Reflections on Mindfulness Practice: An Overview from the Early Stages to the Age of “McMindfulness”


In recent decades, the term “mindfulness” has become popular in both secular and spiritual communities. The practice, which began even before the time of the historical Buddha, has grown and changed in various ways as it has flowed into new countries and cultural settings. Today we are the heirs to numerous different and often contradictory meanings of the word “mindfulness” – so many that it becomes necessary to ask deeper whenever we come across the term.

Mindfulness is defined as being aware of the present moment while accepting reality without judgment. Thich Nhat Hanh (1926–2022), a prominent Vietnamese meditation master, coined the term mindfulness to describe positive energy that helps people see the happiness that already exists in their lives. Mindfulness is also defined as “mere attention” when it alludes to your presently focused awareness. The mental, verbal, and physical aspects of mindfulness involve remembering the crucial action and cultivating enough mindfulness to forgo unnecessary action—mere attention. In short, mindfulness is a mental state of consciousness-of-consciousness, meaning the mind is stable in its awareness.

Rethink mindfulness, painting by Moumita Barua, a high school student. Image courtesy of the author

Many people make the mistake of assuming that the concepts of mindfulness and focus are interchangeable. In this context, Henepola Gunaratna (born 1927), a Sri Lankan-born American meditation teacher, also known as Bhante G, clarified that mindfulness and concentration are two separate functions. “Mindfulness is a delicate function that leads to refined sensibilities,” while “concentration could be defined as the mind’s ability to focus single-mindedly on an object without interruption,” describes Bhante G. in his seminal book Mindfulness in plain language (Buddhist Publications Society, 2011, 143-44).

South Asian mindfulness outside of Buddhism

Mindfulness practice is not a new trend initiated by modern humans, but has been practiced by humans for thousands of years. Ancient people’s interest in meditation can be seen in artifacts from the Indus Valley or the Harappa Civilization (3300–1300 BC). Many seals from the Indus Valley depict yogis or meditators in the lotus position. The appeal of mindfulness practice to ancient people is revealed by archaeological evidence of such artifacts.

Ancient literature from the Vedic period (1500–500 BC), such as the Vedas, continued the mindfulness traditions by uncovering integrated knowledge of meditation techniques prior to yoga practice. Yoga is a discipline that combines physical movement with mental healing and spiritual practice. Regardless, the Vedic word for “mindfulness” in Sanskrit was “Sriti.” It is worth noting that Bengalis also pronounce mindfulness as “Sriti’, which is derived from and therefore similar to the Sanskrit term.

Mahayogi seal from Mahenjo-daro, Indus Valley. Preserved in the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbi, India. Image courtesy of the Columbia University Archives

The development of the mindfulness teachings by the Buddha

The practice of mindfulness reached a new level after the historical Buddha introduced his disciples to the four foundations of mindfulness, including mindfulness of body, mind, feelings, and principles or phenomena. The Buddha clarified that a seeker’s practice of the four foundations of mindfulness would be developed while attempting to overcome the five hindrances of sensual desire, ill will, sloth and sloth, restlessness and worry, and doubt, and the progress of the mind Seven Awakening Eliminating Factors, namely Mindfulness, Inquiry, Energy, Joy, Tranquility, Insight, Focus and Equanimity.

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The Buddha defined two meditation techniques: tranquility meditation and insight meditation. Quiet meditation is widely viewed as a preliminary step to attaining mindfulness and teaches how to foster a calm state of mind. Insight meditation increases concentration levels and examines mental phenomena to achieve sustained mindfulness.

The Buddha in Meditation Posture and Triumphant over Evil (AD 850–900) excavated at Kurkihar, Bihar, India. On display at the Asia Art Museum in San Francisco. Image courtesy of the author

Ancient Greek teachings on mindfulness

Europeans also recognized the mindfulness tradition as documented in the reflective writings of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (AD 121–180). meditations. Marcus Aurelius focused on five main themes in his book: the impermanence or changing nature of a being, the truth of death and the shortness of life, the role and relevance of a rational state of mind, dealing with others and overcoming shortcomings, and bliss of equanimity through denying the desire for pleasure and prestige – and accepting conditions as they are.

Aurelius’ mindful reflections focused specifically on the importance of consciousness in understanding the reality of nature, before ethical disciplines in attaining a peaceful life. Aurelius began his epic book by quoting the prominent Greek philosopher Plato (c. 424–c. 348 BC). Prof. Gregory Hays at the University of Virginia, a translator of meditations, believes that Aurelius’ thoughts were influenced not only by Plato’s philosophy but also by ancient Greco-Roman philosophers such as Aristotle (384–322 BC), Socrates (470–399 BC), Zeno (495– 430 BC) and Epicurus (341 –270 BC). From a Greco-Roman perspective, Marcus Aurelius’ approach provided a standard template for mindfulness practice.

