Mindfulness is best considered an inherent human capacity akin to language acquisition; a capacity that enables people to focus on what they experience in the moment, inside themselves as well as in their environment, with an attitude of openness, curiosity and care.
We are all somewhat mindful some of the time, but we can choose to cultivate this faculty and refine it to ever-greater degrees through practice. Being mindful does not necessarily involve meditation, but for most people this form of mind-training is required to strengthen the intention to stay present and cultivate an open and allowing quality of mind. What is often referred to as “Mindfulness”, therefore, is a practice that individuals and groups can do on a day-to-day basis. It is an integrative, mind-body based training that enables people to change the way they think and feel about their experiences, especially stressful experiences. It sounds and is simple, but it is remarkably hard to do, especially in our modern task-focussed lives.
Secular methods of cultivating mindfulness have been available since the development of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) programmes for treating physical pain and poor mental health in the 1980s and 1990s. These clinical interventions generally entail eight weekly classes of up to two and a half hours each, however a great deal of innovation over the last decade has led to a proliferation of programmes with varying lengths, intensities and delivery styles developed for very different audiences. It is thought that the deeper fruits of practice are only available through courses of at least six weeks, due to the necessity for participants to start encountering and working through their own resistance and reactivity in relation to practice, although this claim has not yet been proven through research.
Although it is not owned by any group, the cultivation of mindfulness can be found in many ancient contemplative traditions and the most comprehensive approach is found in Buddhist teachings. However, according to leading mindfulness researchers, to say that mindfulness is Buddhist is akin to saying that gravity is Newtonian(1).
(1) Brown, K. W., Ryan, R. M., Loverich, T. M., Biegel, G. M., & West, A. M. (2011). Out of the armchair and into the streets: Measuring mindfulness advances knowledge and improves interventions: Reply to Grossman (2011). Psychological Assessment, 23, 1041–1046.