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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1980’s | academese | “attention,” “meditation,” “being in the moment”)

“Mindfulness” is not a new word, but it has a better claim to newness than “mindful,” long in common use, meaning “well aware” (occasionally it means “considerate”). You used the word when talking about something that demanded more than ordinary attention, or caution. One was mindful of bitter past experiences, or of threats, or of risks. I remember my Sunday school teacher exhorting us to be mindful of scriptural principles. In other words, it shouldn’t just be one more thing rattling around up there, it should fill your mind (if it were a noun, you might say a mindful). It wasn’t a casual word, but a portentous one. “Mindful” may still be used that way, but “mindfulness” never is.

The term today today also refers to heightened awareness, but the object of attention is that which confronts your consciousness right now. In this sense it comes straight out of Buddhism. The eightfold path prescribes mental habits; number seven is “right mindfulness.” “Mindfulness” as we understand it was probably invented by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, who founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program in 1979. He turned up in the news occasionally in the eighties. Another longtime proponent, Dr. Ellen Langer of Harvard, seems to have come on board a few years later; she used the expression as a book title in 1990 (the book, according to, did not cite Kabat-Zinn, or even mention his name). To be sure, their focuses were different. Kabat-Zinn emphasized bodily relaxation through techniques very similar, if not identical, to what we used to call meditation: concentrate on breathing and sensations, keep returning to monitor them when the mind wanders, note your feelings without judgment, step back and try to experience your mind and body neutrally. Langer thought of it as more of an intellectual exercise; one method she prescribed was to “watch [television] as though [you] were someone else — a politician, or an athlete or a criminal. The point is to break through people’s assumptions with an active attention that stimulates their thinking” (quoted in the New York Times, March 4, 1986). Langer doesn’t talk about listening to your body, but both theorists emphasize conscious control of the mind and of keeping your focus on what’s going on right now.

Kabat-Zinn and Langer are high-powered professors with strong reputations. I’ve written elsewhere of the spread of Eastern religions in the U.S., but it’s not just gurus and rock stars; academics have often gotten into the act. It’s hard to see Kabat-Zinn as doing anything other than smuggling an anonymous version of Buddhist thought into the scientific community, buttressed with impressive studies proclaiming its beneficial effects. Langer seems more focused on business and social relations, so the connection to the mysterious East is weaker. But it’s there either way; mindfulness involves increased attention, though practitioners may differ on whether one should concentrate stubbornly on what’s going on inside the head or outside the body. To a good mindfulist, that’s an illegitimate distinction, or it should be. The point is to connect your consciousness with the movements and rhythms of the body, and that does tend to make any chasm between the two seem imaginary.

No pain, no gain” and “karma,” also adapted from Asian religious wisdom, have been treated much more roughly than “mindfulness”; their American definitions contradict the original meanings and have pretty much obliterated them. Perhaps because mindfulness has always been promoted by academics and other elites, it has held onto something closer to its original denotation.

Business leaders, athletes, and politicians all discourse solemnly on the benefits of mindfulness. It has become an industry, with many experts and many web sites, and it has many of the characteristics of a fad. Its popularity is starting to provoke a backlash: a recent column on decries mindfulness training in scholastic settings, and other voices depict it as a convenient way to hold students (or employees) responsible for feelings of stress that actually are imposed by their superiors. If the bosses spring for a few mindfulness classes, they don’t have to try to create a better work environment. To still others, mindfulness is just a nice word for mindlessness, as the comic strip “Pickles” had it. Turn off your critical thinking and creativity, and vegetate yourself stupid.

My thoroughly brilliant girlfriend gave me this expression to write about. Where would I be without her?

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