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The Rise of Mindfulness as Medicine and its Kinship to the Upaniṣad and Yoga Traditions


Mindfulness as Medicine originated as a form of participatory medicine and complementary therapy in hospital settings in the 1970s. Since then, research in Mindfulness interventions, especially in the last decade, had increased exponentially. Almost all findings recorded positive results in the areas of physical and mental health with a strong impact on the latter.

The strong connection between mindfulness and Buddhism has been a much validated subject in both research and media. However, discussion about Mindfulness and its connection to the Vedic systems and yoga have been scarce. The form of mindfulness that originated in the 1970’s and practiced till today possesses characteristics that are unique to Vedic and Yogic literature. The values and philosophy associated with Mindfulness and its practices are also found in texts of Advaita Vedānta, Upaniṣad-s, Yoga and Tantra traditions.

It was found that Mindfulness practices as taught today in secular settings have a very strong root in the Advaita tradition of the Upaniṣad-s and Yoga.

  1. Introduction

Mindfulness has risen to fame due to its positive effects on stress, depression, academic performance, workplace performance and other professional domains. The American Mindfulness Research Information found that between 2010 and 2018, 4460 research papers were published, compared to the 407 papers published in total between 1980 and 2009. The exponential increase in research is a testimony to the popularity of mindfulness in clinical, school and workplace settings.

Crane (2017) states that Mindfulness-based Programmes can be utilized as a clinical, mental training and a self-help tool. This allows mindfulness to be adapted to different needs in diverse settings. Various results have been recorded from these settings. Mindfulness has been reported to positively impact physical health, mental health, cognition, and interpersonal outcomes (Creswell, 2017). Ten impacts of mindfulness have been found among the research findings which are structural brain changes, reduced autonomic arousal, perceptual shift, increase in spirituality, greater situational awareness, values clarification, increase in self-awareness, addiction substitution, urge surfing and letting go (Shonin & Van Gordon, 2016). Out of these, structural brain changes may be the most significant impact as this may directly or indirectly influence the rest of the results (Shonin & Van Gordon, 2016).  Other benefits include increase in responding instead of reacting (Brown & Ryan, 2003), improved mental health (Baer, 2014), stress reduction and emotional regulation (Baer, 2014), increased positive states of mind (Baer, 2014), improves attentional and working memory capacities (Baer, 2014), reduced depression (Kuyken & Evans, 2014), treatment for bipolar disorder (Deckersbach, Hansen & Holzel, 2014), reduced addictive behaviours (Bowen et al, 2014) and enhanced attention and resilience in high stress professions (Jha, Rogers & Morrison, 2014). With the suggestive yet limited evidence, it can be speculated that mindfulness practices lead to non-dual states as well (McConnell & Froeliger, 2015; Brewer et al., 2011; Josipovic, 2014).

It is also often acknowledged that mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism but hardly study has been done to establish its other roots, especially that of the Vedānta and Yoga. Given that Hinduism has been the origin of virtually all Asian contemplative traditions (Felipe & Knight, 2010) a study of Mindfulness and its Hindu or Vedic roots is long pending. This paper investigates into mindfulness to find out if it had Vedic antecedents and influence.

Two modern and secular schools of mindfulness are known to exist which are the langerian school and the eastern school (Crum, Lyddy, Ngnoumen, Ie, & Langer, 2014). This paper will confine its study of the eastern school of secular mindfulness popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn through his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programme.

  1. Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a differentiated type of secular meditation popularized as a clinical tool by Jon Kabat-Zinn and documented in his book, Full Catastrophe Living, first published in 1990. The book documents the first generation of secular mindfulness programme called ‘Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction’ (MBSR). Subsequently a second type of Mindfulness based clinical programme was created by Mark Williams, the Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) which was an adaptation of the MBSR. After the rise of MBSR and MBCT, many variant Mindfulness-based programmes were created for different needs and outcomes.

2.1 Definition and Key Descriptors

When approaching the definitions of mindfulness, it is important that we study the definitions of Jon Kabat-Zinn. Kabat-Zinn is often acknowledged as the founder of secular mindfulness (Kabat-Zinn, 2003; Felipe & Knight, 2010; Crane et al., 2017). Hence the definitions of Kabat-Zinn deserves a focused study in this endeavour.

Five similar definitions of mindfulness have been found in Kabat-Zinn’s works which are:

– Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally (Ka bat-Zinn, 1994).

–  Mindfulness meditation is a consciousness discipline revolving around a particular way of paying attention in one’s life. It can be most simply described as the intentional cultivation of non-judgmental moment-to-moment awareness (Kabat-Zinn, 1996).

