Mindfulness from Asia to the Fraser Valley

– by Seonaigh MacPherson –

photo: Seonaigh MacPherson (fourth from left) in India
When you train the mind to focus on something like the breath, it also gives you the discipline to focus on much bigger things and to really tell the difference between what’s important and everything else. This is a discipline that I have brought to my scientific career as well…
– Yuval Harari, author of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

In mindfulness, we return to our senses. We listen to the world and to our mind experiencing the world – the world of our body, feelings, mind, and all things. At heart, mindfulness is the act of noticing experiences. Indeed, with mindfulness, we don’t just listen, we hear. And we hear often as if for the first time. In 1977, for example, on learning to meditate as a 19-year old, I heard a bird singing through an open window and thought, “How is it that I could live for so long without having heard a bird sing?”

Our generation is witnessing a revolutionary translation of mindfulness theory and practice. Mindfulness is expanding from Asian traditions, like Buddhism, and finding its way into modern secular-science settings like education, healthcare, and social services. This journey across cultures is transforming what mindfulness means and how it is learned while conserving the essence of the promise, principles, and practices that have shaped it for millennia.

The term mindfulness comes from the Buddhist Pali term sati, meaning remembrance, presence of mind, and attention. Rhys-Davids (1842-1922) first translated sati as self-possessed but settled instead on the word mindfulness. In the 1980s, as mindfulness journeyed West with biochemist Jon Kabat Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, its definition shifted to mean paying attention to experience in the present-moment with curiosity and openness, free of judgement. This definition is used to frame most contemporary forms of mindfulness in education, healthcare, and a range of institutional contexts, including the Zinn’s MBSR program, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), and Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC).

The journey from Asia to secular-science has changed more than just the definition of mindfulness. It has also transformed the theories used to explain it and altered the practices used to cultivate it. In the scientific version, mindfulness is a trait, not just a state of mind or practice. This trait is highly correlated with openness to new experiences and wellbeing. Interestingly, the trait is also developed through the practice of mindfulness. So mindfulness training does more than generate a temporary state of mindfulness; it alters and increases the mindfulness trait. Buddhism says as much, but differently!

While philosophical, religious, and artistic practices have been introduced into education as contemplative studies, the introduction of mindfulness is distinctive. It relies on scientific legitimization, rationales and explanations, and focuses explicitly on attention training and what is referred to as “interest-taking” or mindfulness-based inquiry practices.

The scientific evidence on the impact of mindfulness is mounting exponentially. In 2000, there were just ten studies; last year there were 842. These studies present strong evidence that mindfulness can help reduce depression, anxiety, burnout, and negative stress while promoting well-being, autonomy, and self-determination. At the same time, researchers have identified mechanisms to explain these effects. These include reductions in self-referencing, rumination, and negative emotions, and the size of the amygdala, a set of neurons deep in the brain associated with processing emotions; increases in positive rumination or reflection, sensory-motor awareness, and the size of the brain’s cingulate cortex; and improved executive control and decision-making. In children, mindfulness fosters self-regulation and the regulation of emotions.

Seonaigh MacPherson
Seonaigh MacPherson

As those of us engaged in the cross-cultural dialogue concerning mindfulness can attest, the process of translating mindfulness practices – and the theories and evidence used to support those practices – will continue well into the next century. They will produce forms of learning we have yet to imagine. To this end, in the Fall of 2019, the University of the Fraser Valley is launching the Mindfulness-Based Teaching and Learning (MBTL) graduate certificate (www.ufv.ca/mbtl/). This is the first accredited graduate mindfulness program in Canada – a part-time, blended online program to train qualified mindfulness specialists for a range of professions, including K-12 and higher education, nursing and medicine, social work, criminal justice, workplace training and community education. Graduates will have skills to foster the teaching, learning, designing, and redesigning of key evidence-based programs in mindfulness in these contexts.

Seonaigh MacPherson is Associate Professor and Coordinator of the MBTL graduate certificate program at the University of the Fraser Valley. For more information visit www.ufv.ca/mbtl.

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