These days, it can feel like mindfulness is just about everywhere — from schools to hospitals, from highbrow news outlets to glossy magazines. But have you ever wondered where the word "mindfulness" actually comes from?
In undertaking my recent research into untranslatable words, I've come to appreciate just how tricky translation can be. It's so easy for meanings and nuances to get diluted or lost along the way. Which of course has got me thinking about mindfulness, and how appropriate this word actually is.
So, what are the roots of the term "mindfulness?" Essentially, it is a translation of sati, a word in the Pali language of ancient India — in which many original Buddhist texts were written — that roughly means "awareness." However, in reviewing the way Buddhism has been transmitted to the West, I’ve come to wonder whether mindfulness is really the best word we could have selected.
What does "sati" mean?
In its original Buddhist context, sati essentially captures a kind of present-moment awareness. We see this usage in what is arguably the seminal text on mindfulness in the Buddhist teachings, the satipaṭṭhāna sutta. This includes instructions that will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken a mindfulness class, such as: "Establishing present-moment recollection right where you are, simply breathe in, simply aware, then breathe out, simply aware."
So what does sati mean here? In plain terms, the word referred to "remembrance" and "recollection." However, used within a meditative context — as in this teaching — it does not refer to historical memory per se, but to a mental state in which one recollects or remembers the activity that "one is engaged in, in the present moment," as John Peacock puts it. In the words of Anālayo, sati involves remembering to focus on "what is otherwise too easily forgotten: the present moment."
Why was "mindfulness" chosen as a translation?
In reflecting on those explanations, I feel I do get a sense of what sati refers to. But then, the question arises, why was ‘mindfulness’ picked as a translation for sati? The term mindfulness was first coined by the great Buddhist scholar T. W. Rhys Davids at the dawn of the 20th century. Interestingly though, Rhys Davids toyed with various terms before settling on mindfulness. In his 1881 publication of Buddhist suttas, sati was rendered as "mental activity," and even simply as "thought." It was then only with his 1910 work that he settled on the term mindfulness.
The word was then later picked up and embraced by Jon Kabat-Zinn when he formulated his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programme, which was so influential in bringing mindfulness to the West. And, he does indeed seem to capture the "flavour" of sati in his influential 2003 definition of mindfulness — which he explicitly stated was based upon sati — namely "the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment."
Is "mindfulness" really the best word we can find?
However, while I do appreciate Kabat-Zinn's definition, I wonder how appropriate the word "mindful" is to depict this state. For a start, emphasising the word "mind" seems to overlook the positive emotional qualities with which people are encouraged to imbue their awareness, such as kindness and compassion.
Indeed, in their influential model of mindfulness, Shapiro and colleagues argue that "heart-mindfulness" might be a better phrase. They highlight the fact that in the Chinese and Japanese rendering of sati – pronounced nian and nen respectively – the character used (念) is actually a compound of the ideographic images for mind (the topic half of the character) and heart (the bottom half of the character). But even then, I also wonder about the suffix "full." Certainly, being mindless or heartless is the very opposite of what we mean by mindfulness. But the notion of having a "full" heart or mind seems to conflict with the idea of an open, expansive awareness, which is what is commonly depicted when we use the term "mindfulness."
So, as wonderful as the widespread interest in mindfulness is, I wonder if the word itself leaves something to be desired. But then, I don't know what word we would use instead!
Anālayo. (2003). Satipaṭṭhāna: The Direct Path to Realization. Windhorse Publications: Birmingham.
Gethin, R. (2011). On some definitions of mindfulness. Contemporary Buddhism, 12(01), 263-279.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1982). An outpatient program in behavioral medicine for chronic pain patients based on the practice of mindfulness meditation: Theoretical considerations and preliminary results. General Hospital Psychiatry, 4(1), 33-47.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(2), 144-156. doi: 10.1093/clipsy.bpg016
Peacock, J. (2014). Sati or mindfulness? Bridging the divide. In M. Mazzano (Ed.), After Mindfulness: New Perspectives on Psychology and Meditation (pp. 3-22). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Rhys Davids, T. W. (1881). Buddhist Suttas. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Rhys Davids, T. W. (1910). Dialogues of the Buddha (Vol. 2). London: Henry Frowde.
Shapiro, S. L., Carlson, L. E., Astin, J. A., & Freedman, B. (2006). Mechanisms of mindfulness. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 62(3), 373-386.