–  Mindfulness meditation is a consciousness discipline revolving around a particular way of paying attention in one’s life. It can be most simply described as the intentional cultivation of non-judgmental moment-to-moment awareness (Kabat-Zinn, 1996).

– To simply “drop in” on the actuality of [one’s] lived experience and then to sustain it as best [one] can moment by moment, with intentional openhearted presence and suspension of judgment and distraction (Kabat-Zinn, 2003).

–  The awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment (Kabat-Zinn, 2003).

Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally,” “And then I sometimes add, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom” (Kabat-Zinn, 2017).

The definitions of Kabat-Zinn provides a consistent idea of mindfulness meditation being rooted in key elements of purposefulness, present moment, paying attention while suspending distractions, non-judgemental stance and awareness. Self-understanding and wisdom also take the position of a secondary outcome in his latest definition. Studying these definitions also provides a key to Kabat-Zinn’s perspective of  ‘awareness’ being the outcome of all mindfulness practices that revolved around paying attention purposefully and non-judgementally in the present moment (Kabat-Zinn, 2003; Kabat-Zinn, 2017; Kabat-Zinn, 1996). He further adds that the awareness contributes to self-knowledge and wisdom (Kabat-Zinn, 2017).

Other authors and researchers have also attempted to define mindfulness in several other ways through identifying the many mechanisms of mindfulness. The following mechanisms have been gathered from literature:

  1. observing, describing, participating, taking a non-judgmental stance, focusing on one thing in the moment  (Linehan, 1993)
  2. a state of psychological freedom that occurs when attention remains quiet and limber, without attachment to any particular point of view (Martin, 1997)
  3. one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis (Marlatt and Kristeller, 1999)
  4. a way of paying attention (Baer, 2003)
  5. a quality of consciousness that is characterized by clarity and vividness of current experience (Brown and Ryan, 2003)
  6. a kind of non-elaborative, non-judgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is (Bishop et al, 2004)
  7. a process of gaining insight into the nature of one’s mind and the de-centered perspective on thoughts and feelings so that they can be experienced in terms of their subjectivity (versus their necessary validity) and transient nature (versus their permanence) (Bishop et al, 2004)
  8. a process of regulating attention in order to bring a quality of non-elaborative awareness to current experience and a quality of relating to one’s experience within an orientation of curiosity, experiential openness, and acceptance. (Bishop et al, 2004)

These secondary definitions do reiterate and elaborate similar ideas about mindfulness definitions presented by Kabat-Zinn with little innovation. Bishop et al (2004) attempted to summarise these definitions and found that two distinct components of mindfulness were self-regulation of attention which were related to the present moment and the second being an orientation towards one experience through curiosity, openness and acceptance. According to Garland, Froeliger and Howard (2014), mindfulness practices involved two primary components which were ‘focused attention’ and ‘open monitoring’. Metacognition, though not a new component of mindfulness, is an important variant of Awareness which is inherent in both the practice of focused attention and open monitoring. Houlihan and Brewer (2016) further conceptualised the summary definition to be maintaining attention and attitude of acceptance. Further, another model was proposed from a meta-analysis of various definitions and outcomes as Mindfulness being awareness, acceptance and attention (Kathirasan, 2018). Awareness is essentially the desired end state of mindfulness which involves attention and acceptance; which can also be a practice of metacognition (Kathirasan, 2018).

2.2. Mindfulness as a Unique Type of Meditation

One of the key features of Mindfulness is that it is a unique type of meditation. Kabat-Zinn labours to bring across this fact about Mindfulness being unique which is unlike other types of meditation. Here is a list of quotations from Kabat-Zinn’s works about this feature:

  1. When we speak of meditation, it is important for you to know that this is not some weird cryptic activity, as our popular culture might have it. It does not involve becoming some kind of zombie, vegetable, self-absorbed narcissist, navel gazer, “space cadet,” cultist, devotee, mystic, or Eastern philosopher. Meditation is simply about being yourself and knowing something about who that is. (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p.xv).
  2. Mindfulness practice means that we commit fully in each moment to being present. There is no ‘performance’. There is just this moment. We are not trying to improve or to get anywhere else (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p.22).
  3. When it comes right down to it, wherever you go, there you are. Whatever you wind up doing, that’s what you’ve wound up doing. Whatever you are thinking about right now, that’s what’s on your mind (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p.xiii).
  4. Meditation is the only intentional, systematic human activity which at bottom is about not trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else, but simply to realize where you already are.” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p.14).
  5. There is truly no place else to go (Kabat-Zinn, 2013, p.94).
  6. That doesn’t mean that every moment you practice will be a moment of timelessness. That depends on the degree of concentration and calmness that you bring to each moment” (Kabat-Zinn, 2013, p.466).

