03/16/2016 02:45 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2017

Where Does the Word 'Mindfulness' Come From?

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The roots of "mindfulness"

Mindfulness seems to be just about everywhere these days -- from hospitals to schools, from high-brow news outlets to glossy celebrity magazines. But where does the word 'mindfulness' itself actually come from? In my recent efforts to collect 'untranslatable' words relating to wellbeing, I've come to appreciate what a tricky business translation can be. Even with seemingly straightforward words, it can be all too easy for meanings and nuances to get lost somewhere along the way. But what about 'mindfulness'? Essentially, it is a translation of sati, a word in the Pali language of ancient India - in which many original Buddhist texts were written - that can roughly be translated as 'awareness.' However, in researching the way Buddhism has been transmitted to the West, I've come to wonder whether 'mindfulness' is really the best word we could have chosen.

What does "sati" mean?

In its original Buddhist context, sati is used to capture a kind of present-moment awareness. We see this usage in what is arguably the seminal text on mindfulness in the Buddhist teachings, the satipaṭṭhāna sutta. This includes instructions that will ring a bell with anyone who has ever sat in a meditation class, such as: 'Establishing present-moment recollection right where you are, simply breathe in, simply aware, then breathe out, simply aware.' So what does sati mean here? In simple terms, sati denotes 'remembrance' and 'recollection.' However, when used within a meditative context - as in this teaching - it doesn't refer to historical memory per se, but to a mental state in which one recollects/remembers the activity that "one is engaged in, in the present moment," as John Peacock puts it. Similarly, the Buddhist teacher Anālayo explains that sati involves remembering to focus on "what is otherwise too easily forgotten: the present moment."

Why was "mindfulness" chosen as a translation?

Ok, fair enough. But then, the question arises, why was 'mindfulness' picked as a translation for sati? The term was first coined by the great Buddhist scholar T. W. Rhys Davids at the dawn of the 20th Century. Interestingly though, Rhys Davids deliberated among various terms before settling on mindfulness. In his 1881 publication of Buddhist suttas, sati was rendered as 'mental activity,' and even simply as 'thought.' It was then only with Rhys Davids' 1910 work that he settled on the term mindfulness. The word was then later picked up and embraced by Jon Kabat-Zinn when he created his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programme, which was so influential in bringing mindfulness to the West. And, he does indeed seem to capture the 'flavour' of sati in his influential definition of mindfulness, namely "the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment."

Is "mindfulness" really the best word we can find?

However, while I appreciate Kabat-Zinn's definition, I wonder how accurately the word 'mindful' reflects this state. For a start, the word 'mind' seems to overlook the positive emotional qualities with which people are encouraged to imbue their awareness, such as compassion. Indeed, Shauna Shapiro and colleagues suggest that 'heart-mindfulness' is arguably a better phrase. They point to the fact that in the Chinese and Japanese versions of sati - pronounced nian and nen respectively - the character used (念) is actually a compound of the ideographic images for mind (the topic half of the character) and heart (the bottom half). But even then, I still wonder about the suffix 'full.' Certainly, being mind-less or heart-less is the very opposite of what we mean by mindfulness. But the notion of having a 'full' mind seems to conflict with the idea of an open, expansive awareness, which is really the essence of the state we currently call 'mindfulness.' So, as wonderful as the widespread interest in mindfulness in the West is, the word itself leaves something to be desired. But then, I have no idea what word we might use instead!