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Secularizing Mindfulness

To secularize is to take religion out of something.

I want to talk briefly about secularizing mindfulness.  In my experience, the term “mindfulness” – as popularized as it’s been over the last decade – can still evoke a kind of ideological hesitation.  And that makes sense: after all mindfulness – as a mental technology – is a Buddhist clinical import.  And Buddhism is a religion, isn’t it?

Is it?

Not really: Buddhism has no true gods.  Buddhists don’t worship a god, they worship – i.e. revere, i.e. pay homage to – an actual dude who lived and walked among us about 2500 years ago.

As I see it, Buddhism is an ancient psychotherapy, a kind of palliative logotherapy, a form of philosophical counseling designed to take the existential sting out of the monkey-business of being human.

But words and symbols, particularly foreign words and foreign symbols, can be misleading.  Take the word “buddha,” for example.  First capitalize it: make it “Buddha.”  Then build statues to Buddha everywhere.  Paint them with gold.  Then make folks kneel down in front of them.  And before you know it, you’ve got religiosity without a religion.  That’s what happens when we spike philosophy with ritual…

But what is a “buddha”?  Buddha, in the language of Pali, means “awakened one,” or “one who is awake.”

Awake from what?

Awake from the day-dream of mind.

What does that mean?

You see, when we wake up in the morning, the body wakes up – we open our eyes, we start going about our daily business.  But, in a sense, we keep on sleeping, we keep on dreaming, we keep on sleep-walking mindlessly on autopilot through our daily routines, as hamsters in the samsaric wheel.

[“Samsara” is another one of these religious-sounding words, isn’t it?  But it just means “a wheel” – a “wheel of suffering,” – what we’d call in the West a “vicious cycle.”]

So, a buddha is just someone who caught on to this predicament of being human, someone who realized that we live on autopilot, that we live mindlessly.

That’s it – no gods here, just applied self-help.

As a clinician, my goal is to help folks learn to de-program and re-program – to help folks awaken from mindless automaticity and to learn to not mind their own mind.

Put differently and more provocatively, as a clinician I help folks become their own “buddhas.”  Yes – my goal is to help my clients become more mindful and more forgiving of their own mindlessness and more forgiving of the mindlessness of significant and insignificant others in their lives.

That’s it – no religion here, just applied psychotherapy.

As a psychotherapy, Buddhism is contemporary as ever: we are drowning in info – we are disappearing into our “tech,”  – we are on the verge of losing touch with reality through VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality).

In sum, we need not fear “mindfulness” because of its pseudo-religious historicity.  Mindfulness is probably the only (inner) technology that keeps us awake at a time when the rest of our (external) technology is hard at work to keep us asleep.



Secularizing Mindfulness

Pavel G. Somov, Ph.D.

Pavel Somov, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice and the author of 7 mindfulness-based self-help books. Several of his books have been translated into Chinese, Dutch & Portuguese. Somov is on the Advisory Board for the Mindfulness Project (London, UK). Somov has conducted numerous workshops on mindfulness-related topics and appeared on a number of radio programs. Somov's book website is and his practice website is

Marla Somova, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Pittsburgh, PA. She is the co-author of "Smoke Free Smoke Break" (2011).

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APA Reference
Somov, P. (2016). Secularizing Mindfulness. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 8, 2020, from


Last updated: 31 May 2016
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