The aforementioned quotes convey a principle feature of mindfulness meditation which involves no expectation of change or stillness/blankness of mind. Instead it revolves around the feature of it being able to access and practice mindfulness at any given time or place in spite of the presence of thoughts. Kabat-Zinn states:

“It is not uncommon for people who know little of meditation except what they have gleaned from the media to harbor the notion that meditation is basically a willful inward manipulation, akin to throwing a switch in your brain, that results in your mind going completely blank. No more thought, no more worry. You are catapulted into the “meditative” state, which is always one of deep relaxation, peace, calm, and insight, often associated with concepts of “nirvana” in the public’s mind. This notion is a serious, if totally understandable, misperception.” (Kabat-Zinn, 2005, p.59)

2.3. Philosophy of Mindfulness

The philosophy behind mindfulness is often understated in research literature especially so that researchers who measure the effects of mindfulness are more concerned with the practices and its outcomes. A cursory study of Kabat-Zinn’s works would reveal that philosophy was an important driver behind his brand of secular mindfulness. While the relationship of philosophy to mindfulness practices is not a contributor to the recorded outcomes or benefits, but it had certainly shaped Kabat-Zinn and his outlook towards life and value for human experience. Kabat-Zinn states this explicitly at several junctures in his works and these ideas can also be found implicitly in his meditation practices, sometimes as metaphors. Here is a brief list of direct quotations from his works that present his philosophical outlook:

  1. Although our patients all come with various problems, diagnoses, and ailments, we make every effort to apprehend their intrinsic wholeness (Kabat-Zinn, 2011, p.292)
  2. We are also what was present before the scarring— our original wholeness, what was born whole. And we can reconnect with that intrinsic wholeness at any time, because its very nature is that it is always present. It is who we truly are. (Kabat-Zinn, 2013, p.185)
  3. “When we are in touch with being whole, we feel at one with everything. When we feel at one with everything, we feel whole ourselves” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p.226)

Three key ideas emerge from these statements which are that wholeness is 1. intrinsic, 2. it being always available and 3. it being non-dual/oneness. Kabat-Zinn does not spend a great deal of energy on trying to explain how these ideas connect with mindfulness practices. However, it can be easily inferred that the mindfulness practices paved way to realising this purported wholeness. One significant point that emerges from his philosophical outlook is that secular mindfulness is life affirming and positive.

2.4. Roots of Mindfulness

The roots of secular mindfulness is often credited to be Buddhism, although Kabat-Zinn openly acknowledges that he stripped it of its Buddhist ideas (Kabat-Zinn, 2003). He even states that Buddha was not a Buddhist (Kabat-Zinn, 2003) and neither did Kabat-Zinn claim to be one (Kabat-Zinn, 2005). He states:

“I bent over backwards to structure it and find ways to speak about it that avoided as much as possible the risk of it being seen as Buddhist, new age, eastern mysticism or just plain flakey,” “I got into this through the Zen door which is a very irreverent approach to Buddhism” (Booth, 2017)

However, Kabat-Zinn does not limit his influences to Buddhism but to a few other non-Buddhist Indian teachers and philosophy. He cites Yogic traditions, Vedānta, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Nisargadatta Maharaj and Ramana Maharishi (Kabat-Zinn, 2011). These sources of influence are often go uncredited or largely understated in works of Mindfulness by other researchers or authors. In fact, Kabat-Zinn quotes the following statement from the famous Advaita Vedānta teacher, Nisargadatta Maharaj, from his book ‘I Am That’ in the last page of the MBSR workbook (Kabat-Zinn, 2011) and Kabat-Zinn’s book ‘Wherever You Go There You Are’:

“by watching yourself in your daily life with alert interest with the intention to understand rather than to judge, in full acceptance of whatever may emerge, because it is here, you encourage the deep to come to the surface and enrich your life and consciousness with its captive energies. This is the great work of awareness; it removes obstacles and releases energies by understanding the nature of life and mind. Intelligence is the door to freedom and alert attention is the mother of intelligence.” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994)

Therefore, according to Kabat-Zinn, the roots of secular mindfulness were obviously not confined to Buddhism. Apart for these Indian non-Buddhist sources, Kabat-Zinn also cites Taoism as another influence (Kabat-Zinn, 1994) as well as it resonating with Islamic Sufism (Kabat-Zinn, 2011).

