What is mindfulness?

Background

While mindfulness has its origins in Buddhist teachings and meditation practices, over the past few decades it has been increasingly investigated by scientists with a view to assessing its potential social and health benefits (Kabat-Zinn, 2003). Mindfulness training programs like Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) are the most well-established non-religious scientifically tested programs that aim to increase mindfulness and thereby help ease physical and psychological suffering, and build greater happiness and contentment iin life.

Core aims of mindfulness training:

  • Learn how to step out of automatic ways of thinking and reacting.
  • Build present moment focus and concentration.
  • Cultivate a more stable and relaxed response to difficulties.
  • Gain clarity and insight into the workings of your mind and body.
  • More gentle, non-judgemental, and accepting towards experience.
  • Develop psychological and behavioural flexibility.
  • Develop more balanced ways of relating to thoughts.
  • Increase tolerance of negative emotions and discomfort.
  • Regulate rather than react to changing mood and emotion.

Definition

There are multiple ways of defining mindfulness, however some key defitions are:

Definition 1: “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” (Kabat Zinn, 1994, p. 4).

Definition 2: mindfulness appears to reflect certain qualities of mind, such as non-reactivity, observational awareness, acting with awareness and concentration, describing current experience, and a non-judgemental attitude towards experience (Baer, Smith, Hopkins et al., 2006).

Definition 3: “a fully conscious, alert, discriminating quality of mind. It implies self-observation and a capacity for reflection. The Buddha said we are mindful if we can describe what is in our mind at any moment.” (Harrison, 2013, p.13).

Professor Mark Williams Youtube video: Introduction to Mindfulness

Professor Mark Williams Youtube video: Introduction to Mindfulness

Mindfulness practices and mindfulness training in this context encourage moment to moment attention to internal and external experiences such as thoughts, feelings, body sensations, sights, and sounds via meditation practices and other related exercises (Kabat Zinn, 1990; Linehan, 1993). However, mindfulness training does not aim to dwell on thought, feelings, and body sensations in an unhelpful way, rather it aims to cultivate a new relationship to such experiences. This new relationship, which can be called “mindfulness”, involves a more gentle, present moment focused, accepting, and kind approach to experience that may eventually reduce stress and prevent the spiral of negative thinking and negative mood (Segal, Williams, & Teasdale 2002). With mindfulness you can learn to experience difficult thoughts, emotions and pain, but in a way that is less overwhelming, less judgemental, and less reactive. In so doing you can bring about a balance between accepting experience, and taking more mindful and considered action. Eric Harrison (2016) argues that we are mindful for a purpose, that is to make better evaluations (more refined judgments) and if necessary change how we are approaching and dealing with the current situation in a more reflective manner.

Mindfulness training thus aims to build the previous qualities through practice. Relaxation, reduced stress responses, and better mood often comes with greater mindfulness, but this is not its primary aim. In a way mindfulness training is paradoxical, the harder you try to relax or eliminate unpleasant experiences the more it can allude you. Mindfulness involves a more considered and intentional way of living and relating to yourself and the world around you. Rather than a habitual way of attending, reacting and behaving. That being said, habitual behaviours and responses are not necessarily wrong and are sometimes necessary. There is an aspect of the mind and thinking that will always be automatic. Moreover, most mundane tasks can be enacted without much considered thinking, e.g., tying your show laces; eating an apple. However, habitual responses can become unhelpful when a person is stressed or not acting and responding in a more considered manner that is required for the task at hand.These definitions aside, mindfulness can only truly be understood from the experience of developing your own practice. 

How is mindfulness different to meditation?

According to Eric Harrison (2016), mindfulness is not exactly the same as meditation although they overlap to a large extent. Meditation is a formal practice that can take a number of forms and have a number of purposes.  Most often it aims to build selective attention on a particular body sensation (e.g., the breath) while noticing peripheral thoughts, without following them or elaborating on them (just letting them go and returning focus to the breath or body). This process if practiced generally leads to better concentration, physical relaxation, mental calm/stillness and mental clarity. Eric calls this practice focusing and peripheral monitoring, where the focusing aspect of attention is emphasised. Formal mindfulness practices used in MBSR and MBCT on the other hand often begin with this type of practice (e.g., the body scan practice) to build better concentration and skill at being more present, but as one progresses through the program there is a greater emphasis on meditation practices that involve monitoring thoughts and feelings, and accepting them without doing anything with them (a non-reactive observer stance towards experience). The focusing aspect in this type of practice is more broad and emphasizes awareness and monitoring of thought, feeling and sensations and how they interrelate. Moreover, you can practice mindfulness in a less formal way without sitting down and meditating on one specific sensory object. For example you could be mindful of doing tasks or eating, physical tension, or noticing you postural shifts during the day. Mindfulness in MBCT and MBSR is thus less concerned with physical relaxation and mental stillness, as would often be the aim of standard meditation practices, and more interested in practicing being present, aware, non-reactive and developing a different relationship to thoughts and feelings. For more explanation, read Eric’s 2016 book “The Foundations of Mindfulness”. 

Following Eric Harrison’s (2016) view, “Mindfulness’ and ‘meditation’ are not naked, stand-alone concepts. ‘Meditation’ comes from monastic traditions that aim for emotional detachment and a physical withdrawal from the world. It is related to Buddhism, Yoga, spirituality and New Age ideas, and it is explained in those terms. Anyone who attends a course or reads a book about meditation will encounter those embedded values within minutes. ‘Mindfulness’ on the other hand in it’s current form is more clearly related to psychology, scientific research and rational thought. Its approach is more about Stoic acceptance than monastic withdrawal. It is about living and coping better in the world rather than escaping from it. In particular, psychologists have introduced the concept of ‘distress tolerance’ or learning to accept or not over-react to what can’t be changed. This wasn’t part of the old ‘meditation’ model.”

‘Mindfulness’ is also about practicing to be more alert and self-aware. ‘To be mindful’ is ‘to know what is happening in the moment.’ It means being able to hold any perception ‘in mind’, and see it more accurately than usual. ‘Mindfulness’ refers to the monitoring of our thoughts and behaviour in a way that goes beyond the tranquility of ‘meditation’. For example we can’t ‘meditate’ when we drive but we can be ‘mindful’. 

“We can easily train ourselves to be more mindful if we want to. We just have to think outside of the meditation box. To be mindful is often a ‘stop and look’ maneuver. This can quickly lower our level of arousal, and reduce overthinking and emotional reactivity on the spot. Being more self-aware helps us pace ourselves, make good choices and fine-tune our behaviour all day long. This is intrinsic to the states of absorption, pleasure and ‘flow’ that are common in people who feel good about their lives. In other words, ‘mindfulness’ has far more possibilities than ‘meditation’ ever did.”