The Contemporary Definition of Mindfulness is Incomplete

The contemporary definition of mindfulness as outlined by Jon Kabat-Zinn is: “Awareness of the present moment on purpose, in a particular way and non-judgmentally.” Is being non-judgmental with our experience the end point of mindfulness, or is there more to it? Originally from historic Theravada Buddhism one of the main goals of mindfulness was to act skillfully. This is one of the criticisms of our current understanding of mindfulness, that there is no comment on skillful or ethical behavior.

Apparently JKZ deliberately did not include acting skillfully in the definition. He stated: “Clinical psychologists want very linear and easy to understand definitions. One can’t understand mindfulness with your thinking mind. It is like a koan.” A koan is a puzzle that Zen Buddhists use in their practice to help reveal greater insights through non-conceptual intuition. That may be true, but most people who practice mindfulness are not Zen practitioners.

Ethical behavior in contemporary mindfulness of MBSR is said to be implicit, not explicit. Jon Kabat-Zinn commented on the ethics of MBSR and stated:

The ethical foundation of the practice is to be more implicit than explicit, and that it may be best expressed, supported, and furthered by how we, the MBSR instructor and the entire staff of the clinic, embody it in our own lives and in how we relate to the patients, the doctors, the hospital staff, everybody, and of course, how we relate to our own interior experience.

Contemporary Buddhism 2011, 12:1 Page 295 Some reflections on the origins of MBSR, skillful means, and the trouble with maps.
Jon Kabat-Zinn

He felt that the MBSR staff should model ethical behavior that will influence what the participants do. This is an unrealistic expectation that there will be uniformity in the instructors and their behaviour, intent and teaching style. Also people learn mindfulness from reading and apps without taking an MBSR course or having a teacher.

There also appears to be a faith in the action of the individual to act ethically.

First, it is inevitably the personal responsibility of each person engaging in this work to attend with care and intentionality to how we are actually living our lives, both personally and professionally, in terms of ethical behaviour. An awareness of one’s conduct and the quality of one’s relationships, inwardly and outwardly, in terms of their potential to cause harm, are intrinsic elements of the cultivation of mindfulness as I am describing it here.

Contemporary Buddhism 2011, 12:1 Page 294 Some reflections on the origins of MBSR, skillful means, and the trouble with maps.
Jon Kabat-Zinn

This also seems to be an unrealistic assumption and expectation. One could argue that for most people, one’s personal intent in taking Mindfulness is self-centered motivation in order to feel better personally. To relieve one’s stress. Not ethical behavior.

There needs to be explicit goals set out for what one is doing in order to guide the participants rather than relying on their personal responsibility and capacity to operate from ethics, and the guidance of the MBSR instructors through modeling of behavior.

People want a clear definition and roadmap that outlines what mindfulness is and what is its purpose. According to the definition it seems that the end point is to be non-judgmental. This explains how one is in relationship with the present moment but not what do you do next. The ultimate goal of mindfulness is not to be non-judgmental but to act skillfully in an ethical and non-harming manner. The contemporary definition of mindfulness is misleading!

It is imperative that the goal of ethical behavior as an end point be stated in the definition of mindfulness to help clearly guide the actions of the participants.

by Dr. Phil Blustein
May 19, 2023