How secular can we go without distancing mindfulness from its spiritual origins?
It is helpful to start with defining the main terms in question.
secular = not connected with religious or spiritual matters; comes from Latin saecularis, from saeculum ‘generation, age’, used in Christian Latin to mean ‘the world’ (as opposed to the Church)
mindfulness = the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something; a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique
spiritual = relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things; relating to religion or religious belief; from Latin spiritus ‘breath, spirit’, from spirare ‘breathe’
religion = the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods; a particular system of faith and worship; from Old French, or from Latin religio(n- ) ‘obligation, bond, reverence’, perhaps based on Latin religare ‘to bind’
Either or, neither or both
In your experience, have you practised mindfulness in a way that does not include the breath to some extent…?
The essence of spirituality is the breath. We come to earth with our first breath and leave it with our last. The breath is our connection between the external and internal world. Our bodies, brains and minds transform with each breath. The breath and our mind state are connected. When we are anxious the breath is shallow and rapid. When we are relaxed the breath is deep and slow. The breath and our physical state are connected. When we exercise we breathe a lot. When we rest we breathe a little.
It is not accidental that most mindfulness training starts with the breath. It is the ever present and ever changing reality of being a human. As we saw, 'spirit' means 'breath'. All breathing creatures are inherently spiritual. So, secular mindfulness meaning 'unrelated to spirituality' is an oxymoron. The two terms cannot co-exist as mindfulness is intrinsically spiritual.
At the same time, there is nothing spiritual or religious about 'mindfulness' when we look at the definition. Being conscious is a reality the majority of people share regardless of their beliefs. Mindfulness is about paying attention to the nature and contents of consciousness.
It is all about being in the world and knowing what this is like, about being in touch with life and it’s nuances 'as is'. It is about waking up moment to moment to what it is to be alive. It is not related to any particular system and does not contain any implicit or explicit obligations. Rather than binding, it attempts to liberate by bringing moment to moment awareness to the present. So, secular mindfulness meaning 'unrelated to religion' is a tautology. The qualifier 'secular' is redundant because freedom from dogma is inherent in the word 'mindfulness'.
It is all about intention
Mindfulness can be seen and used just as a tool or a technique. It can promote physical and emotional wellbeing independent of personal beliefs or attitudes. It is the intention that one brings to their practice that will determine the degree of personal transformation experienced.
How spiritual is your mindfulness? Does it touch and change aspects of your being beyond the material or physical?
It is more helpful to think of a scale with “purely secular” (worldly, outcome oriented, physically focused) as one extreme and “purely spiritual” (spiritual, totally goalless, self-transcendent) as the other. Every individual has their own unique place along that scale. That place can change over the long-term and with circumstances in the short-term.
One way of practising mindfulness is not better than the other. Sliding to the left or to the right on the scale does not show progress. If mindfulness is truly grounded in one’s present experience it will naturally adapt to circumstances. It will be more secular at times when career, finances, family life are a priority. It will be more spiritual when discovering truth, self-transcendence, nurturing unconditional love are priorities.
How can a practice firmly established in one’s subjective experience of the present have an ‘origin’?
The fact that the Buddha and other sages of the past have made excellent use of mindfulness does not make it a ‘Buddhist’ or a ‘spiritual’ practice. It is above all a human practice.
Mindfulness is the natural state of a healthy, matured, mind… of a healthy, mature human being.
From a round table discussion I facilitated at the mindfulness at work 2017 conference, in London.
Martin Stefanov Petkov