Decoding Mindfulness And Meditation

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

This talk was given on April 18, 2021.

Thank you for coming out today! It is good to be with all of you on this beautiful spring day.

Meditation feels like a soothing balm that many people need these days. How many of you practice meditation or mindfulness? Are those words clear or confusing? Let me know if there is more clarity at the end of this talk!

We begin today by clarifying those words, mindfulness and meditation, as they can be confusing. For our purposes, it is kept simple as this is the level at which most of us practice. This is not an academic, scholarly, or clinical decoding.

The word mindfulness did not exist in the context of meditation until 1881. A British magistrate who had a religious Buddhist dispute case in his court in then colonial Sri Lanka needed to read Pali Theravada texts. He became a Pali scholar and translated the word sati roughly into the English “mindfulness”. Theravada is one of three main Buddhist schools. Sati is more akin to “remembrance” or “recollection” and in Sanskrit is smriti.

Mindfulness remained there as simply a translated word until the 1970s when a young doctor, Jon Kabat-Zinn picked the word for a program he created, using these ancient Indian Buddhist vipassana or insight meditation practices. Kabat-Zinn discovered meditation as a medical student and saw the benefits of these practices in the health area, particularly in hospitals. The Buddha said that he did not teach religion. He only taught one thing–the end of suffering. Given all the suffering in hospitals and medical patients, Kabat-Zinn rightly saw the potential benefits of these practices in these areas.

In the 1960s and 70s, the medical and scientific communities were highly skeptical of Eastern practices. They were considered to be on the fringe, weird, and serious doctors and researchers could not be associated with them. So Kabat-Zinn scrubbed the practices of all traces of culture, philosophy, the word meditation itself, made it very clinical, and called it Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. MBSR. The program is a brief, simplified version of the very clear and detailed instructions the Buddha gave in the Satipatthana Suttas. MBSR also includes yoga asanas. This made it much more accessible. Having created an eight-week program, Kabat-Zinn standardized it. MBSR has become so well accepted that now doctors ask patients to meditate.

Kabat-Zinn is the father of the American term for meditation, mindfulness, as well as the branded program MBSR. So mindfulness also refers to a particular type of meditation called insight meditation. American mindfulness was born in Massachusetts.

At the same time, Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, and Jack Kornfield (a clinical psychologist and a former Buddhist monk) established the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), also in Massachusetts, in I think 1976. After many years learning Theravada meditations, from various leading vipassana or insight meditation masters in India, Burma, Thailand, they brought these strands to one place in Barre, Massachusetts. The three are considered the founders of American or Western Buddhism. Functioning as meditation teachers, we note that they kept the word meditation and they refer to the teachings as mindfulness meditation–this is the reference to the vipassana meditations. IMS also teaches Thich Nhat Hahn’s (highly revered Vietnamese Zen master) loving kindness and forgiveness meditations. Later, Joseph Goldstein also studied Tibetan Buddhism. American or Western Buddhism was birthed in Massachusetts.

Mindfulness and meditation are used interchangeably. 

Herbert Benson, a doctor at Harvard Medical School discovered yogic meditation in the 1960s, a different tradition from what the others learned and before them. He discovered an ancient practice called Yoga Nidra and saw the biological benefits of the meditation practice on anxiety, stress, and oxygen levels. He did his research secretly at night in the 1960s. Benson too abbreviated the traditional Yoga Nidra, scrubbed it, made it clinical and called it The Relaxation Response. His book became an instant best seller and since 1975 has sold over six million copies. The Benson Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital teaches Yoga Nidra. There is no reference to mindfulness.

The Yoga Nidra that is now widely taught is the Satyananda Yoga Nidra. Swami Satyananda of The Bihar School of Yoga, where I learned and had my mentors, wrote the book Yoga Nidra. He brought this ancient yogic practice into its current form.

Benson also happen to be in Massachusetts! There must be something about the New England air! And it is befitting in the tradition of Emerson, Thoreau.

From my observation, and particularly after listening in on the Dalai Lama’s Global Summit in October of last year, 2020, mindfulness does not appear to be used in conjunction with meditative practices that are not rooted in Theravada.

