What is Mindfulness?

It is the practice of being deliberately aware from moment to moment of one’s conscious experience. Mindfulness is the state of tuning in to the stream of consciousness as it flows and staying in the present moment with this awareness. It is an important part of yoga and meditation. Greater mindfulness can be cultivated through yoga and especially through meditation practices. It has been linked both historically and in modern scientific studies to improved well-being and mental health (Yogapedia).

In Buddhist teachings, mindfulness is utilized to develop self-knowledge and wisdom that gradually lead to what is described as enlightenment or the complete freedom from suffering. The recent popularity of mindfulness in the west it is generally considered to have been initiated by Jon Kabat-Zinn (Harrington A. Dunne JD. (Oct 2015). “When mindfulness is therapy: Ethical qualms, historical perspectives.” American Psychologist. 70 (7).


Mindfulness is described as:

  • “A way of paying attention that originated in Eastern meditation practices.”
  • “Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
  • “Bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis.”

The Origin

The Buddhist term translated into English as “mindfulness” originates in the Pali term sati and in its Sanskrit counterpart smṛiti. According to Robert Sharf, the meaning of these terms has been the topic of extensive debate and discussion (Sharf 2014, p. 942-943). According to Rupert Gethin, Smṛiti originally meant “to remember,” “to recollect,” “to bear in mind,” as in the Vedic tradition of remembering the sacred texts. The term sati also means “to remember.” In the Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta the term sati means to remember the dharma, whereby the true nature of phenomena can be seen.


The Pali-language scholar Thomas William Rhys David’s (1843–1922) first translated sati in 1881 as English mindfulness in sammā-sati “Right Mindfulness; the active, watchful mind“(T. W. Rhys Davids, tr., 1881, Buddhist Suttas, Clarendon Press, p. 107). Noting that Daniel John Gogerly (1845) initially rendered sammā-sati as “Correct meditation”, Davids explained,

sati is literally ‘memory’ but is used with reference to the constantly repeated phrase ‘mindful and thoughtful’ (Sato sampajâno); and means that activity of mind and constant presence of mind which is one of the duties most frequently inculcated on the good Buddhist.”

Alternate Translation

John D. Dunne asserts that the translation of sati and smṛiti as mindfulness is confusing. Some Buddhist scholars have started trying to establish “retention” as the preferred alternative. Bhikkhu Bodhi also points to the meaning of “sati” as “memory” (Translation of the Buddha: An interview with Bhikkhu Bodhi) the terms sati/Smriti have also been translated as:

Attention (Jack Kornfield), Awareness, Concentrated attention (Mahasi Sayadaw), Mindful attention, Self-recollection (Jack Kornfield), Recollection (Erik Pema Kunsang, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu), Secondary consciousness (Buddhadasa Bhikkhu), Retention, Presence (Simran) Dav Panesa, Remindfulness (James H. Austin).

Meditation and Mindfulness

Meditation and mindfulness are inter connected. One thing we have to remember is all the translation of mindfulness mentioned above are usually a precondition of meditation. Mindful meditation involves the process of developing the skill of bringing one’s attention to whatever is happening in the present moment. There are several meditation exercises designed to develop mindfulness meditation. One method is to sit on a straight-backed chair or sit cross-legged on the floor or a cushion, close one’s eyes and bring attention to either the sensations of breathing in the proximity of one’s nostrils or to the movements of the abdomen when breathing in and out.

In this meditation practice, one does not try to control one’s breathing but attempts to simply be aware of one’s natural breathing process/rhythm. When engaged in this practice, the mind will often run off to other thoughts and associations, and if this happens, one passively notices that the mind has wandered, and in an accepting, non-judgmental way, returns to focusing on breathing.

Other meditation exercises to develop mindfulness include body-scan meditation where attention is directed at various areas of the body and noting body sensations that happen in the present moment. Engaging in yoga practices, while attending to movements and body sensations, as well as walking meditation,  are other methods of developing mindfulness (Kabat-Zinn, J (2013). Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. New York: Bantam Dell).


A.M. Haynes and G. Feldman have highlighted that mindfulness can be seen as a strategy that stands in contrast to a strategy of avoidance of emotion on the one hand and to the strategy of emotional over engagement on the other hand (Adele M. Hayes; Greg Feldman (2004). “Clarifying the construct of mindfulness in the context of emotion regulation and the process of change in therapy”. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice). Mindfulness can also be viewed as a means to develop self-knowledge and wisdom.

Trait, state, and practice

According to Brown, Ryan, and Creswell, definitions of mindfulness are typically selectively interpreted based on who is studying it and how it is applied. Some have viewed mindfulness as a mental state, while others have viewed it as a set of skills and techniques.(Brown, K. W.; Ryan, R. M.; Creswell, J. D. (2007). “Mindfulness: Theoretical foundations and evidence for its salutary effects”. Psychological Inquiry. 18 (4): 211–237).

