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Freedom from the mind through mind-fulness?!?

Untangling the paradox…

Dr. Gwen Bingle
November 8, 2023

Missed the introduction to our mindfulness series? Here goes to the Beep Meditation

Mindfulness contra Busyness?

Beep… the online-meeting reminder plops up. You take a quick look at your overflowing inbox, sigh… and before you have had time to breathe out, that amazing organisation tool reminds you of the urgent project requesting your immediate input for tomorrow’s appointment – one of at least a dozen endeavours, we should hasten to add. And that’s just the work side of things!

Two hours later, you feel like an outbuzzed bee, having gathered, processed and delivered information here, there and everywhere, but with virtually nothing to show for.

Can you relate?

Before launching into a rant about the vicissitudes of (post)modern working life or picking up the next bestseller on improved self-management, you suddenly recall all the books and articles read, the classes taken, not to mention the lonely meditation cushion in your bed-room…

Mindfulness? Meditation? Anyone?

From Mind-fulness to Monkey Mind and No-Mind

But this time, your etymological mind stumbles on the concept of “mindfulness”: do you really need “mind-fullness”, when your mind is already poised to burst, so crammed it is with mental static? “Mindlessness” sounds more like it! But then, of course, “mindful”, in everyday usage, has more to do with remembering or taking people and circumstances into account, before deciding or acting. Just as “mindless” usually refers to stupid or meaningless activities rather than to a more neutral “absence of mind”.

You may have also come across two concepts from Buddhist philosophy that have been more widely popularised in recent years. On the one side, there is the idea of the monkey mind, which describes the state of restless (over)thinking and feeling that a majority of us engage in during most of our waking hours. And on the other side, no-mind beckons, a state that can be defined as a mind freed of thought and emotion – a non-attachment that may ultimately flower into so-called spiritual awakening or enlightenment.

And now, your mind is literally reeling from this overwhelming train of thought (!), isn’t it? You shake your head and wonder: what is mindfulness then? Is the mind the enemy? Hmmm… too much seems to be no good, but no mind at all? Can you still be functional without a mind, or will you be floating on cloud nine in the confines of an ashram or locked up in a psychiatric ward?

Person with a "brainbox" head being fed with rubbish

Modern Mindfulness

So, it may be time for a better definition of mindfulness as well as a bit of contextualisation – especially since mindfulness is having such a cultural moment (pun intended!). So, take a deep mindful breath before we plunge in!

The Cambridge Dictionary defines the modern acceptation of mindfulness as “the practice of being aware of your body, mind, and feelings in the present moment, thought to create a feeling of calm.“ This corroborates the definition provided by the Collins Dictionary: “Mindfulness is a way of training your mind to concentrate on the present, in order to feel calm and improve your mental state.” Hence, mindfulness, in this context, seems to be a practical skill that can be acquired. And it involves dwelling in the present moment, with the aim of alleviating mental stress.

Sounds promising, doesn’t it? But where does the concept of mindfulness come from?

Letter game with the word mind spelt out

West meets East

While mindfulness has a long and rich Asian history in the Hindu, Taoist and Buddhist religious traditions (among others), not to mention discreet strands of Jewish, Christian and Islamic mysticism, its mainstream adop-tion and partial secularisation in modern Western societies is relatively recent.

Throughout colonial history, there were of course contact points with Eastern traditions, albeit mostly ambivalent. But the discovery and genuine appreciation of Eastern thought initially took off with the French Orientalist enthusiasm for Chinese philosophical and aesthetic traditions in the 18th century, influencing a number of intellectuals, Voltaire included. In the course of the 19th century, it was gradually supplanted by a growing fascination for Hinduism and Buddhism. Factors that catalysed this development were no doubt increased exchange and travel opportunities (by rail and sea) as well as access to key religious and philosophical texts. This meant that Eastern religious scholars or practitioners such as the pioneering Indian Swami, Vivekananda, could spent longer periods of time in the West expounding their religious philosophies (in his case Vedanta and Yoga), just as Westerners also travelled to the East propelled by a fascination with a much fabled “Orient”.