The spectrum of practices in Tibet, the Dalai Lama’s Vajrayana lineage, are very close to Indian yogic meditations (based on the Tantras) and are not referred to as mindfulness. Mindfulness has breath as its central object of focus or anchor. Every time the mind wanders, it is brought back to the breath. The other meditations have breath, images, visualizations, words or phrases, sounds, cultivating certain qualities, devotion, faith, depending on the practice and the lineage.

There is a clear definition for meditation in the yogic text Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra–sustained focus leads to sustained concentration which leads to meditation. Meditation in Sanskrit is dhyana translated as “attention”. I am sitting in attention, in attention to what is arising as well attention/remembrance of the teachings. Dhyana also appears in some Pali texts. So does Yoga (meaning meditation).

This is a particular type of intentional, conscious attention–a neutral witnessing awareness (Sanskrit sakshi or sakshi bhava). It is not biased but sees the biases; it does not interfere in what it sees; it does not judge; it does not grab, or latch onto, and get carried away by the thoughts or feelings; nor does it avoid what appears in the mind; it does not think but is aware of the thoughts. In English, witness may imply a person, a self, but that is not my understanding. Words are difficult to translate and sakshi, in this context, is awareness aware of itself–this is my understanding.

This is also the type of attention in mindfulness practices. This is what Kabat-Zinn, the person who coined the popular term has to say: Mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally. (Please see the note below.)

Meditation can also be seen as the formal sitting practice that cultivates this attention which is then brought into daily life.

Mindfulness: American term for meditation; a term for the Theravada vipassana meditations often based on the Satipatthana Suttas; a certain type of attention or dhyana.

This is the attention that we will bring to our Yoga Nidra practice today. My training has been in the yogic tradition and as I have gradually been exposed to other traditions, some of those meditations have been very helpful in my personal practice. Each brings its own insights.

Yoga Nidra can be a more open and easier doorway into meditation practices for some people. It is particularly relaxing lying down and I recommend that.  That is the way it is initially taught. Instead of focusing on the breath and bringing the mind back to the breath as we notice it wandering away, in Yoga Nidra the awareness is guided and directed to move from one part of the body to the next in the first stage. (This does happen in the second step of Goenka’s vipassana–and other insight practices on the body–as well but with less guidance in Goenka’s ten-day retreat.) The mind is not given time to dwell on any one part where it can wander off, get caught in a train or spiral of thoughts. The voice can be helpful in guiding the awareness back. There is observation of the breath, feelings, emotions, thoughts as the practice develops. People find this particularly helpful when they listen to it while having a CAT scan or some procedure that causes anxiety. They just focus on the voice. I have many free downloads on this website under Breathing and Meditation.

As the mind is kept away from the thinking process and is kept on the neutral feeling and observing processes, the body calms down. The parasympathetic nervous system activity increases and the sympathetic system activity decreases creating the relaxation response. There is less anxiety. It is like when a pool of water that has been disturbed settles and becomes clear.  There is a possibility to create a happier, more balanced life–making better choices.

Yoga Nidra is really not that different from insight meditation.  The striking similarities are drawn through Anapanasati Sutta in the review of the book Breath by Breath by Larry Rosenberg with David Guy. Just the entry is different and nuances vary from teacher to teacher. In Yoga Nidra the practice takes us step-by-step from the solid, well-defined, tangible body to the more subtle, far less defined and more diffused aspects of breath, feelings, emotions, thoughts. In both types of meditation practices there is a direct experience of the difference between grabbing and holding versus letting things pass, letting it all flow spontaneously. Grabbing and holding creates tension and struggle. Openness is peaceful as it releases the tension and struggle. It is a direct experience and knowing this too shall pass.

Let us meditate.

Note: Paul Ekman writes that behavioral scientists cannot agree on the meaning of mindfulness. The Venerable Analayo has a whole chapter on mindfulness in his book Satipatthana Sutta: A Practical Guide. He writes that there is a diverse range of understanding within different Buddhist traditions and now within the world of clinical scientists. Analayo uses mindfulness and awareness interchangeably. It is important to note that these detailed nuances are scholarly and academic discussions.

3 thoughts on “Decoding Mindfulness And Meditation

Add yours

  1. Thank you for sharing this with me. It was an excellent explanation of all the practices. I was familiar with a number of the individuals you mention and I enjoy the guided meditations that you do for Happy Circle.


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