The concept of mindfulness is not exactly a new one. In fact, it has been around for quite some time and it has been rapidly gathering popularity in the western area – particularly in the psychology field. At this point, mindfulness is part of both traditional psychology and modern positive psychology.
Mindfulness was used to treat a variety of conditions such as anxiety, stress, and depression, leading towards a general feeling of well-being and personal satisfaction. Still, who was the first to start the practice? Where did mindfulness originate? That question features more answers.
Etymology of Mindfulness
With mindfulness being around every corner nowadays, you may be asking yourself where the actual word originated from. Some words are still quite untranslatable, but most of the research suggests that the word “mindfulness” is a translation of the word “sati.”
“Sati” originated from Pali, a language that has been used in ancient India. Most sacred Buddhist texts were written in this language during that time, and the word roughly signifies “awareness.” However, there are various similar words to translate the term “sati”.
By looking in the first Buddhist texts, “sati” signifies an awareness of the present moment. It refers to recollection and remembrance of the moment you are in at this very moment. Breathe in, become aware of the moment, breathe out, maintain the awareness, and so on.
As you can see, when you use it in a meditative context, you are not associating the words with a memory of things that have passed. Instead, you are associating it with the memory of a present moment. You are focusing on this exact moment that could be easily forgotten unless you reflect and remember it.
Mindfulness signifies an awareness of the present moment.
The Beginning of the Mindfulness Practice
Some might say that mindfulness originated from Buddhism. While that is not entirely wrong, some practices say that mindfulness was practiced even before the birth of Buddha. Around 2,500 years ago, the Hindu society would practice quite a few meditation types, one of which included mindfulness. Other mindfulness practices trace back to Christianity or Daoism – so, it may be just a matter of tradition.
Mindfulness is not entirely of Eastern origin, just as electricity did not entirely develop in the Western area. In essence, it is a state of mind that is present in the psyche of every human being. Awareness of one’s self is something that we have been naturally blessed with, and you might not say it originated from a particular country or culture.
Over the millennia, this practice assumed various forms – but the purpose did not go through any significant changes. When practicing mindfulness, people only have one thing in mind: to end suffering. The methods may have changed, with modern therapists teaching their clients how to become more thoughtful. But while the practice did not use any fancy techniques in the past, it involved taking out the negatives and only focusing on the good of the future.
Mindfulness Development in Different Cultures
As we have previously mentioned, mindfulness did not necessarily begin in Buddhism. Each culture and society had its own version of mindfulness, one that got passed down from generation to generation. They had one thing in common, though: to focus on the breadth and depth of the human experience. It was meant to solve their inner psychological problems while connecting with their state of mind.
Each culture has its own version of mindfulness.
When considering the origins of mindfulness, you also need to take every culture and religion in mind. Some might say that mindfulness originated in Hinduism, whereas others say it has its origins in Daoism. None of those people are wrong, as they have practices of their own, developed using traditions of their spiritual practices.
1500 BCE – Hindu Mindfulness
In Hinduism, we can find the origins of many Asian traditions. During that time, people associated mindfulness with the Sanskrit word “yoga,” which meant discipline. This word applied to various contemplative practices, designed to unite the human soul with a higher deity – in other words, god.
There were various types of yoga at that time. You had jñana yoga, which meant “knowing discipline,” you had bhakti yoga, which meant “devotion discipline,” you had karma yoga for “labor discipline,” and you had raja yoga that stood for “royal discipline.” All of them were an approach to cultivating devotion, but raja yoga is the one that included the moving stances of today’s yoga practice.
6th century BCE – Daoist Mindfulness
The beginning of Daoism placed a great focus on creating a harmonious relationship between humans, but also the world. The main factor here was the “ground of existence” direct contemplation – in other words, what remained once every object was removed.
