metta) +
bodymind stillness (passadhi) + openness (sunyata). It would be fair to say
that mindfulness as described in the psychological literature is not a
unified concept at all. Let’s hope that the researchers will eventually
disambiguate it back into its component parts, and assess their relative
importance. My guess is that attention (sati) is probably more valuable
than the rest of the mindfulness bundle combined.!
Morally good and bad attention!
Sati is a Buddhist word but not a Buddhist concept. Attention is a
universal and ubiquitous cognitive function. It is not even moral. The
Buddha said, as is obvious, that sati can be used equally well for good or
This is a common Soto Zen argument. There is nowhere to go. Nothing to achieve. Just to
sit is to become a Buddha. This moment is enlightenment.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu. ibid
Psychological Mindfulness
bad purposes. For example, soldiers need to focus well to kill. The
Buddha even had terms that highlighted this. He talked about ‘right’
mindfulness (samma-sati) and ‘wrong’ mindfulness (miccha-sati). However,
this doesn’t sit well with psychologists or modern Buddhists or popular
writers, all of whom would prefer a more elevated description of sati. !
Nyanaponika proposed a solution in his 1962 book which is now
commonly adopted by all. He spent two pages brilliantly describing
mindfulness as attention, ‘the cardinal function of consciousness.’ He
links it to memory, heightened perception, associative and abstract
thinking, and the research work of the scientist and philosopher. !
Finally he makes a distinction between ‘attention’ (sati) and ‘right
attention’ (samma-sati). This latter term is the seventh stage in the
‘Eightfold Path’ of training contained in the Four Noble Truths.
Nyanaponika argued that the word ‘mindfulness’ should only be used for
‘right mindfulness’. It should only refer to that kind of attention that is
directed towards moral goals in the Buddhist context. Otherwise, it is just
mundane, everyday ‘attention.’12 Ever since, ‘mindfulness’ has carried
some kind of moral quality, however ill-defined that might be. !
When Buddhist writers discuss mindfulness, they particularly identify
it with samma-sati (right mindfulness) rather than just sati. For nonBuddhists, mindfulness is less specific, but it still suggests a Buddhistflavoured, compassionate, friendly, passive kind of attention. Of course,
this complicates the term enormously. Mindfulness is a kind of attention
that the Dalai Lama would approve of, but how would you scientifically
describe that? Nonetheless, the psychologists’ claims to authority based
on Buddhist sources do have some validity. They have mistranslated sati
but, perhaps in compensation, they have embellished it with many other
elements of Buddhist morality. !
Nyanaponika. 1962. p35-42