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Defining Mindfulness: Ancient and Contemporary Perspectives


Defining Mindfulness

Several decades ago, when I first encountered the term "mindfulness", I quickly learned that different teachers used varying definitions of the term. It's important for teachers and practitioners of mindfulness to understand the implications of these definitions, which can have an impact upon the way you practice and how you convey your understanding to others. There are two definitions from the secular scientific community that I have greatly appreciated over the years, and I recently came across a wonderful definition from the classical Buddhist tradition that’s included below.

The two secular definitions of mindfulness are as follows: 

“…awareness…of present experience…with acceptance” (Germer, 2005, p. 7).

“…paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p. 4).

The above definitions of mindfulness can be very useful in clinical, educational, research, and personal practice settings. Notice the difference between those definitions and this particular definition from Thanissaro Bhikku, an American Buddhist monk from the Thai Forest Tradition:

"The practice of mindfulness is most fruitful when informed by the Buddha’s own definition of right mindfulness and his explanations of its role on the path. As he described the term, right mindfulness (sammā-sati) is not bare attention. Instead, it’s a faculty of active memory, adept at calling to mind—and keeping in mind—instructions and intentions that apply to your present actions. Its role is to draw on right view about the nature of suffering and its end, and to work proactively in supervising the other factors of the path—such as right resolve, right speech, right action, and right livelihood—to give rise to right concentration. Then it builds on right concentration to bring about total release.”

From Attention to Remembering

The above definitions can be complementary, and are dependent upon the context that they're used within. Secular definitions of mindfulness often reference intentionality, present-centered awareness or attention, and acceptance (Shapiro, Carlson, Astin, & Freedman, 2006). The classical Buddhist definition of mindfulness primarily references "memory” (or non-forgetfulness) as a process of overseeing the factors that ultimately lead to the end of suffering. Present-centered awareness and attention must be nearby for memory to be employed in this way. I therefore find utility in integrating both of the definitions, and often refer to the process of "remembering" when introducing mindfulness and mindful movement to beginners. The definition of mindfulness that I’ve recently been using is as follows:

Mindfulness is the awareness that’s cultivated when remembering to pay attention to the present moment with acceptance.

In condensing the definition of mindfulness into a single sentence, I appreciate that much meaning can be lost. At the same time, the succinctness of the definition can be helpful in encouraging beginners on the path of mindfulness. Those who are interested in an in-depth contemporary analysis of the classical Buddhist definition of mindfulness may find the book Unlimiting Mind: The Radically Experiential Psychology of Buddhism (Olendzki, 2010) to be illuminating.

Questions for Reflection

What definition(s) of mindfulness do you draw upon, and how do those definitions inform your practice?

How can the process of “remembering” be used to support your intention and attention within a formal meditation practice and outside of formal practice?

What do you see as the primary differences between secular definitions of mindfulness as compared to a traditional Buddhist definition? How might those different perspectives approach “symptoms” and “suffering”?

Do you see any advantages of one definition over another? If yes, why? If no, why not?


Germer, C.K. 2005. Mindfulness. In C.K. Germer, R.D. Siegel, & P.R. Fulton (Eds.), Mindfulness and psychotherapy (pp. 3-27). New York: Guilford Press.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are. New York: Hyperion.

Olendski, A. (2010). Unlimiting mind: The radically experiential psychology of buddhism. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Shapiro, S. L., Carlson, L. E., Astin, John A., & Freedman, B. (2006). Mechanisms of mindfulness. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 62(3), 373-386.

Thanissaro Bhikku. Mindfulness defined. Retrieved January 4, 2020, from

© 2020 Larry Cammarata, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist and Mindfulness Educator

This article was revised on April 18, 2022.

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