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by Ursula Goodenough

Mindfulness represents the human capacity to take in understandings of reality without the distortions introduced by need, bias, and prejudice. Rigidity, dogmatism, and ready for surprise.

Wisdom and knowledge are entailed by mindfulness, but mindfulness demands more of us. It is knowledge or wisdom that pulls the mind-and-heart of the knower towards a connection with the way things are in all their exciting particularity. You cannot be mindful and know things in a purely academic way; as you become mindful of something, your feelings and your behavior towards it are transformed.

Mindfulness is a central concept in Buddhism, where it is lifted up both as a mental state and as a practice. The mindful person, Buddhism tells us, assumes the attitude of pure observation, freed from all false views, and apprehends a reality that is not only objective but also becomes subjective. The mindful person really really sees.

Mindfulness is also described as a path, a work in progress, rather than an endpoint or achievement. This is because the mindful person is prepared to perceive each particular situation in its uniqueness and respond to it appropriately.

In the broadest and deepest sense, the “naturalism” part of religious naturalism is all about mindfulness. Scientists, trained in a particular kind of “pure observation,” have provisioned us with stunning understandings of the natural world, and these understandings then provision the religious naturalist with countless substrates for mindful apprehension. So, for example, mindfulness of the body is no longer just about breathing and walking as in the original Buddhist practice; we are now able to contemplate as well the molecular and genetic underpinnings of the body and its evolution from simpler forms.

The religious naturalist is called to be mindful of the following understandings from biology:

Mindful of our place in the scheme of things
Mindful that life evolved, that humans are primates
Mindful of the dynamics of molecular life and its emergent properties
Mindful of the fragility of life and its ecosystems
Mindful that life and the planet are wildly improbable
Mindful that all of life is interconnected
Mindful of the uniqueness of each creature
Mindful of future generations

And from psychology and anthropology:

Mindful that our thoughts and feelings are neural
Mindful of the evolutionary continuity between our minds and other animals’ minds
Mindful of human diversity, including diversity of temperament
Mindful of human creativity and its wondrous manifestations
Mindful of the influence of ethnic and family roots and tribal connection
Mindful that children best flourish when loved and nurtured
Mindful of the human need for personal wholeness and social coherence

Similar lists can be drawn from the physical sciences and the earth sciences, from cultural history and imaginative literature, and so on. All such lists are expected to be incomplete and open-ended. They are offered to remind us of what is at stake.

And now, a central claim. I would suggest that virtues, and particularly the neutral virtues, will generate flourishing communities only to the extent that they are mindful virtues. Mindfulness is a precondition for virtue and hence for morality, or, rather, the cultivation of mindfulness and the cultivation of virtue must go together as an essential collaboration if we are to attain moral maturity. The attacks of September 11 may have been executed in the name of reverence and courage, but it was neither mindful reverence nor mindful courage.


Excerpt from a draft of an article published in Zygon 38: 101-109 (2003): Religious Naturalism and Naturalizing Morality.