2.5. Practices of Mindfulness

The dimension of praxis is the pivot on which all Mindfulness-based programmes are designed. Almost all of the extant Mindfulness-based programmes are based on the MBSR. Hence it is important to survey the mindfulness practices taught in the MBSR as devised by Kabat-Zinn and presented in his Full Catastrophe Living (Kabat-Zinn, 2013). It is important note that in all practices of mindfulness, parts of the body, such as the breath, sensations and sensory perceptions, are used to help the practitioner pay attention. It is also worth to note that all the practices utilize what is internal to the self rather than external objects for paying attention.

Kabat Zinn (2013) lists the mindfulness practices to be Body Scan, Mindful Haṭha Yoga, Sitting Meditation, Walking Meditation, Mountain meditation, Loving-Kindness Meditation, Eating Meditation and Raisin-Eating exercise. Of these practices, two are reminiscent of yoga which are the sitting meditation and standing yoga. In the Full Catastrophe Living, several āsana-s of the modern Haṭha Yoga tradition have been illustrated. Kabat-Zinn readily acknowledges that these were adapted from the Haṭha Yoga traditions but practiced with the attitude and mechanisms of mindfulness which are opposed to the attitude in which these are done in Haṭha Yoga classes (Kabat-Zinn, 2013).

  1. Method of Research

3.1. Selection of Sources

The search guidelines for primary Mindfulness sources were restricted to the works of Jon Kabat-Zinn. These were confined to published books, papers and interviews available in book formats and internet media.   Secondary sources were obtained by using Google Scholar and other various internet search engines.

The primary sources for the Vedic tradition were confined to two schools which were Advaita Vedānta and Yoga of Patanjali cum Haṭha Yoga. The restrictions to these sources are justified by Kabat-Zinn’s reference to the works of Vedānta, Yoga, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Nisargadatta Maharaj and Ramana Maharishi (Kabat-Zinn, 2011). All of these references and authors were primarily related to Advaita Vedānta and Yoga. The primary textual sources for Advaita Vedānta selected would be the texts of the prasthāna traya which are the Mukhya Upaniṣad-s, as well as the later Upaniṣad-s, Brahma Sūtra of Bādarāyana and the Bhagavad Gītā. The commentaries of Śaṅkara on the prasthāna traya and the teachers of his tradition were also used. As for the yoga tradition, texts of the Patanjali Yoga and its commentaries as well as the Haṭha Yoga texts were used.

3.2. Outcome Variables

The chief outcomes examined in this particular research are the points of intersection and influences of the Advaita Vedānta philosophy and Yoga on secular mindfulness. The secondary outcomes shall be the extent of its influence on shaping the philosophy and praxis of secular mindfulness.

  1. Results

4.1. Definitions and Descriptors 

The Pāli equivalent for Mindfulness is ‘sati’ which literally means ‘that which is remembered’. In the Buddhist context, the term is used as one of the eight-fold path of Buddhism which is termed as ‘sammā sati’or ‘right mindfulness’. The first person to translate ‘sati’ as mindfulness was Rhys Davids in 1891 (Hwang & Kearney, 2015). The Sanskrit/Vedic equivalent for the Buddhist word sati is ‘smrti’ which has the same meaning. Sometimes the word ‘anusmrti’, a variant of smrti is also used in Vedānta literature (Brahma Sūtra, 2.2.25).

4.1.1. Awareness

The concept of awareness is one of great importance to Vedic systems of praxis and philosophy. Awareness is usually presented as caitanya, cit, jñāna, sākṣi but not limited to it. The English equivalents would comprise of the words such as consciousness, awareness and knowledge. The Vedic conceptions of awareness are of two types which are dualistic awareness based on the Sāṅkhya and Patanjali Yoga and non-dualistic awareness based on the Advaita Vedānta interpretation of the Upaniṣad-s.

The dualistic conception of awareness is presented through two eternal realities called the puruṣa and the prakṛti. The puruṣa is an inactive and passive reality that witnesses the prakṛti, the dynamic reality of the universe (Sāṅkhya Kārika, 19, 65). The same idea of witnessing or being aware of second reality as that of an observer is also found in the Yoga Sūtra-s or Patanjali Yoga, a school of thought that derives it cosmology to a large extent from the Sāṅkhya philosophy. The Patanjali Yoga presents the witness as draśtuḥ, the seer of all phenomenal realities (Yoga Sūtra, 1.3, 2.17).

On the other hand, the non-dualistic conception of Awareness is presented by the upaniṣad-s and elaborated through the commentarial tradition of the Advaita Vedānta. The idea about awareness being a non-dualistic reality witnessing all phenomena appear in the Aitareya Upaniṣad  (3.3); Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (4.3.9, 4.3 14, 4.3.6), Kaṭha Upaniṣad (2.2.15), Muṇdaka Upaniṣad (2.2.10), Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad (6.14) and the Brahma Sūtra (2.1.4, 1.1.5, 1.1.9, 1.1.10, 3.2.16). Furthermore, the concept of witness appears explicitly in the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad (6.11). This idea is further elaborated in the Dṛg Dṛśya Viveka (1,17, 24).