According to David S. Black, whereas “mindfulness” originally was associated with esoteric beliefs and religion, and “a capacity attainable only by certain people”, scientific researchers have translated the term into measurable terms, providing a valid operational definition of mindfulness. Black mentions three possible domains (Black, David S. (2011), A Brief Definition of Mindfulness (PDF) :

  1. A trait, a dispositional characteristic (a relatively long-lasting trait), a person’s tendency to more frequently enter into and more easily abide in mindful states.
  2. A state, an outcome (a state of awareness resulting from mindfulness training), being in a state of present-moment awareness
  3. A practice (mindfulness meditation practice itself).

Several measures have been developed which are based on self-reporting of trait-like constructs: (Hick, Steven F. (2010), Cultivating Therapeutic Relationships: The Role of Mindfulness. In Steven F. Hick, Thomas Bien (eds.), “Mindfulness and the Therapeutic Relationship,” Guilford Press)

  • Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS)
  • Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory (FMI)
  • Kentucky Inventory of Mindfulness Skills (KIMS)
  • Cognitive and Affective Mindfulness Scale (CAMS)
  • Mindfulness Questionnaire (MQ)
  • Revised Cognitive and Affective Mindfulness Scale (CAMS-R)
  • Philadelphia Mindfulness Scale (PHLMS)

According to Bishop, mindfulness is, “A kind of nonelaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is (Bishop, S.R., Lau, M., Shapiro, S., Carlson, L., et al. (2004). “Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition)

  • The Toronto Mindfulness Scale (TMS) measures mindfulness as a state-like phenomenon that is evoked and maintained by regular practice.
  • The State Mindfulness Scale (SMS) is a 21-item survey with an overall state mindfulness scale, and 2 sub-scales (state mindfulness of mind, and state mindfulness of body).

Historical Development:


Mindfulness as a modern, Western practice is founded on modern vipassana, and the training of sati, which means “moment to moment awareness of present events,” but also “remembering to be aware of something.” It leads to insight into the true nature of reality, namely the three marks of existence, the impermanence of and the unsatisfactoriness of every conditioned thing that exists, and non-self. With this insight, the practitioner becomes a so-called Sotāpanna, a “stream-enterer,” the first stage on the path to liberation. Vipassana is practiced in tandem with Samantha, and also plays a central role in other Buddhist traditions (Anālayo, Bhikku (2003). Satipaṭṭhāna, the direct path to realization. Windhorse Publications).

According to Paul Williams, referring to Erich Frauwallner, mindfulness provided the way in early Buddhism to liberation, “constantly watching sensory experience to prevent the arising of cravings which would power future experience into rebirths.” According to Vetter, dhyana may have been the original core practice of the Buddha, which aided the maintenance of mindfulness (Vetter, Tilmann (1988), The Ideas and Meditative Practices of Early Buddhism, BRILL)


Kabat-Zinn himself refers to Thoreau as a predecessor of the interest in mindfulness, together with the other eminent Transcendentalists Emerson and Whitman: The collective experience of sages, yogis, and Zen masters offers a view of the world which is complementary to the predominantly reductionist and materialistic one currently dominating Western thought and institutions. But this view is neither particularly “Eastern” nor mystical. Thoreau saw the same problem with our ordinary mind state in New England in 1846 and wrote with great passion for its unfortunate consequences.

Jon Kabat-Zinn and MBSR

In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts to treat the chronically ill (“The Stress Reduction Program, founded by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979”) – This program sparked the application of mindfulness ideas and practices in Medicine for the treatment of a variety of conditions in both healthy and unhealthy people. MBSR and similar programs are now widely applied in schools, prisons, hospitals, veteran’s centers, and other environments.

Mindfulness practices were inspired mainly by teachings from the Eastern World, particularly from Buddhist traditions. One of MBSR’s techniques – the “body scan” – was derived from a meditation practice (“sweeping”) of the Burmese U Ba Khin tradition, as taught by S. N. Goenka in his Vipassana retreats, which he began in 1976. It has since been widely adapted in secular settings, independent of religious or cultural contexts.

Therapy Program:

Mindfulness-based stress reduction

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is a mindfulness-based program (“What is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction?”, Mindful Living Programs, Retrieved April 15, 2014.) developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Which uses a combination of mindfulness meditation, body awareness, and yoga to help people become more mindful. While MBSR has its roots in spiritual teachings, the program itself is secular.

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is a psychological therapy designed to aid in preventing the relapse of depression, specifically in individuals with the Major depressive disorder (MDD).

Acceptance and commitment therapy

Acceptance and commitment therapy or (ACT) (typically pronounced as the word “act”) is a form of clinical behavior analysis (CBA) used in psychotherapy.

Dialectical behavior therapy

It is a “core” exercise used in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), a psychosocial treatment Marsha M. Linehan developed for treating people with borderline personality disorder.

Mode activation therapy

Mode deactivation therapy (MDT) is a treatment methodology that is derived from the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy and incorporates elements of Acceptance and commitment therapy, Dialectical behavior therapy, and mindfulness techniques. Mindfulness techniques such as simple breathing exercises are applied to assist the client in awareness and non-judgmental acceptance of unpleasant and distressing thoughts and feelings as they occur in the present moment.


Mindfulness Institute


Mindfulness everyday


Neural mechanisms of mindfulness meditation

Brain activity and meditation



“How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work? Proposing Mechanisms of Action From a Conceptual and Neural Perspective”

“Special issue on mindfulness neuroscience”.

“Mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials”