So, what is mindfulness? Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.”1 Dr. Germer explains it even more simply as the “awareness of present experience with acceptance.” 2
I define mindfulness as voluntary, sustained, and presented-centered attention with an attitude of disciplined acceptance. With enough practice, it can help us naturally resist the pull of our automatic, unconscious, or conditioned patterns of thought, emotion, and action.
Just as flexibility, endurance, and strength can be cultivated during physical training, mindfulness meditation training can cultivate several distinct mental qualities, which include relaxation, concentration, balanced sensitivity and mental clarity.
The Relationship between Mindfulness and Buddhist Contemplative Science
In order to better understand how mindfulness works and how it can help us, it’s important to understand that it’s just one aspect of a complex approach to the human mind and human experience. Mindfulness originates from the Pali term “sati”, meaning to remember, and is essential in Buddhist insight meditation practice. While Buddhism is commonly classified as a world religion, it is equally considered a practical philosophy, an ethical way of life, and one of the mankind’s first coherent psychologies. For this reason, many Western researchers now refer to a subset of the Buddhist teachings as a contemplative science.
The Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path
The Buddhist contemplative science teachings most relevant to mindfulness contain a universal theory of mind and well-being based on what the Buddha called the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. The Four Noble Truths work to identify not only what causes human suffering, but also how to relieve it. The Noble Eightfold path then provides a concrete pathway and process for how to relieve this suffering.
The Four Noble Truths: Identifying the Cause of Suffering and How to Relieve It
- Our unconscious life is bound to inevitable suffering, distress, and repeated trauma. However, this suffering gives us the opportunity to learn and understand ourselves if we encounter it inquisitively rather than repel it.
- Our suffering is self-created through an unconscious chain of neuropsychological events. First, there is a misperception of self and reality, which leads to afflictive emotions (such as fear-based clinging and defensive hostility). These afflictive emotions lead to harmful reactive actions that eventually hard-wire themselves into our neurobiology, further distorting our future perceptions and interactions. In other words, our reactions in the present shape our experiences in the future – we create ourselves and our experience.
- As our suffering is self-created and not random, inherent, or predetermined, we have the ability to consciously intervene and fully extinguish future causes of suffering. This psychology has a generous view of human nature, and asserts that we have the potential to live completely free of self-imposed suffering and establish sustainable wellbeing.
- There is a comprehensive method to achieving complete freedom from suffering. Buddhists call this method the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Noble Eightfold Path: Starting On The Journey To Well-Being
The components of the Noble Eightfold Path are:
- Realistic worldview
- Wholesome intention
- Harmonious lifestyle
- Truthful speech
- Virtuous action
- Joyous effort
- Unwavering mindfulness
- Precise concentration
These eight components are further subdivided into three trainings:
- Wisdom training, which involves a realistic view of self and reality and the wholesome intention to clarify distorted or erroneous perceptions.
- Meditation training, which utilizes joyous effort, unwavering mindfulness, and precise concentration to stabilize and refine the mind and counter disturbing emotions.
- Ethical training, which involves harmonious lifestyle, truthful speech, and virtuous action, paving the way for a more wholesome engagement with self, others, and the world.
As you can see, meditation and mindfulness make up only one aspect of training. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, a complete treatment approach from the perspective of contemplative science would also incorporate a wise outlook and harmonious lifestyle to achieve radical transformation.3
Since most Westerners encounter Buddhist contemplative science through mindfulness, and the practice is praised for its profound clinical effects, it’s worth exploring how mindfulness is traditionally taught using the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.
Go back to The Guide To Mindfulness Meditation
1Gremer, C., Ronald, S., & Fulton, P. (Eds.). (2005). Mindfulness and psychotherapy. New York: Guilford Press.
2Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(2), 144-156.
3Neale, M. (2011). McMindfulness and Frozen Yoga: Rediscovering the Essential Teachings of Ethics and Wisdom.
Miles Neale, Psy.D., is a NYC-based Buddhist psychotherapist, Assistant Director at Nalanda Institute, and Clinical Instructor at Weill Cornell Medical College. Integrating Western clinical approaches with Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, he empowers clients through insight-oriented talk therapy and meditative skills. Teaching mindfulness and compassion practices, he conducts meditation research at Weill Cornell and shares expertise on the BBC World Service. Neale's mission is to foster well-being, altruism, and creativity, offering healing techniques based on neuroscience and health psychology.