In the history of Buddhism, popular movements that present meditation as a relatively simple practice, accessible without extensive training, are nothing new. It happened in 8th-century China, and again in 19th-century Burma. And—growing directly out of the Burmese movement—it is happening again in today’s secularized mindfulness movement, represented most notably in the practice of MBSR, or Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.

Wherever such movements flourish, a backlash quickly develops. No one denies the potential benefit from learning to calm or focus the mind, but many Buddhist teachers worry that an approach may be easy and give immediate benefits and yet risk discarding essential elements in the Buddha’s teachings. And so the battle is joined. Does the secularized mindfulness movement zero in on the most vital points, or is it just “McMindfulness,” a simplified, less nourishing version of dharma that turns meditation into a form of self-help?

The debate will no doubt continue, yet both sides fail to ask an essential question: if MBSR presents mindfulness as “purposeful, nonjudgmental attention in the present moment,” do we really know what we mean by the present moment? Can we assume in advance that we know how to maintain present-moment attention? Asking these questions will do a lot to clarify what the mindfulness movement does and does not do. If we understand what goes on in the present moment and how best to engage it, we may discover new resources for bridging the divide between traditional mindfulness practice and the current mindfulness boom.

Starting Way Back

Around the start of the Common Era, and for centuries afterward, several flourishing schools of Western philosophy, especially the Stoics and the Epicureans, presented their teachings much as Buddhism does: as a way of life and a path to deeper realization and profound peace. As far as we know, followers of these schools did not practice sitting meditation in the Buddhist sense, but they did offer a meditative approach to daily life, based on cultivating the insights of their founders. Both schools emphasized the importance of present-moment attention, and their teachings are helpful in reflecting on how we understand mindfulness today.

Why look back to the past, instead of striking out on our own? For one thing, wisdom is scarce, and it’s always good to seek guidance from the great thinkers of the past. More fundamentally, however, the dialogue between Buddhism and the West in recent decades has been too narrow in its range. In our historically-challenged culture, we seldom look back at the sources that shape how we make sense of our lives. There are plenty of people ready to tell us about the links between Buddhism and psychology, and others who see interesting possibilities for a conversation between Buddhism and science. Some look to the 18th- and 19th-century Romantics, such as Schiller and Blake, or reach back to individual philosophers, such as Spinoza or Nietzsche. But if that’s as far as we go, we are leaving out of account more than 2,000 years of Western thought.

Liberate this article!

This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.