Last updated on 3rd November 2011
I wrote a couple of days ago - in the blog post "Mindfulness: teaching & learning" - about a day workshop I'm due to co-run this Saturday on "Mindfulness & hypnosis". One of the learning objective for this workshop is "To understand what ‘mindfulness' involves". I find it helpful to see that there are at least two very different ways of approaching this question. One way views mindfulness through its origins in Buddhist meditation practice. There can be many benefits from using this 'traditional lens' - not least the wealth of experience on teaching meditation skills to help people increase their ability to be mindful. A second helpful way of viewing mindfulness is more scientific and possibly even more open-minded. This latter approach seeks to understand what a mindful mode of being involves. What are the attentional abilities and attitudinal stances that characterise mindfulness? Are there some ways of practising meditation that nourish our ability to be mindful more effectively than other types of meditation practice? More radically, are there other methods of learning to be more mindful that don't involve meditation practice? If there are other methods of developing mindfulness, in what ways might they be more or less effective than using traditional meditation training? Fascinating questions. I think the Buddha would have approved!
So first through the traditional lens - what does mindfulness involve? As described in a series of helpful Wikipedia articles, mindfulness traditionally is one aspect of the Buddhist "noble eightfold path" which aims to relieve suffering and lead to awakening. They comment "The Buddha advocated that one should establish mindfulness (satipatthana) in one's day-to-day life maintaining as much as possible a calm awareness of one's bodily functions, sensations (feelings), objects of consciousness (thoughts and perceptions), and consciousness itself." The full path is often represented by the eight-spoked "Dharma wheel" and can be divided into three basic divisions - wisdom (right understanding & right intention), ethical conduct (right speech, right action & right livelihood) and meditation (right effort, right mindfulness & right concentration). I think it's important to note that mindfulness was not traditionally seen as a way to relieve suffering on its own - it was part of a much fuller programme involving understanding, intention, behaviour, and meditation. Fascinatingly as well, it seems mindfulness was to be used alongside - not as an alternative to - meditation practices involving deep focus & concentration. Different Buddhist traditions have emphasised different mixtures of mindfulness and concentration practices and the two forms overlap. Deep concentrative meditation might well use the breath as its object of focus, and of course awareness of breathing is frequently used in mindfulness practice as well. In a way, concentration forms of meditation are like a narrowly focused camera lens, while mindfulness forms allow the lens to open more broadly. Deep relaxation - for example as practised in Autogenic Training - leans more towards concentration practice, while Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) tend to keep more broadly focused. It's interesting to note as well that the third component of this "meditation division" of the eightfold path is "right effort". This involves determined persistent endeavor to nourish what is helpful & good and let go of what is unhelpful & harmful despite weariness & difficulty - lots of overlap here with the crucial importance of "self-control" as explored in the series of blog posts on "Self-control, conscientiousness, grit, emotion regulation & willpower".
What about more modern understandings of mindfulness. Since the 1970's, psychologists & others have developed a number of mindfulness-based interventions. Several definitions have been used. Examples include: "bringing one's complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis", "paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally" and "a kind of nonelaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is". For more on this see, for example, the articles "Mindfulness (psychology)" and "Mindfulness training as a clinical intervention". Bishop & colleagues in their helpful paper "Mindfulness: a proposed operational definition" suggested a two part model - "The first component [of mindfulness] involves the self-regulation of attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience, thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment. The second component involves adopting a particular orientation toward one's experiences in the present moment, an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance."
I enlarged on this two-component understanding of mindfulness in the blog post "The 'bus driver' is warm-blooded: integrating mindfulness & emotion" writing "Saki Santorelli, friend & colleague of Jon Kabat-Zinn and director of the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness, in his book "Heal thyself" quotes Hazrat Inayat Khan - "The mind is the surface of the heart, the heart the depth of the mind". Santorelli goes on to write (p.51) "Sometimes people confuse 'mind' in the word 'mindfulness' as having to do with thinking about or confining attention to cognition, imagining that we are being asked to engage in some form of introspection ... or mental gymnastics. Simply put, mindfulness is bringing a fullness of attention to whatever is occurring, and attention is not the same as thinking ... the language of many contemplative traditions suggests that the words for 'mind' and 'heart' are not different. Likewise, the artist and calligrapher Kazuaki Tanahashi describes the Japanese character for mindfulness as composed of two interactive figures. One represents mind, the other, heart. From this perspective Tanahashi translates mindfulness as 'bringing the heart-mind to this moment'". Fascinatingly recent research on Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy comes up with similar conclusions."
I hope this discussion has thrown some light on what mindfulness involves. Firstly I think there is a helpful distinction - or probably more accurately a spectrum - between, at one end, tightly focused depth concentration practice and, at the other end of the spectrum, broadly focused mindfulness practice. Secondly I think the emphasis on a two-component - head & heart - understanding of mindfulness is also very useful. So there is both awareness of what is emerging moment-by-moment internally & externally, and also an associated attitude of curiosity, openness & non-judgemental compassion. Thirdly there is value in seeing mindfulness as an aspect of a four part model of inner focus methods - see the blog post "Four aspects of helpful inner focus". And lastly it's important to realise that traditionally mindfulness is part of a broader multi-component path to ease suffering & encourage flourishing.