How did mindfulness become “bare, non-judgmental, present-moment awareness”?

256px-Cartoon_Meditating_Man.svg“Mindfulness” in modern discourse – whether among meditation teachers or clinicians – is defined in various ways, but generally circle around “bare, non-judgmental, present-moment awareness.” Nonetheless, although mindfulness (in Pali, sati) is one of the most fundamental concepts in the Early Buddhists Texts (EBT), one would be hard-pressed to find a definition or description of mindfulness there that remotely resembles such circulations. In this essay I will try to account for our modern definitions of mindfulness and how they might be reconciled with the EBT.

My intention is not to delegitimize these modern definitions; words come to be used differently with time and, hey, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, By any other word would smell as sweet!” The modern definitions have clearly proved useful and resonate with modern meditative and clinical experience. My intention is to explore what the shift in the meaning of mindfulness tells us about the shift from early Buddhist concerns to modern concerns as we pursue “mindfulness,” and then to ask the important question, What might we have left behind?

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