Mindfulness - A modern phenomenon?

Is Mindfulness a modern phenomenon? Well, yes and no!

Mindfulness as we currently know it is a practice that is taking the western world by storm. There are a plethora of books, CDs, apps and DVDs everywhere we look and it’s not too difficult to find a venue somewhere close to you to pop along and practice the technique if you feel it’s for you. So, what exactly is it and when and where did it begin?

Like almost anything of any value or worth, Mindfulness hasn’t simply materialised out of thin air. It is a methodology, technique and skill that has been developing and morphing over centuries: two and a half to be precise. Mindfulness originated as an Eastern Buddhist practice over 2,500 years ago. For them, the practice through meditation and doctrine is a way of life. It is a way of living life allowing us an insight into the true nature of reality and the recognition that life’s impermanence, suffering and un-satisfactoriness is as it is. It acknowledges that, while we are individual, autonomous human-beings and solely responsible for our responses, positive or negative, to the world around us and all those present in it, we are also totally interconnected and part of it. By recognising this through being aware and aware of ourselves and our actions and responses, we are able to be more non-reactive and non-judgmental and to be compassionate and understanding. This applies to us as much as to others. For in understanding and accepting ourselves, we do the same for other people. A way of ‘being’ that accesses our most resourceful states. In this way we can progress on our path to Enlightenment.

This practice in more modern times has become secularized. It has been carried into Western consciousness by a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. He has worked all of his life for the Buddhist peace movement and was nominated in 1967 by Martin Luther King for the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1975 he published a book ‘The Miracle of Mindfulness’. Exiled in France from Vietnam, he wrote the book as instruction for his followers in Saigon, who had worked tirelessly with him to help victims of the Vietnamese Civil War. Originally the book was meant to have been entitled ‘The Miracle of Meditation’, however, somewhere in translation it became ‘Mindfulness’. Thich Nhat Hanh’s practice of Mindfulness is the practice of conscious awareness, ‘Being in the moment’; the ability to live and experience life in the present. It is the meditative practice of breath-awareness. The breath is the conduit between mind and body. The present moment is the only moment we have as we cannot travel back to a past that is over, or forward to a future that has not yet taken place. He describes Mindfulness as ‘taking the mind back into the body’. This results in a state of alert focused relaxation where we pay attention to current thoughts, sensations, feelings and emotions without judgment. In turn, this allows us to create a space between whatever is happening to us and our responses to it. This enables us to adjust our state and to have some degree of control and influence over our choice of response.

So, from its introduction into the West the Mindfulness mantle was taken up and adapted by Jon Kabat-Zinn PH.D, an American Molecular Biologist and Clinical Psychologist at the University Hospital in Massachusetts, who at that time was a practicing Buddhist. Adopting a Mindfulness Practice using meditation and movement, Kabat-Zinn was given permission by a friend who was an Orthopaedic surgeon to begin to treat his hospital patients who were suffering with pain and stress related issues. Kabat-Zinn very quickly discovered that his practices and techniques were proving to be of huge value to the patients, helping them cope with and often overcome many of their physical and mental disorders. From this discovery he developed a therapeutic programme known as MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and in 1990 summarised his approach in his book ‘Full Catastrophe Living’; bringing the practice of Mindfulness into clinical practice. Kabat-Zinn’s programme consists of 8 sessions. He describes Mindfulness as ‘paying attention, in the moment, on purpose and without judgment, as if your life depended on it.’ One of the techniques that Kabat-Zinn introduced into his programme was ‘The Body Scan’. This focuses in and brings awareness to every part of the body in turn, taking the in-breath down to each part and bringing awareness and the out-breath to breathe away any discomfort if it is present. He advocates that simply to be aware of pain and sit with it instead of trying to avoid it will help sufferers cope or even overcome it. He also introduced what he initially called the ‘Seven Attitudes of Mindfulness’: non-judgment, patience, beginner’s-mind, trust, non-striving, acceptance and letting-go, although subsequently he has added kindness, compassion, gratefulness and generosity.

Here in the United Kingdom, Mindfulness was adopted and adapted by Prof Mark Williams, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford. He introduced his own 8 session therapeutic programme known as MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy). Prof Williams has concentrated on treating anxiety, stress and depression related disorders. Through his research he has found that Mindfulness used in this way has helped depression subjects greatly improve, reducing relapse rates. Also, it helps combat anxiety, stress and irritability and improves sleep, helping patients cope with the stresses and strains of modern living. In 2011 Prof Williams wrote ‘Mindfulness a practical guide to FINDING PEACE IN A FRANTIC WORLD’.

Much research and many studies on the practice of Mindfulness have been undertaken over the last 20 years and many well-being and health benefits have been identified. It is an impressive list:

The practice of Mindfulness:

  • Creates a greater sense of relaxation and calm, enabling better decision making and responses to the inevitable life situations that we find ourselves in
  • Reduces depression, anxiety, stress and irritability
  • Cultivates an emerging sense of happiness, thus encouraging greater creativity and motivation
  • Builds concentration and focus and aids learning
  • Improves teamwork, conflict resolutions and fosters more fulfilling relationships
  • Nurtures compassion and empathy
  • Encourages listening skills
  • Builds self-awareness, emotional intelligence, self-connectedness
  • Develops confidence and increases well-being and resilience, which in turn helps to build the immune system. This is vitally important to people who suffer from HIV, cancer
  • Is very effective in pain management
  • Helps the control of hypertension and many stress related skin conditions.

I am sure there are more! Is Mindfulness a modern phenomenon?


It’s one that has been practiced for a very long time. Fortunately for us, it has been adapted and secularised into a form and practice that everyone can greatly benefit from, should we choose to take notice and allow ourselves the time to apply it to our lives.

- Jennie Thornton