A Buddhist Approach To Mindfulness And Meditation

This article addresses mindfulness and Buddhist meditation and clarifies the differences between the serenity and insight aspects of meditation.
Mal Huxter is a clinical psychologist, Dharma teacher and author.
mindfulness in buddhism
Mal Huxter is a clinical psychologist, Dharma teacher and author.

This article addresses mindfulness in Buddhism and contemporary psychology and clarifies the differences between the serenity and insight aspects of meditation. Please be aware that the following ideas are just my humble perspectives. If I relate the Buddha’s profound teachings incorrectly in any way I hope that I can be forgiven.

Mindfulness In Buddhism: Common Contemporary And Ancient Buddhist Approaches

Possibly the most popular definition of mindfulness used in contemporary psychology was provided by Jon Kabat-Zinn when he launched Mindfulness Based Stress Management (MBSR) in 1979. According to Kabat-Zinn mindfulness is “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally to the unfolding of experience moment to moment”. Jon Kabat-Zinn was inspired to develop MBSR by attending Buddhist insight meditation retreats.  In order for it to be accepted into the health and mainstream world however, Jon Kabat-Zinn deliberately separated mindfulness from its Buddhists roots and context.

Though there is no consensus about how mindfulness is operationally defined in contemporary psychology, most understand it as a present-centred, non-conceptual, non-judgmental, moment-to-moment form of bare attention or awareness. This definition has some overlap and similarities to Buddhist mindfulness but there are also some significant differences which impact on how it is understood and practiced.

The Differences Between Secular And Buddhist Mindfulness

One difference is that the contemporary perspective of mindfulness is often described as an independent skill, whereas in Buddhism it is interdependent. From a Buddhist perspective the effectiveness of mindfulness is contextually dependent on other factors that work together and build on one another. This interdependent dependent context is called the eight-fold path.

Another difference is that the contemporary definitions of mindfulness are ethically neutral. In stark contrast, Buddhist mindfulness is ethically wholesome and an overt effort to live an ethical lifestyle is considered as an essential foundation for the practice.

In an effort to combine a Buddhist perspective with the contemporary, Ven. Bodhi referred to mindfulness as:

“to remember to pay attention to what is occurring in one’s immediate experience with care and discernment” (as cited in Shapiro 2009, p. 556).

The inclusion of the terms ‘remembering’, ‘care’ and ‘discernment’ indicate the context that mindfulness was designed to be embedded within, that of wisdom, ethics and meditation. The Pali term for mindfulness is “sati”. Sati literally means memory. As memory, sati keeps the present in mind and its opposite is forgetfulness.

As a practice, mindfulness involves remembering to see along with or to track experiences of body, mind and life, with attention. With mindfulness (sati) we can retrospectively remember things from the past and thus cultivating wisdom, prospectively remember to do something in the future and therefore act in accordance with wisdom and also stay connected with current realities with present-centred recollection.

On Insight Timer, Mal Huxter offers various meditations and talks. We put together a playlist with some of his guided mindfulness meditations:

  1. Mindfulness Of Breath At Three Places Mal Huxter 16:43
  2. Mindfulness Of Sound With Bells And Birds Mal Huxter 08:01
  3. Mindfulness Of Sound And Thought Mal Huxter 08:18
  4. Mindfulness Of Breath Mal Huxter 16:43

Mindfulness As Part Of The Buddhist Eight-Fold Path

The basic aim of the Buddha’s teaching is the realization of Nirvana. Nirvana is difficult to explain conceptually, however, one way to understand it is as freedom from dukkha. Dukkha, a Pali term, is often translated as suffering but it is better to consider it as un-satisfactoriness. It can be gross such as our struggles with severe illness and death or it can be subtle, such as not getting what we want exactly how and when we want it (Huxter. 2016, p 144-156).

What is now known as Buddhism began nearly 2600 years ago with the enlightenment of the Buddha. As Buddhism spread into different areas of the globe, it adapted and changed according to the cultures within which it was hosted. Despite the different phases and cultural changes, what has remained the same are the fundamental principles of Buddhism being the four noble truths:

  1. there is dukkha (Pali – un-satisfactoriness or suffering),
  2. dukkha has root causes (greed, ignorance and hatred),
  3. there is the reality of Nirvana or freedom from dukkha, and
  4. there is a path leading to freedom-the eight-fold path.