Broader interest in Eastern thought picked up with the help of various Western spiritual movements, such as Spiritualism and Theosophy as well as more secular disciplines – from Philosophy (with the likes of Schopenhauer or Nietzsche) to Literature (through American Transcendentalists such as Thoreau). In that respect, the translation of central spiritual writings was a decisive catalyst in the propagation of Eastern worldviews. A shining example in this respect was the endeavour of German comparative philologist and Oxford professor, Max Müller, who edited The Sacred Books of the East, a monumental compilation of English translations of Asian sacred texts (covering not only the main texts of Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism but also Zoroastrianism, Jainism, and Islam), which was published between 1879 and 1910.

Oriental temple with overhanging boughs of a tree with golden foliage

From theory to practice

In the early 20th century, explorations of Eastern thought in relation to Western philosophy, psychology and spirituality were propagated by intellectuals such as William James (e.g.,The Varieties of Religious Experience, 1902) or Carl Gustav Jung (e.g., The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga, 1932, or his Foreword to an Edition of the I Ching, 1949). But perhaps even more importantly, it was self-made individual seekers and authors who truly popularised the search for and appropriation of Eastern spirituality in their writings, like Jung’s famous patient Hermann Hesse (e.g., Siddharta, 1922) or Paul Brunton (e.g., A Search in Secret India, 1934) and Alan Watts (e.g., The Spirit of Zen: A Way of Life, Work and Art in the Far East, 1936).

However, it was really in the postwar years, and especially in the wake of countercultural movements (spurred by the so-called Beat and Hippie generations) that Eastern spirituality’s appeal became truly democratised. Decisive factors in this evolution were the questioning of the Christian Church’s hegemony with its socially entrenched values and the broader adoption of mindfulness-based practices such as yoga or meditation – not to mention increased travel opportunities (this time overland or by air).

Volkswagen hippie bus with man sporting an Afro hairstyle

The mainstream and currently more secular interest in mindfulness is actually very difficult to disentangle from the countercultural context. Indeed, it offered a fertile bed for the appropriation of Eastern spiritualities and their mindfulness offerings. On the one hand, it was fuelled by the teachings of Eastern spiritual teachers (partially) established in the West, such as e.g., Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh or Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (who e.g., launched the so-called Transcendental Meditation movement and spiritually mentored The Beatles). And on the other, it was further appropriated and interpreted by a new generation of young Westerners, who had been nourished by these traditions.

Some of these individuals went on to become spiritual teachers themselves or Eastern thought mediators such as e.g., Jack Kornfield (a prolific self-help and spirituality author as well as one of the co-founders of the influential Insight Meditation Society). These authors often fused the insights of separate Asian traditions, leading to a form of spiritual syncretism commonly labelled as “New Age”. In turn, because New Age thought gradually emancipated itself from formal allegiances to distinct religious traditions while incorporating other esoteric or alternative traditions such as shamanism, holistic medicine or mediumship, it lent itself to an intense commodification process. From the 1970s onward, the spiritual market became flooded with self-help and self-insight publications and services enabled by a dilution of expertise.

woman performing a Yoga asana with candle and incense burning

Stress and the psychology of mindfulness

Other individuals sought to better anchor Eastern insights into the Western professional context by seeking scientific backing, if not outright legitimation – be it from the fields of psychology or neurophysiology. Famous proponents of this trend include e.g., Jon Kabat Zinn, an MIT-trained molecular biologist and emeritus professor of medicine. Kabat-Zinn studied meditation with American Zen Monk Philip Kapleau, before designing his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme in the 1970s, which was originally offered at his Stress Reduction Clinic under the aegis of the University of Massachusetts Medical School. This programme went on to conquer the Western world and is still being successfully promoted in a variety of institutional and clinical settings – including in the prevention programme of the Techniker Krankenkasse, one of the largest state-backed health insurances in Germany. An offshoot of MBSR, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy or MBCT, was developed by psychologists Zindel Segal, Mark Williams and John Teasdale as an effective therapeutic modality for people suffering from severe depression.

Rather emblematically for this group of mindfulness early adopters and modifiers, Kabat-Zinn, while not disowning his Buddhist training and values, went to great pains to "apply mindfulness within a scientific rather than a religious frame", in an effort to secularise and thus legitimise the practices he mediated for a Western audience. It was this step along with the practical organisation of the MBSR programme that no doubt contributed to its lasting success. Indeed, MBSR participants need neither subscribe to specific religious values nor spend time attending lengthy or expensive retreats to practice mindfulness in their everyday lives.

