In the US, social studies is part of curriculum and content standards for public education. This is because we understand that learning about history is important and useful. We don’t consider gaining knowledge about the past or about other cultures a betrayal of our current beliefs or circumstances. Rather, we see it as a way to gain wisdom, deepen understanding, and prevent the repetition of past mistakes. This is also true for exploring the ancient roots of mindfulness.
Yet, some people fear that learning about its Eastern religious origins is somehow a betrayal of their personal beliefs. Dedicated practitioners of the modern, secular practices and teachings we value and benefit from today may be surprised to discover they are just updated and culturally adapted versions of age-old wisdom. Studying the concepts that inspired them can help us have a more profound appreciation for the generations of thoughtful and compassionate people who devoted themselves to understanding suffering, its causes, and its cessation.
The word mindfulness originally meant “to remember” or to hold in mind. Scholars point to the Satipatthana Sutta, a Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness as the earliest known text (1st century BCE) giving full instructions on the systematic and methodical cultivation of mindfulness. It was developed as a method for perceiving the true nature of phenomena for the purpose of enlightenment or liberation from suffering. According to Rupert Gethin, a Professor of Buddhist Studies, mindfulness means “to ‘remember’ that any feeling [experienced] exists in relation to a whole variety or world of feelings that may be skillful or unskillful…”
Studying the roots of mindfulness can be incredibly enriching and useful, yet it is possible to practice without any particular religious beliefs or esoteric trappings. Mindfulness is a skill most anyone can learn with appropriate guidance. For some though, the ancient belief systems and their accoutrements add significance, beauty and depth. So, we are fortunate to have resources available to us for learning its history.
If you would like to learn more about the roots of mindfulness, the Rime Buddhist Center offers a wonderful Basics of Buddhism class each year that also includes a great workbook and instruction in meditation.