It was in the 1970s when the now celebrated mindfulness meditation teacher and researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn changed the course of western psychology forever. After graduating from MIT with a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology, Kabat-Zinn began developing a program that integrated the eastern spiritual practices of mindfulness and meditation into western medical treatment strategies for anxiety, depression, and stress. For Kabat-Zinn, who became a devout Buddhist during his college years, it was apparent to see how mindfulness and meditation could profoundly help individuals suffering from mental illness.
Since Jon Kabat-Zinn first taught his now renowned Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program in 1979, an ever-expanding base of scientific research has continued to show the benefits individuals obtain by undertaking a meditation practice, and while the work of each and every person who pioneered the scientific study of meditation should be lauded, we must wonder what the mindful state induced during practice actually is. If we take the time to explore what many consider to be science’s greatest mystery, and the historical roots of meditation, what we may discover is that mindfulness isn’t a practice, but it’s who we are at the core of our beings.
Mindfulness According to Science:
In medical communities throughout the world today, mindfulness has become a mainstream treatment strategy for a wide variety of health issues. Research shows how individuals suffering from physical, emotional, and cognitive disorders can reduce their symptoms by maintaining a meditation practice. But what exactly is mindfulness? Jon Kabat-Zinn tells us it’s:
“The awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment — non-judgmentally.”
For healthcare practitioners using mindfulness as a supplementary treatment for individuals suffering from a wide variety of health issues, the goal is to teach their patients how to become aware and accepting of their thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations without trying to suppress or become overwhelmed by them. Yet still, because much remains unknown about the inconspicuous state of mindfulness, scientific leaders are unable to promote it as being anything more than a tool to increase our levels of subjective well-being.
The ‘Hard Problem’ of Consciousness:
Another historical event pertaining to mindfulness took place fifteen years after Jon Kabat-Zinn began successfully alleviate individuals’ stress levels with mindfulness meditation. It was at the University of Arizona’s Towards a Science of Consciousness conference in 1994 when a young Australian philosopher named David Chalmers similarly changed the landscape of psychology forever. What Chalmers prosed was that there is a ‘hard problem’ with scientifically explaining consciousness, or one’s ability to experience life subjectively while being aware of themselves and the world around them. In his book The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, Chalmers writes:
“The subject matter is perhaps best characterized as ‘the subjective quality of experience.’ When we perceive, think, and act, there is a whir of causation and information processing, but this processing does not usually go on in the dark. There is also an internal aspect; there is something it feels like to be a cognitive agent. This internal aspect is conscious experience.”
It should be clear to see that the mindfulness practices prescribed by healthcare professionals are directly related to the conscious experience Chalmers writes of. By practicing meditation, individuals are able to increase their levels of mindfulness or consciousness in a way that promotes living more fully in the present-moment. Unfortunately, because this transitory state is so hard to describe tangibly, many scientific thinkers continue to bypass the subject. If not for the likes of Kabat-Zinn and other scientific mindfulness revolutionaries, meditation would likely remain out of the spectrum of public health because science can’t quantifiably tell us what consciousness is or how it arises out of our brains.
The Spiritual State of Enlightenment:
Although mindfulness and meditation have only become popular in the west within the past 50 years, the practices’ roots can be traced back hundreds of centuries to the great spiritual religions of India. While modest Buddhist monk and mystical Hindu sages certainly knew about the health benefits that arise from meditation, their primary purpose for practice has always been to move closer towards the spiritual state of enlightenment.
Scientifically speaking, the idea of a spiritually transcendent state of enlightenment may seem like a childish one, yet the very practices that are being taught in hospitals and health clinics are the ones taught by the great teachers of Buddhism and Hinduism. While mindfulness has only recently been accepted as a supplementary treatment strategy in the west, India’s immortal seers long before discovered it to be much more. From a spiritual perspective, mindfulness is not only a tool that takes you towards enlightenment but is in fact enlightenment itself. It was the celebrated Japanese Buddhist priest and philosopher Dōgen who told us:
“Zazen [Seated meditation] is itself Enlightenment, one minute of sitting, one minute of being Buddha.”
Mindfulness Is Who You Are:
In both spiritual and scientific circles today, much attention is given to the benefits individuals experience by living mindfully in the present-moment, yet because science doesn’t have answers as to what mindfulness or consciousness is, the true potential of meditation remains limited in nature. Even though neuroscientists and psychiatrists have verified much of what the Buddha’s taught some 2,500 years ago, they remain unable to advocate for individuals taking their meditation practice to transcendental levels.
Seeing that the Buddha taught in a completely agnostic way after transcending the normalcy of human existence by attaining spiritual enlightenment, each of us has the opportunity to delve into his teachings without going against our own religious beliefs to discover the truth of who we really are. By not being satisfied with the basic scientific explanations of consciousness, and instead committing ourselves to analytically examining the various parts of ourselves, we can come to realize that mindfulness is in fact who we are at the core of our beings. Take it from the celebrated American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, who tells us:
“You are the sky. Everything else – it's just the weather.”