4.1.2. Attention

The attention component of Mindfulness is found in abundance in the Upaniṣad-s and the Yoga literature. The Sanskrit equivalents for attention are dhyāna, dhāraṇā, samādhi, upāsanā, samādhāna and nididhyāsana. Apart from the English usage of the equivalent, the word concentration is also a common usage. The concept of dhāraṇā as paying attention can be found in the Yoga Sūtra (2.53, 3.1), Vasiṣṭha Samhitā (1.37, 4.1-5), Siddhasiddhāntapaddhati (2.37), Gorakṣaśataka 4, 67-75, 96), Gherandasamhitā (3.2, 3.59-63), Yogacūdāmani Upaniṣad (107, 110, 112), Dhyānabindu Upaniṣad  (41), Kṣurikā Upaniṣad (1, 2, 13, 18), Varāha Upaniṣad (5.12) and the Nādabindu Upaniṣad (8).

The usage of the word dhyāna as attentional practice is found in the Yoga Sūtra (3.2), Gherandasamhitā (2.11, 6.1, 6.14-18, 6.20-21), Gorakshashatakam (76-77), Vasishthasamhita (1.33-37, 4.19), Siddhasiddhāntapaddhati (2.38), Kauṣītaki Upaniṣad  (3.2); Muṇdaka Upaniṣad (3.1.8) and the Brahma Sūtra (4.1.8).

The usage of the word samādhi as an attentional practice is found in the Brahma Sūtra (2.3.39), Maitrāyaṇīya Upaniṣad  (6.18), Yoga Sūtra (1.20, 1.46, 1.51, 2.2, 2.29, 2.45, 3.3, 4.1, 4.5-7) Gherandasamhitā (1.11, 3.30, 3.42, 4.82, 7.1, 7.3, 7.8, 7.15, 7.21), Haṭhapradīpikā (3.121, 4.2-8, 4.81, 4.108-109, 4.111), Varāha Upaniṣad  (2.75), Darśana Upaniṣad (10.5), AmṛtanādaUpaniṣad (16), Vasiṣṭha Samhitā (4.57-66).

The term samādhāna or samāhita appears as one of six fold mental accomplishments that make an aspirant qualified for Vedānta studies (Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, 4.4.23). The term samādhāna is also defined as citta ekāgratā or one-pointedness of the mind and citta naiścalya, a distraction-free mind  (Sarvavedānta Siddhāntasāra Saṅgraha 218-225; Tattvabodha p.29; Vivekacūḍāmaṇī 26; Aparokṣānubhūti 8; Vedāntasāra 23)

The term nididhyāsana appears in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad  (2.4.5), and the Śiva Samhitā (1.32) refers to the verse from the same Upaniṣad. A much later usage for meditation as upāsanā came about with Śaṅkara who defined it as a meditation on a unitary idea found in the scriptures (Bhagavad Gītā Bhāṣya 12.3; Chāndogya Upaniṣad  Bhāṣya Intro; Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad Bhāṣya 1.3.9).

4.1.3. Acceptance

The idea of acceptance which is often characterised by the sense of equanimity with regard to stimuli and experiences is found expressed in Vedic literature as early as in the Bhagavad Gītā (2.48) and the Īśāvāsya Upaniṣad (6). The idea of acceptance as a direct practice is scarce in Vedic literature. However, the observance of titikṣā or forbearance finds prominence in Vedānta literature as one of six-fold mental accomplishments that qualify an aspirant for Vedānta studies (Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad , 4.4.23; Brahma Sūtra Bhāṣya 1.1.1; Vivekacūḍāmaṇī , 24; Tattvabodha p.25; Aparokṣānubhūti 7; Vedāntasāra 22)

4.1.4. Wisdom, Self-Understanding and Psychological Freedom

The outcome of mindfulness practices termed as wisdom, psychological freedom and self-understanding are technical words found in almost all of Vedic literature. The Sanskrit equivalents that appear in the Yoga and Advaita Vedānta literature are prajñā (wisdom), mukti, mokṣa or kaivalya (psychological freedom) and ātmajñāna or ātmavidyā (self-understanding).  The term ātmajñāna appears in the Śiva Samhitā (1.3, 1.39-40, 1.42). The term mokṣa appears in the Gherandasamhitā (3.80), Yoga Sūtra Vyāsa Bhāṣya (2.15, 2.18. 2.23-24, 3.26. 4.25) and the Haṭhapradīpikā 1.35, 3.101, 3.103, 4.15, 4.25, 4.30). The term mukti appears in Haṭhapradīpikā (1.35, 3.59), 3.101, 3.103, 4.8, 4.15, 4.25, 4.30) and the Amṛtabindu Upaniṣad (2-3).The term prajñā as wisdom appears in the Bhagavad Gītā (2.11, 2.57-58, 2.61, 2.68).

