I recently found myself looking for books on the history of mindfulness. I thought the task would be easy but got quickly overwhelmed by the variety of reads on the subject.
While doing research, I came across titles on the history of Buddhism, as well as secular how-to guides on meditation. But none of them had what I needed.
If you wonder, “Where does mindfulness come from?” and don’t know where to start, read on. I’ve compared popular books on the origins of mindfulness and put together a short list below.
1. Introducing Mindfulness: Buddhist Background and Practical Exercises
Bhikkhu Analayo is one of the most respected scholar-monks of our time. He is known for authoring the best book on mindfulness meditation, which we reviewed a while ago.
With Introducing Mindfulness, Analayo’s aim is twofold. First, he provides a historical survey of the development of mindfulness in early Buddhism.
Second, he introduces mindfulness exercises that help us emerge from states of greed, hatred, and delusion. To this end, he explains how to practice meditation, from mindful breathing to contemplation of impermanence.
Bhikkhu Anālayo examines fundamental questions, such as the way that key capacities of mindfulness can emerge from working with our reactivity to pain, and he does so by also tracing pivotal historical developments that explain how various traditions interpret mindfulness.
Always returning to the concrete goal of actually cultivating mindfulness, this remarkable book dispels many misunderstandings – such as the notion that it is somehow “inauthentic” to practice mindfulness for health reasons – while offering a clear, practical and insightful account of how we can ourselves be more mindful.
2. Mindfulness: Where It Comes From and What It Means
If you’re looking for a quick guide to the history of mindfulness, Mindfulness: Where it Comes From and What It Means is for you.
It’s written by Sarah Shaw, a faculty member and lecturer at the University of Oxford, who draws her expertise from years of practicing and teaching the history of mindfulness.
By reading this book, you will gain a deeper appreciation for the spiritual and historical meaning of the word “mindfulness,” taking it out of the pop-culture loop and straight into its Buddhist genealogy.
Mindfulness [by Sarah Shaw] thoroughly examines the different meanings of mindfulness, from early Buddhist texts to today’s therapeutic applications.
This study will be of value to the Buddhist student who wants a deeper understanding of what it means to pay attention to the present moment and how the practice has evolved in different corners of the world over the last 2,600 years.
3. Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture
Fascinating, isn’t it? Seeing how an obscure Buddhist practice becomes a popular cure-all for Americans’ daily problems.
This process is what Jeff Wilson explores in Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture.
Unlike the two previous entries in this list, this book will be invaluable for those interested in the modern history of mindfulness. Read it to learn how people domesticate this practice in the West, taking from Buddhism what they believe will relieve their specific distresses and concerns.
Jeff Wilson demystifies the current mindfulness vogue by setting it in historical perspective and providing insightful analyses of the way in which an Asian Buddhist religious practice and value has been spiritualized, medicalized, psychologized, and secularized as it has been reshaped to address the needs of middle class Americans.
General readers, practitioners, teachers, authors, and promoters alike will value Wilson’s insights into the way in which mindfulness as a technique to address suffering has come to mean many different things for many different people.
Complement this selection with our article on seven historical translations of the word “mindfulness.”