Yoga or meditation class

Mindfulness goes MRI

A similar trajectory, but with perhaps slightly different vested interests, can be found in the efforts of Tibetan Buddhism to underpin its Weltanschauung through the scientific investigation of mindfulness practices. In the 1980s already, Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai-Lama, expressed the wish to collaborate with researchers in the field of neuroscience to illustrate and quantify the benefits of mindfulness practices. To fulfil this wish, the Mind & Life Institute was founded in 1991 and, over the course of the years, it not only began to foster a dialogue between neuroscience and Buddhism but was also instrumental in the launching of a new scientific discipline. Indeed, so-called contemplative neuroscience emerged in the wake of a conference at MIT in 2003, involving, among many others, the late Chilean neuroscientist Francesco Varela (co-founder of the Mind & Life Institute) as well as Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and neurology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Head of its Center for Healthy Minds (not to mention a Founding Steward of the Mind & Life Institute).  

Wikipedia defines the field of contemplative neuroscience as an “emerging field of research that focuses on the changes within the mind, brain, and body as a result of contemplative practices, such as mindfulness-based meditation, samatha meditation, dream yoga, yoga nidra, tai chi or yoga”. Since its inception, the field has spawned countless studies in some of the most renowned universities worldwide enrolling a variety of seasoned mindfulness practitioners as well as lay control-groups and using both traditional and cutting-edge medical imaging technologies – from electroencephalograms (EEGs) to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Studies involving Matthieu Ricard, a French Buddhist monk and cellular geneticist (as well as Founding Stewart of the Mind & Life Institute), at prestigious establishments such as Princeton, Harvard or Berkeley, are no doubt some of those that have been the most publicised over the years. In 2012, Ricard was even dubbed “The World’s Happiest Man” and the Smithsonian Magazine described the experiment and its outcomes as follows: “To quantify just how happy Ricard is, neuroscientists at the University of Wisconsin attached 256 sensors to the monk’s skull. When he meditated on compassion, the researchers were shocked to see that Ricard’s brain produces a level of gamma waves off the charts. He also demonstrated excessive activity in his brain’s left prefrontal cortex compared to its right counterpart, meaning he has an abnormally large capacity for happiness and a reduced propensity towards negativity, the researchers say.”

Buddhist nun meditating against a temple backdrop

Since these experiments, the euphoria over contemplative neuroscience has hardly abated: not a week goes by without a scientific or popular exploration of the subject. Three of the most recent examples include journal articles with titles such as “The impact of mindfulness on working memory-related brain activation in breast cancer survivors with cognitive complaints and Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery”, “Enhancement in Opioid Use Disorder: Extended Emotional Regulation and Neural Effects and Immediate Effects of Guided Meditation in a Pilot Sample” or “Effects of Mediterranean Diet or Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction on fetal and neonatal brain development. A secondary analysis of a Randomized Clinical Trial”. So, it seems that from oncology to addiction research or obstetrics, there is hardly a medical field that has not been impacted by the mindfulness trend. And, longevity, as we will see in our next article, is one of the most promising areas to seemingly benefit from its adoption since mental health, in general, and stress, in particular, are key contributors to the ageing process.

headless medical doctor with crossed arms and stethoscope

Science and mindfulness: an (un)holy alliance?

However, it remains to be seen if the ties between mindfulness and spirituality or religion can ever be so completely secularised as to comply with a vision of mainstream medical science still rather reluctant to welcome awareness or consciousness into its materialistic perspective. Linked to it, is the question we already hinted at, namely allegiances and affiliations, and how these impact the scientific endeavour. For instance, the aforementioned Jon Kabat-Zinn, is rather unsurprisingly also a Founding Fellow of the Mind & Life Institute, a fact that may undermine his avowed attempts to prioritise a purely scientific framework. Matthew Nisbet, a Communication professor at Northeastern University as well as an avid meditator himself, expresses this dilemma very aptly (and self-consciously): “Yet as widespread as meditation has become in clinical settings, schools, and the business sector, many of the scientific findings have not yet been sufficiently replicated. Most researchers in the field are enthusiastic meditators themselves, enabling them to apply important insights but also potentially biasing their conclusions. Like in psychology more generally, there is a strong bias toward publication of positive or significant results. The methodological rigor of many studies also remains low with few longitudinal control studies conducted.”

Thus, the central question remains: how effective is mindfulness really? And, more poignantly: even if we assume that mindfulness will have few negative side-effects compared to other invasive medical interventions, is it always the case?  