4.2. Mindfulness as a Unique Type of Meditation

Kabat-Zinn’s depiction of Mindfulness as a state of non-doing or striving finds a close resemblance to the concept of vastu tantram found in Advaita Vedānta. Meditation in the Vedic traditions is categorised by Śaṅkara as vastu tantram and puruṣa tantram (BSB 1.1.1, 1.1.2, 1.1.4; Upadeśasāhasri 1.1.13; Pancadaśi 9.74-82). Vastu tantram is a type of meditation where choice or the sense of agency cannot be exercised because it is dependent on the Self which is ever present or always available. This is typical of the contemplative practice called manana and nididhyāsana found in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad  (2.4.5). This type of meditation is also called prāptasya prāpti – accomplishing the accomplished (Vedāntaparibhāṣā 9.10). Unlike the puruṣa tantram type of meditation where the will of the doer is involved in the result of meditation. This type of meditation requires effort/choice or rather striving in Kabat-Zinn’s vocabulary.

The vastu tantram type of meditation where non-striving, lack of stillness/blankness of mind and being able to access mindfulness at any given time or place is found in the following Vedic literature:

  1. pratibodha viditam matam – It is known in every cognition (Kena Upaniṣad  2.4)
  2. yatra yatra mano yāti tatra tatra parāmṛtam – Wherever your mind goes, there is immortality.

(Sarasvatirahasya Upaniṣad  2.31)

  1. yatra yatra manoyāti tatra tatra samādhibhiḥ – Wherever your mind goes, there is samadhi (Vijñānabhairava Tantra 116)
  2. yatra yatra manoyāti tatra tatra samādhayaḥ – Wherever your mind goes, there is Samadhi (Dṛg Dṛśya Viveka 30)

Interestingly, Kabat-Zinn’s book published in the year 1994 was also titled ‘Wherever you go, There you are’.  The above references convey the key premise that the goal is available in every thought or cognition which leads to idea that thoughts are never a problem. This is a teaching unique to the Advaita Vedānta tradition and quite different from the yoga traditions which revolves around the removal of thoughts or the sublation of it, similar to the stilling of thoughts or the mind as taught in Yoga Sūtra (1.1).

Kabat-Zinn’s other idea of meditation as simply knowing or being yourself is also found in Bhagavad Gītā Bhāṣya (18.52) and Yogayājñavalkya (9.5-9).

4.3. Philosophy of Mindfulness

Kabat-Zinn’s philosophical position is one that defined the human personality to be whole. Three key ideas emerge from his vision of wholeness which are that wholeness is intrinsic, always available and non-dual. These ideas of the Self being whole are presented through two words called pūrṇa (wholeness or completeness) and ananta (limitless). The idea of intrinsic wholeness is found in the Śiva Samhitā (5.216, 5.211) and the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad  (5.1.1). The concept of limitlessness can be found in the Taittirīya Upaniṣad (2.1.1), Brahma Sūtra (3.2.37) and the Chāndogya Upaniṣad (3.14.1).

Śaṅkara states that the Self which is limitless is always available or self-established (Upadeśasāhasri

2.2.93) and self-evident (Upadeśasāhasri 1.18.203). The idea of a non-dual experience is the very fundamental premise on which the whole Advaita Vedānta tradition is built on (Chattopadhyaya, 2000). The word Advaita can literally be translated as ‘non-dual’.

4.4. Practices of Mindfulness

The word smrti which literally means ‘that which is remembered’ is also seen as a meditative practice. Parallels of which appear in the Bhagavad Gītā (18.73), Haṭhapradīpikā (4.110) and the Tattvavaiśāradī (1.20).

