Written by Chung-Wei Lin
Mindfulness originated from the early Buddhist classics referred to as “Samyukta-Agama” and “Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta”. Mindfulness are those teachings of the Buddha that were handed to the disciples, and which Buddhists believe are the direct path to realization. Mindfulness has four steps: mindfulness of the body in the body, mindfulness of feelings in feelings, mindfulness of mental formations in mental formations, mindfulness of the phenomena in the phenomena. Buddhists hope that through these four exercises, they can free themselves from the attachment of the body, feelings, mental formations, and phenomena. Indeed, the ultimate goal is enlightenment. In recent times, mindfulness has spread from the Buddhism of countries in Southeast Asia to Western Europe and the United States. Mindfulness is further used through practical methods such as medical care, education, and consultation, which somewhat differs from the traditional Buddhist purpose of Enlightenment.
For example, Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, a representative figure in the United States, set up a decompression clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979 to create the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn proposed that the definition of mindfulness, which is also the most common operational definition of mindfulness: “deliberately, currently, and non-critical attention to the perceived ability of the experience that is developed from time to time.” Awareness, being in the present moment, and acceptance are thus three important core concepts of mindfulness.
In Taiwan, mindfulness has gained more and more attention in the past decade. First, after the publication of Kabat-Zinn’s first Chinese translation book “Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation In Everyday Life” in 2008, many books on mindfulness exercises and mindfulness decompression were published. Secondly, in more recent years, positive psychology as a topic in its own right has gained ascendancy in the field of psychology in Taiwan, which has also allowed for mindfulness to receive greater attention from the psychology community. For example, the theme of the 2014 Taiwan Psychology Annual Conference was Psychology for a better life, and Kabat-Zinn was invited as a keynote speaker who discussed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction(MBSR). In addition to this, mindfulness has also become part of the entrance exam question for the Institute of Psychology.
However, mindfulness still receives some controversy in Taiwan. Some Buddhist groups believe that the modern version of mindfulness has lost the spirit of Buddhism, and believe that the practice should not only be about pursuing physical or mental health. These groups worry that the modern version of mindfulness will lead everyone to forget enlightenment, which is the ultimate goal. On the other hand, positive psychologists believe that the concept of mindfulness that removes the religious elements can be accepted by modern people, and is therefore conducive to the promotion of mindfulness on the whole. In any case, modern people’s choices for wellbeing, including for those in Taiwan, have become more and more abundant. Indeed, it seems that even if Taiwanese citizens don’t have strong religious beliefs, they can choose Kabat-Zinn’s noble thoughts to help them reduce stress or improve health, or to even explore a more spiritual path. Alternatively, Taiwanese citizens can also choose the noble thoughts of the original Buddhist classics with the hope of finding a sense of inner peace through the practice of mindfulness.
Chung-Wei Lin is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the Taiwan Experimental Education Center. He has a master’s degree in psychology and a doctorate in education. His research interests are in the area of educational psychology and educational philosophy, especially focus on spiritual education and alternative education.
Image credit: Jasmin Oertel
Let me summarise: Mindfulness has a long tradition. For Buddhists it is an important element on the path to enlightenment. Nowadays it also is a tool in medical care, education, and consultation. Jon Kabat-Zinn teaches you how to do it. Recently, mindfulness gained attention in Taiwan, too. Via positive psychology it even took hold in the psychology community.
The prospects of Taiwanese for better well-being from increasing prosperity have evaporated. So, let’s pursue happiness directly by positive psychology. However, some Buddhist groups are unhappy about this modern proposition. They don’t want their religious salvation promise replaced by that of positive psychology.
That’s all well and good. But how much impact does mindfulness have on Taiwan’s society? What are the specifics of that impact? How is the relation between effort and effect? After all, Buddhist monks spend the better part of a life cultivating mindfulness and not all of them attain enlightenment.