Our next article will thus be delving into the significance and relevance of mindfulness research for the field of longevity.

Read on: The Science of Mindfulness: Health, Happiness and Longevity through Conscious Awareness?


(Selected) Sources (last retrieved 09.11.2023)

Japanese Zen Buddhist Philosophy, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Jul 31, 2019. Online:

“Monkey Mind”, Wikipedia. Online:

“Mushin (No-Mind)”, Wikipedia: Online:

“Mindful”, Cambridge Dictionary. Online:

„Mindful“, Collins Dictionary. Online:

Selva, Joaquín. “The History and Origins of Mindfulness”. Positive Psychology. 13.03.2017 (Revised 22.09.2023). Online:

La Plante, Justin, “History of Mindfulness”, Clark University: Office of Human Resources and Organizational Excellence, 22.11.2021. Online:

Nisbet, Matthew C., “The mindfulness movement: How a Buddhist practice evolved into a scientific approach to life”, Northeastern University, May 24, 2017 (updated November 10, 2021). Online:

Bingle, Gwen, Under the Sign of the Body: Technology, Commodification and Embodied Consciousness in Late 20th Century Germany, online-Dissertation, Technische Universität München, Fakultät für Wirtschaftswissenschaften, 2012,

„Jon Kabat-Zinn“, Wikipedia. Online:

„MBSR-Acht­sam­keits­trai­ning“. DieT echniker Krankenkasse. Online-Angebot:  

“Your Guide to Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy“. Online:

Wilson, Jeff, Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2014, p. 35.

Stimson, Dyana, “Contemplative Neuroscience: An Integrative Approach for Investigating Consciousness”. Berkeley Undergraduate Journal, 25 (3), 2012. Online:

Matthieu Ricard, Antoine Lutz, Richard J.Davidson, Neuroscience Reveals the Secrets of Meditation’s Benefits, Scientific American, 01.11.2014, Online:

Nuwer, Rachel, “The World’s Happiest Man Is a Tibetan Monk”, Smithsonian, November 1, 2012. Online:

„Interview with Matthieu Ricard“, Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing University of Minnesota. Online:

Melis, M., Blommaert, J., Van derGucht, K. et al. „The impact of mindfulness on working memory-related brain activation in breast cancersurvivors with cognitive complaints”. Journal of Cancer Survivorship. 2023. Online: Online:

Suchismita Ray, Jamil Bhanji, Nicole Kennelly,Helen C. Fox, Patricia Dooley Budsock, Mauricio Delgado, Nina A. Cooperman,Eric L Garland, “Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement in Opioid UseDisorder: Extended Emotional Regulation and Neural Effects and ImmediateEffects of Guided Meditation in a Pilot Sample”, EXPLORE, 2023, ISSN1550-8307, Online:

Ayako NAKAKI, Francesca CROVETTO, Andrea URRU, Gemma PIELLA, Roger BORRAS, Valentin Comte, Kilian VELLVÉ, Cristina PAULES, Laura SEGALÉS, Marta DACAL, Yvan GOMEZ, Lina Youssef, Rosa CASAS, Sara CASTRO-BARQUERO, Andrés MARTÍN-ASUERO, Teresa OLLER, Ivette MORILLA MD, Anabel MARTÍNEZ-ÀRAN, Alba CAMACHO, Mireia PASCUAL TUTUSAUS, Angela ARRANZ, Monica REBOLLO-POLO, Marta GOMEZ-CHIARI, Nuria BARGALLO, Óscar J POZO, Alex GOMEZ-GOMEZ, Montserrat IZQUIERDO RENAU, Elisenda EIXARCH, Eduard VIETA, Ramon ESTRUCH, Fàtima CRISPI, Miguel Angel GONZALEZ-BALLESTER, Eduard GRATACOS, “Effects of Mediterranean Diet or Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction on fetal and neonatal brain development. A secondary analysis of a Randomized Clinical Trial (IMPACT BCN)”, American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology MFM, 2023,101188, Online:

Illustration credits

Vie Studio / pexels

Shvets Production / pexels

Vie Studio / pexels

Zhang Kaiyv / pexels

Cottonbro Studio / pexels

Elina Fairytale / pexels

Yan Krukau / pexels

Prince Kumar / pexels

Karolina Grabowska / pexels

Dr. Gwen Bingle
epiAge Deutschland Content & Customer Relations
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