The likely genesis of mindfulness

You may be hearing more about mindfulness these days. What exactly is it and where did it suddenly come from?

While various definitions are used, mindfulness is generally being present, on purpose, without judgment or attachment.

Where it came from is a little more difficult to determine exactly.

Depending on who you ask, mindfulness either began in 1970s when it came to the West, or at the time of the Buddha in 500 BC, when it first flourished, or a thousand-plus years before that when it was first written about.

Some will tell you it’s predominantly restricted to clinical use, others say it’s the realm of hippies, while still others believe it’s solely for use by yogis or Buddhist monks. It’s worth noting it has also been a practice among those following Judaism, Christianity, Islam, atheists and agnostics alike for centuries. But how did all of these different groups all happen upon this type of practice?

Let’s consider why the practice became necessary in the first place.
Mindfulness is a way of bringing our full attention into this moment — to temporarily stop the mind from anticipating unknown events of the future and reliving trauma of the past. The ability – in fact the need – to do that came about the time we started walking upright about 3.2 million years ago. That’s when we developed a prefrontal cortex, that mound of forebrain that allows us to drift forward and back in time.  Without it (and opposable thumbs) we likely wouldn’t have survived being the tasty prey that we were. We were slow, soft and relatively weak, compared to hyenas and saber-tooth tigers and anything else looking for a fast meal.

So we developed an imagination that could quickly see a stick as a potential spear and plan places to sleep at night that were out of reach of our prey. However, it also created a gerbil wheel in our minds that keeps spinning when it doesn’t have to, causing a state of hyper vigilance where we jump at shadows, always imagining the worst. This can be exhausting, requiring a way of resetting and giving our minds a rest.

It’s quite likely that when we hauled our prey back to the cave and cooked it over the fire, we stared into the flames, smelled the roast cooking, and became part of this moment once again.

Our day, and thoughts of tomorrow, melted away as we gave ourselves a much needed pause. This would allow a return to much-needed clarity as we mentally prepared for yet another day.

This was mindfulness, and it was likely as much a part of our survival as hyper vigilance. It’s much the same effect on us today as we gaze at a fire, or starlit sky or a mountain vista.

The ability to still our minds is as important today as it ever was. Today, the ability to cast forward in time can help us plan for our future, but we tend to do it far too much for our own good. The result is a state resulting anxiety, depression and stress-related disorders. All the more important for us to find that time to calm down, and bring greater clarity back to our lives. And you don’t have to be a hippy, a monk or a clinician to do it.

Just get still, find the breath, and allow yourself the space to reset.