Upon its origins, “ground of existence” had the purpose of bringing harmony over every aspect of one’s life. Daoism contributed with its own mindfulness techniques – but the most important ones were the “energy work” exercises (qì g¯ ng), along with the “Daoist fist” martial art (tài jí quano). Both of them are moving meditation practices, similar to the raja yoga from the Hindu tradition.
Tai Chi is also a moving meditation practice, simliar to the raja yoga from the Hindu tradition.
535 BCE – Buddhist Mindfulness
Rather than using moving techniques such as Daoist or Hindu mindfulness, Buddhist mindfulness uses that seated position that most of us are accustomed with. This is often referred to as “mindfulness of the breath.” This is a technique that places focus on how you breathe in and out as you are sitting on a cushion, the floor or on a yoga mat.
One of the first Buddhist meditation practices to be used was the “visappan,” meaning discernment meditation. This type of meditation is graded and works on a deeply intellectual level. Its purpose is to perceive the truths of your body directly, understanding every part of consciousness, feeling, or object that you have in your mind.
One more Buddhist meditation system that has its roots at the beginning of Buddhist mindfulness is the “Japanese Zen,” a practice that uses walking and sitting meditation as tools to achieve the state of “satori.” Satori is a sudden, radical insight into the concept of conscious experience and reality.
530 CE – Christian Mindfulness
Christian mindfulness has its origins somewhere around the Middle Ages, around the time when the first communal monasteries began to appear. One of the first Christian mystics of the time that would practice Christian mindfulness was St. John of the Cross – a person that would also make popular the word phrase “dark night of the soul” using his poem.
One more significant person that led to the creation of Christian mindfulness was St. Teresa Avilla, who talked about the “seven-stage visionary journey” you had to go through so that you may reach God’s throne. After her, we also had St. Hildegard of Bingen, who would write quite a few songs and chants based on her own inner experience.
When it first started, Christian mindfulness had the purpose of replenishing the immanent needs of religion. That did not change, even to this day. It meant to bring us even closer to God, a higher deity, and raise our awareness as our spiritual state was progressing.
Christian mindfulness had the purpose of replenishing the needs of immanent religion.
9th Century CE – Muslim Mindfulness
Similar to Christianity, Muslims created their own version of mindfulness, referring to it as “Sufism.” As with the basics of mindfulness, Sufism had a purpose of connecting you with the divine – in most cases described as a direct confrontation. Muslim practitioners of mindfulness would often say it as an all-consuming power – or quite simply, love.
There were various mindfulness practices when Muslim mindfulness first came into being, but the most popular one remained the “whirling dervishes.” During this technique, the person would have to whirl for several hours, sometimes even days. Their movements would have to be steadily clockwise as they were whirling on their left leg. The left palm would have to be earthward and the arm down and the right palm would have to be skyward, with the arm placed high.
This practice was a representation of the way in which the world moved – a world in which God was right in the center. The spirituality and energy originating from heaven would fall right onto Earth and straight into the body of the mindfulness practitioner.
10th Century CE – Jewish Mindfulness
Aside from Christian and Muslim Mindfulness, Judaism also saw the birth of Jewish mindfulness. One of the most famous contemplative practices is “qabbala,” which roughly means “received [tradition].” When a practitioner enters qabbala, they contemplate their relationship with the sacred words, gaining a better understanding of the divine.
The Jews also practice mindfulness when they contemplate.
As you can see, when someone asks, “where did mindfulness originate,” you cannot give them a straight answer. You may say that the first practices of mindfulness were born in Hinduism – but different types of mindfulness can be traced back to Buddhism or Daoism as well. It all depends on the practices that you have in mind. However, now that you know, you can try mindfulness yourself, see how it works for you, and reach the desired point of spirituality or just a calming state of awareness.
Co-founder of MB Zen, digital nomad and freedom seeker. Loves developing projects that improve people’s lives. Functional training, yoga, and healthy eating define his lifestyle since he got his back injured. Fell in love with Yin yoga from the very first session though he won’t say no to any other kind of yoga.