Although Buddhism has long been a source of inspiration in psychotherapy, the recent shift of attention in Western clinical psychology from pathology, diagnosis, and treatment towards cultivating positive mental health appears to be accompanied by a growing interest in the connection between Buddhist spirituality, suffering, and well-being in mainstream mental healthcare. This trend is perhaps most apparent in Norway in the explosive growth of training programs and interventions aimed at developing mindfulness (Norwegian: oppmerksomt nærvær) as a means of honing attentive skills, increasing empathy, and regulating stress and affect.
In Western discourse, mindfulness refers to ”an intentional focused awareness – a way of paying attention on purpose in the present moment, non-judgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn 1994:68), closely linked with descriptions in Buddhist texts (Asanga, 2001; Buddhaghosa 1979). Based on these definitions mindfulness appears to be a dual construct: both a state and a means of achieving a particular state. Furthermore mindfulness is understood as integral to maintaining vital balances of mind necessary for release from mental suffering in Buddhist thought – balances supported by Western clinical research.
Through a comparative investigation of the phenomenon of mindfulness in multiple sites both within in Norwegian mental health care and Buddhist communities in Northern India I hope to understand how mindfulness is achieved, in what contexts it is salient, how its effects are perceived and understood, how its protective benefits in the face of trauma are articulated and legitimized, and what factors contribute to its popularity among Western health practitioners. I choose to approach mindfulness as a form of ritual practice whose goal is to attain and maintain a particular state of consciousness. Here I understand this practice as spanning the range of possibilities from large-scale public rituals to intimate rituals involving only a single participant.