One significant feature of secular mindfulness is the meditation using breath as an anchor and the use of mindfulness with the body. These are accurately prescribed and guided in the Ānāpānasati Sutta and the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta of the Buddhist canon. However, using the breath as a tool is not unknown to the Vedic tradition. The yoga literature preoccupied itself with the regulation of breath called pranayama, primarily categorising it as pūraka (inhalation), recaka (exhalation) and kumbhaka (retention). However the Upaniṣad-s also used meditation on breath or prāṇa as an upāsanā. Meditation on the breath as upāsanā -s appear in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad (4.10.3, 7.26.1, 8.12.3, 3.14.2, 1.11.15, 3.14.2, 3.15.4, 3.17.6, 5.2.1-3; 6.5.2, 4; 6.6.3, 5; 6.7.1, 6.8.2, 7.15.1), Kaṭha Upaniṣad (2.2.3, 2.2.5, 2.3.2), Praśna Upaniṣad (1.5-8, 2.2-13, 3.3, 3.11-12), Taittirīya Upaniṣad  (2.3.1, 3.3.1), Muṇdaka Upaniṣad (2.1.3, 2.2.8, 3.1.4, 3.1.9), Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (1.6.3, 2.1.6, 2.1.20, 2.3.6, 2.5.4, 3.4.1, 3.7.16, 3.9.9, 3.9.26, 4.1.3, 4.3.12, 4.4.18, 5.14.4) and the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad (1.5). These upāsanā -s can be further classified into several types such as the sampat, adhyāsa, pratīka, pratimā etc (Gambhirananda, 1997).

While the loving kindness meditation is found as an instruction in the metta sutta of Buddhist canon, Vyāsa too stresses the importance of kindness and compassion in his Yoga Sūtra commentary (Vyāsa Bhāṣya 1.33, 3.23) and Śaṅkara stresses it to be a pre-requisite for the tutelage with an enlightened teacher (Upadeśasāhasri, 2.1.2).

The practice of body scan was adapted from the Buddhist Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. A key element of relaxation as an important component is stated in the Brahma Sūtra Bhāṣya (4.1.8-9) and the Yoga Sūtra (2.46). However, these texts confine the posture to a seated posture. These ideas get extended to becoming a supine posture in the Gherandasamhitā (2.4, 2.19) and the Haṭhapradīpikā (1.32). Meditation while lying down can also be found in the Vijñānabhairava Tantra (82).

  1. Discussion

The findings of the Vedic antecedents to secular mindfulness is significant. Kabat-Zinn’s secular approach to relieving the suffering of people appear to take a positive approach rather than a negative one adopted by the Buddhists. According to Sharf (2015), early Buddhism is characterised by three important characteristics which are “(1) to live is to suffer, (2) the only genuine remedy to suffering is escape from samsara (the phenomenal world) altogether, and (3) escape requires, among other things, abandoning hope that happiness in this world is possible” (p.471). Varma (1973) concurs with this aspect of Buddhism which makes it a pessimistic doctrine.  However, Kabat-Zinn had approached mindfulness from a different direction which is not pessimistic in nature. This appears to be very similar to the approach of Tantra and the Karma Yoga discipline of the Bhagavad Gītā which takes a positive approach to relieve suffering. An example would be Krishna’s teachings to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gītā which favours social and responsible action rather than running away from the battlefield shirking from his duties. A substantial part of chapter two of the Bhagavad Gītā is devoted to presenting Awareness, Attention and Acceptance as key attributes of Karma Yoga. Śaṅkara’s commentaries on this chapter echoes the same purport.

The concept of wholeness of the human personality is also alien to Buddhism where personality is seen as an assemblage and life negating given that it exhorts a seeker to adopt a life of renunciation. On the other hand the Advaita Vedānta school exhorts two lifestyles viz Sāṅkhya Yoga and Karma Yoga (Bhagavad Gītā, 3.3). The former has been the lifestyle of the renunciates or monks while the latter was meant for people who are economically and socially active. Kabat-Zinn’s approach to mindfulness which comprises of enhancing Self-Awareness through paying attention and accepting experiences with equanimity appear to be consistent with the teachings of Karma Yoga found in the Bhagavad Gītā and Śaṅkara’s commentary on it.

The idea of non-duality proposed by Kabat-Zinn is also mysterious given that Buddhism’s non-duality or advaya is not technically the same as that of Advaita Vedānta. The Buddhist concept of advaya primarily refers to the middle path rather than non-duality of self and the external world (Darling, 1987). Kabat-Zinn’s philosophy of non-duality appears to be more influenced by Advaita Vedānta, perhaps through the works of Ramana Maharishi and Nisargadatta Maharaj which he acknowledges to be one of his sources of influence. In any case, the view that secular mindfulness departs from Buddhism is not something new (Chiesa, 2012)

These philosophical ideas appear to shape Kabat-Zinn’s brand of mindfulness in a much significant way than perhaps ever thought of. It gives a distinct flavour to the way the relief of suffering is achieved. Therefore, it transforms the way mindfulness is approached and the people eligible to practice it. In the view of Kabat-Zinn, Arjuna, the central character who was a warrior prince in the Bhagavad Gītā, could perhaps be a worthy candidate for Mindfulness training rather than a monk or a sannyasin.

