Is Mindfulness a religion?


Do we need to be mindful of how the popularisation of mindfulness may be creating a movement that has characteristics of a religion thinly disguised as secular self-help psychology?

In this short video, “You start to peel back the onion to what it means to be human” ( produced by Mindful Direct, Jon Kabat–Zinn explains his working definition of mindfulness. He is rightly recognised as a pioneer in the field of mindfulness and it is his work, in developing Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, that has given the word its popular meaning.

Historically meditation has been the preserve of monastics, ascetics and hermits. Interest in meditation has grown in the west following its encounter with Asian tradition, however, mysticism is going to put many people off in secular society today. If it is going to be accessible to different sections of society, it needs to be explained clearly and in straightforward ways. Kabat-Zinn’s innovation was to teach what he termed mindfulness in a course using secular language.

Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness is: “it is the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” This definition is widely used across the mindfulness movement and in academic journals and books on mindfulness.

This definition may appear straightforward but Kabat-Zinn has to qualify what he means by “non-judgmentally”. In this talk he explains that we still need to apply discernment and goes on to explain that “discernment plays a very, very big role in things; being able to understand it’s not black or white but an infinite number of shades”. Here, he seems to be saying that “discernment” may be “non-judgmental” if judgments are made on the basis of perceiving things as “an infinite number of shades” rather than in “black and white” terms.

He then says: “We’re capable of understanding both conceptually and even, much more importantly, non-conceptually as well.” Clearly it is only conceptual understanding that needs to be framed in language whereas non-conceptual understanding does not need language or to adhere to the rules of language. Is there hidden in this claim, a suggestion that non-conceptual understanding may be valid even when it may not make sense?

Later in this short talk, Kabat-Zinn describes a capacity for a wise awareness that is cognisant of its independence of mind-states of greed, delusion and hatred. He then seems to validate this idea by claiming it has traditional Buddhist origins.

Next he says that “the real weather patterns of the mind are secondary to the knowing capacity of mind”. He claims this “knowing capacity of mind” is unchanging and not affected by defiled mind states and equates it with Buddha nature and “not-knowing”. Wisdom, he claims is a combination of “not-knowing” and “knowing”.

Is this just mystical gobbledegook or is there some truth hidden in this metaphysical dialectic? What I feel may be of concern is the fact that here Kabat-Zin appears to invoke the authority of traditional wisdom to validate what seem to be confused notions of “mindfulness”.

Such devices, which validate an eternal or “unchanging” reality, that can only be expressed in metaphysical terms that may not make sense rationally, and therefore cannot be questioned, are classically used by religion to create relationships of unequal power between priests and laity or guru and disciple. Is this what Kabat-Zinn is knowingly or not-knowingly doing? Or is it because he is trying to explain something that could be better explained but doesn’t understand clearly enough to explain without resorting to the device of religious authority? 

Whatever his intention, I believe the authority his definition of mindfulness is given in the literature and how he is being positioned represents a potential threat to the benefit mindfulness could have in society because it amounts to setting up doctrine and religious authority that cannot be questioned. This will inevitably create a backlash against mindfulness.

We can acknowledge Kabat-Zinn for what he has achieved and the contribution he has made, but I believe we should follow the Buddha’s advice in the Kalama Sutta; rejecting teaching that is taught on the basis of personal authority, or tradition, or use of specious reasoning, or some kind of abstract notion that has been dreamt up. I do believe there are better ways of explaining mindfulness and so liberate it from any trappings of encroaching mysticism. This is important if we wish to enable the greatest good to come from the widest possible access to mindfulness in society today; that might never have been possible had it not been for Kabat-Zinn’s work in the first place.

First published on, 29/3/15