Marble bust of Marcus Aurelius, acquired by the Musée du Louvre in 1807. Exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image courtesy of the author

From ancient roots to modern practice

From the beginning of recorded history to the present day, mindfulness meditation has grown in popularity. We may now be living in what is sometimes referred to as the age of “McMindfulness.” Ronald E. Purser, professor of management at San Francisco State University, wrote in his book McMindfulness: How mindfulness became the new capitalist spirituality (Repeater Books, 2019) that the term “McMindfulness” was coined by Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist Miles Neale, who “described a binge of spiritual practice that provides immediate sustenance but no long-term sustenance.”

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Prof. Purser noted that the current mindfulness craze is a business model comparable to McDonald’s. Just as the fast food industry is rapidly satisfying people’s hunger, mindfulness industries are rapidly expanding and meeting the expectations of modern enterprise-level seekers. A seeker in the age of McMindfulness strives to attain a mindful state as quickly as possible. Prof. Purser, recognizing the rise of a mindfulness industry, wrote:

Mindfulness is said to be a $4 billion industry today, fueled by media hype and slick marketing by the movement’s elites. More than 100,000 books for sale on Amazon have a variant of “mindfulness” in their titles, touting the benefits of mindful parenting, mindful eating, mindful teaching, mindful therapy, mindful leadership, mindful finance, mindful nation and mindful dog ownership. just to name a few.

Ronald E. Purser’s book, McMindfulness: How mindfulness became the new capitalist spirituality
McMindfulness: Drive-Thru Spirituality. From twitter.com
Hambuddha. From pintrest.com and facebook.com

Before the widespread acceptance of mindfulness practice—and its commercialization by the mindfulness industry—many meditation institutions were established around the world that offered mindfulness classes. In the US, retreat attendees and practitioners sign up for meditation practice at sites like Spirit Rock Meditation Center, Zen Mountain Monastery, and Shambhala Mountain Center.

Following the trend of the global mindfulness revolution, in addition to the demand for mindfulness-based meditation in the Bengal Delta, Bangladesh also boasts a number of meditation facilities. The Quantum Method meditation center, which focuses on science and the meaning of life, is one of the most well-known institutes and teaches mindfulness in combination with spiritual and secular meditation methods. In Bangladesh there are many Vipassana institutions based on Buddhist traditions. People who are worried, anxious, distracted, or in an unstable mental state are offered the opportunity for recovery through calming meditation (Samatha Bhavana) and insight meditation (Vipassana Bhavana) found in most Buddhist monasteries.

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Every year on May 21st, “World Meditation Day” is observed to recognize mindfulness practitioners, seekers and retreat participants from around the world with the intention of spreading the light and positive vibration of present consciousness from one person to the next, race, country to country and community to community.

Insight meditations practiced by children and youth. Image courtesy of Shuvo Bikash Bhikkhu, resident Buddhist monk in Patiya Kendriya Bouddho Bihar, Chattogram, Bangladesh
Lucid mindfulness practice organized by the Quantum Method Meditation Center at Noakhali Science and Technology University (NSTU) in Bangladesh. Image courtesy of Dr. Abanti Barua

In summary, mindfulness is not only a pressing need for contemporary practitioners, but has also been seriously embraced and proclaimed by people throughout human history, from East to West. The practice of mindfulness has gradually been incorporated into people’s daily lives as they recognize the value of emotional self-discipline, heightened focus, and moral behavior. Aside from concerns about corporatization, cultivating awareness through mindfulness practice remains an increasingly popular choice for both Buddhists and non-Buddhists around the world.

references

Analayo, bhikkhu. 2003 Satipaṭṭhāna: The Direct Path to Realization. Birmingham: Windhorse Publications.

Aurelius, Mark. 2006 meditations. Translated by Martin Hammond. London: Penguin Classic.

Barua, Benimadhab. 1921 A History of Pre-Buddhist Indian Philosophy. Calcutta: Calcutta University.

Gunaratana, Mahāthera Henepola. 1981 The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta and its Application to Modern Life. Kandy: Society for Buddhist Publications.

———. 2011 Mindfulness in plain language. New York: Wisdom Publications.

Hanh, Thich Nhah. 1987 The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation Practice. Translated by Mobi Ho. Boston: Beacon Press.

Mahajatok. 2021 quantum method. Dhaka: Seba Prakashani.

Purser, Ronald E. 2019. McMindfulness: How mindfulness became the new capitalist spirituality. London: Repeater Books.

Shaw, Sarah. 2006 Buddhist Meditation: An Anthology of Texts from the Pali Canon. London and New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

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