Kabat-Zinn’s effort in presenting Mindfulness as a unique type of meditation is similar to the vastu tantram of Advaita Vedānta. It appears to be an adaptation of nididhyāsana and manana, which makes Awareness as the object of meditation and therefore the practice being non-striving. However, mindfulness does not use the ideas contained in manana or nididhyāsana practices which are thought streams associated with wholeness of the Self. Kabat-Zinn’s unique approach appears to be an innovation of yogic concentration with the metaphysics of Advaita Vedānta.

Kabat-Zinn’s presentation of mindfulness as serving self-understanding and wisdom are also not disconnected from the soteriological traditions of the Vedic systems where self-knowledge and wisdom are presented as means and ends respectively. Particularly in the Advaita Vedānta tradition, knowledge of the self is the sole means to wisdom (vijñāna/prajñā).

Kabat-Zinn’s innovative practices of secular mindfulness are primarily adaptations of Buddhist practices. However a great deal of Haṭha Yoga and Patanjali Yoga are found to have influenced it. The breath as an anchor is not unique to Buddhism as such practices as upāsanā are already found in abundance in the Upaniṣad-s. Practices such as the sitting meditation, body scan and standing yoga and loving kindness meditation have also been innovated with a great deal of adaptation from the Vedic systems.

It is also necessary to understand the aspects that make Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness secular in spite of its influence from Buddhism, Advaita Vedānta and Yoga. The first and foremost point is the absence of religious faith and dogma. Kabat-Zinn justifies it by stating that the empirical dimensions of mindfulness practices can be extracted from the spiritual practices (Kabat-Zinn, 2003). And that was exactly what he accomplished very successfully. The āstikya elements of the Vedic systems which required a religious practitioner to subscribe to the doctrine of pāpa, puṇya, īśvara, heavens, hells and a host of other unseen realities belonging to the realm of faith have been stripped from the Mindfulness practices, thus making it secular.

From the philosophical perspective, Kabat-Zinn’s perspective of wholeness does not deal with epistemological considerations nor the idea of brahman or ātman as taught in Advaita Vedānta. His idea of Awareness appears to be bordering on metacognition on one side and a reality he defines it as being beyond thoughts on the other (Kabat-Zinn, 1994). This may push the boundaries of what metacognition is and how it is defined today.

Although his emphasis on the uniqueness of mindfulness meditation as being non-striving and available in the present moment is similar to the vastu tantram of Advaita Vedānta, yet it is secular. Mindfllness meditation does not deal with neither scriptural statements nor the words of the guru which are used in both manana and nididhyāsana practices.

The secular mindfulness practices are again stripped of all religious beliefs and dispassion towards the world, originally reserved for a qualified person who was a monk or sannyasin. Instead, Kabat-Zinn used these for clinical patients in need of relief from chronic pain and stress.

The points of onvergence and divergence with regard to secular mindfulness and Vedic systems make Kabat-Zinn a genius innovator. Due to this, Mindfulness eventually came to be seen as a self-help, brain training and a clinical tool (Crane, 2017). While he acknowledges Advaita Vedānta teachers such as Ramana Maharishi and Nisargadatta Maharaj, we do not know if he was familiar with the nuances and technicalities of the Advaita Vedānta doctrine or even the Yoga philosophy. It appears that as a physician he was more concerned with the way mindfulness could help people rather than theorise it. He was more of a physician than a scholar of religious philosophy or practice.

  1. Conclusion

Secular Mindfulness as innovated by Jon Kabat-Zinn has similarities to the Vedic systems of the Upaniṣad-s and Yoga schools (Patanjali and modern Haṭha Yoga). The philosophy behind secular mindfulness and its approaches to relieve suffering as a whole are more aligned with the intentions of Yoga and Advaita Vedānta than Buddhism. The teachings of the Vedic traditions could have been an unconscious influence on Jon Kabat-Zinn due to the popularity of Yoga and Vedānta in America in the 1970’s. Secular Mindfulness is more indebted to the tradition of Advaita Vedānta and modern Yoga than perhaps ever acknowledged or even noticed.

Kabat-Zinn’s intention to secularise Mindfulness had made him a genius innovator who had brought relief to distressed people across the globe and that too without any commercial gain. It is a commendable feat given that research is proving its efficacy and continuing to prove it day by day.

  1. Future Research

A deeper study on each of the areas of philosophy, meditation as a non-striving practice, mindfulness practices and its Vedic influence is much needed to ascertain the impact of Yoga and the Vedic systems on Secular Mindfulness. Another area of study could specifically be directed at the innovation and adaptation of the Vedic systems by Kabat-Zinn.


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K Kathirasan

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