The fourth truth is the eight-fold path, which represents the path to psychological freedom or Nirvana. The eight factors on this path are divided into three categories, which are all related interdependently. These three categories are wisdom, ethics or healthy non-harming lifestyle, and cultivation (meditation). The eight factors, as they relate to these three categories, are:

  • Wisdom: 1. view, 2. intention
  • Ethics or healthy lifestyle: 3. speech, 4. action, 5. livelihood
  • Meditation: 6. effort, 7. mindfulness and 8. concentration.

The aim of practicing the eight-fold path is freedom from dukkha. Psychological freedom results from the complete and experiential realisation of the four noble truths and three universal characteristics of existence: annica (impermanence), dukkha (un-satisfactoriness) and anatta (no self or emptiness). When one realizes the three characteristics, craving is naturally uprooted and when there is no cause for dukkha, it does not arise (nirvana).

Explore thousands of free guided Buddhist meditations and Dharma talks in the Insight Timer library.

Buddhist Meditation & One Difference Between The Theravada And Mahayana Approaches To Meditation

In Theravada Buddhism, the Pali term often used for meditation is bhavana. Bhavana literally means bringing into being or to cultivate. The Tibetan (Mahayana Buddhist) word for meditation is “Gom”. This term translates as familiarizing or habituating, meaning one becomes familiar with positive and liberating states of mind.

Having trained and practiced meditation in both Theravada and Mahayana approaches I have found that though the end results of waking up to the truths of life are the same, the emphases of these two approaches are slightly different. With Theravada Buddhism, the emphasis is the reduction of craving by releasing the unwholesome (greed, ignorance and hatred) and cultivating the wholesome. With Theravada Buddhism wisdom — which includes right view and intentions of letting go, harmlessness (compassion) and good will (benevolence) — is cultivated. Harmless and compassionate actions are enacted and compassionate wisdom is cultivated with meditation.

With Mahayana Buddhism I have found that the emphasis is about waking up to what is already there. That is, we wake up to enlightened wisdom and compassion and our Buddha-nature. The process is more about removing the veils of delusion (ignorance) to see our true awakened nature.

The Serenity And Insight Aspects Of Meditation In Theravada Buddhism

Over two and a half thousand years ago in northern India, the Buddha taught ways to Nirvana (freedom from dukkha) using meditation. The meditations he taught had two aspects: serenity (samatha — Pali) and insight (Vipassana — Pali). However, the distinctions between serenity meditation and insight meditation were not bifurcated until around nine centuries after the Buddha’s passing, with the writing of a comprehensive text on Buddhist meditation called the Visuddhimagga (Pali; English: The Path of Purification). Written by a monastic called Buddhaghosa, this classic text clarified the serenity (also called calm or tranquillity) and insight meditation paths to awakening and how the various meditations could be developed.

The relationship between the serenity and insight aspects of meditation is considered to be like two ends of a stick. That is, if one picks up one end of the stick the other follows. Meaning that their respective features can be distinguished but as practices they cannot be separated. As described in the eight-fold path, all meditation practices entail effort and varying ratios of concentration and mindfulness. However, with insight meditation (at the insight end of the stick), there is an emphasis on mindfulness and enquiry. With serenity meditation (at the serenity end of the stick), there is an emphasis on concentration and absorption.

I will provide more details about these two different aspects of Buddhist meditation in blogs to come. For the time being it may be helpful to know that in balance, the two aspects of serenity and insight work together in mutually supportive ways. Serenity gives power and clarity to strengthen insight and insight provides understanding and direction to serenity.  If they are out of balance, however, it can be problematic or ineffective. Insight without calm presence or compassionate intention can be quite distressing because we may see what is happening in our lives, but not have the psychological resources to cope. On the other hand, being calm, focussed and relaxed without any understanding can be directionless and occasionally become misdirected.

The benefits of balancing insight and calm as practiced in Buddhist meditation can also be generalised to working skilfully with a range of clinical presentations. The Theravada Buddhist approach to meditation, both serenity and insight have many overlaps with contemporary clinical psychology.


Huxter, M. J. (2016). Healing the heart and mind with mindfulness. Ancient path, present moment. Oxon, UK: Routledge.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness based interventions in Context: Past present and future. In Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice. 10, 144-156.

Shapiro, S. L. (2009) The integration of mindfulness and psychology. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65:6, 555-560.

Meditation. Free.