WHAT IS MINDFULNESS?
“Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best,” and then he had to stop
and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good
thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it
which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what
it was called.
—A. A. Milne, THE HOUSE ON POOH CORNER
Aworld-renowned psychiatrist once posed a question to a room full of mental health experts. He asked, “What is the ‘seat belt’ of mental health?” Seat belts save lives; buckling up is a simple thing to do to protect ourselves from physical harm. What is the comparable tool to protect us from the mental hazards of life? What is the seat belt to protect against unhappiness, depression, anxiety, pain, and suffering? Mindfulness may be the mental “seat belt” that protects us along the bumpy, twisting, turning road of life, whether we encounter unexpected drop-offs, terrible accidents, or smooth sailing.
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines “mindful” as “inclined to be aware,” and “awareness” as “vigilance in observing what one experiences.” Synonyms for “awareness” include “awake,” “watchful,” “wary,” “cognizant,” and “conscious.” So mindful awareness (a synonym for mindfulness) means to be “aware of awareness,” an idea that implies an awareness of self and a capacity to reflect, a definition closely associated with self-consciousness.1 An expert mindfulness teacher, Henepola Gunaratana, describes mindfulness as follows:
“When you ﬁrst become aware of something, there is a ﬂeeting instant of pure awareness just before you identify it . . . before you start thinking about it . . . before your mind says, ‘Oh, it’s a dog.’ . . . That ﬂowing soft-focused moment of pure awareness is mindfulness.”2 A mindful mental state differs from being lost in thoughts of the past or future or acting on “autopilot.” To “practice mindfulness” is to exercise or work on honing this state of mind. We all probably agree that that sounds like a good idea; after all, who wants to be unaware or unconscious of their own experiences? Yet, as we will see, consciousness is pretty elusive and difﬁcult to deﬁne scientiﬁcally, and it changes all the time. We think we know something one day only to discover that what we thought we knew was not quite right. We constantly “wake up” to knowledge, shifting from ignorance to awareness. What we are conscious of changes constantly.
This chapter explores the science of mindfulness, including how it is deﬁned and measured, how it can be both a state and a trait, and how it works as a tool for self-regulation. We then turn to the practicalities of mindfulness to understand how it functions in our lives so that we can begin to cultivate it.
We are still at the beginning of understanding mindfulness from a scientiﬁc perspective. Over the last twenty years, there has been an exponential increase in research on mindfulness, from some eighty published papers in 1990 to over six hundred in 2000.3 Yet compared to other behaviors that are known to improve physical or mental health, such as diet and exercise, there is relatively little research on mindfulness. For example, a search of PubMed, the electronic library of biomedical research, using the keywords “mindfulness meditation” or “mindfulness-based stress reduction” yields 492 articles, while a keyword search on “heart disease and exercise” offers 46,136 articles and “heart disease and diet” returns 15,042 articles. Research on mindfulness is in its infancy.
There are two general types of research studies: studies that ask what mind fulness is and how to measure it, and studies that ask what beneﬁts arise from practicing it. While the questions that scientists ask are probably no different from yours, the difference lies in how they seek the answers. Science is a methodology that uses third-person observation, by which we mean that it is an objective process that yields comparable knowledge no matter who does it. In contrast, mindfulness is a ﬁrst-person, or subjective, methodology, the observation of which is quite challenging. (Imagine how hard it would be to decide which of two people is more “aware.”) Putting mindfulness under the lens of science removes it from what it actually is—a subjective experience— yet in doing so we can gain an understanding of the shared elements of mindfulness as reported by many people and the changes in brain and body states detectable by current technologies and specialties, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), immunology, and genetics. Yet, no matter how well science describes mindfulness, it cannot capture the experience of it. Scientists can describe the chemical composition of an apple, its color, texture, and taste, but no description matches the experience of biting into an apple. When we name mindfulness and measure it using the tools of science, we may want to remember that the name and the experience are not the same. This is why we look at mindfulness from the perspective of both science and art in this book—to truly understand mindfulness is to not only know about the science of it but also practice the art of it.
Mindfulness is like the Indian proverb about the six blind men trying to describe an elephant: As each one touches a different part, he describes the elephant differently. If we look across the scientiﬁc literature, there are aspects of mindfulness described in research on creativity, intuition, self- awareness, insight, and positive psychology, to name only a few areas of focus. Yet to research mindfulness we must have a working deﬁnition and then ways to measure it objectively. The working deﬁnitions of mindfulness all include “an awareness or attention to present experience.” Added to this basic deﬁnition are certain qualiﬁers describing the kind of attention or awareness a person has (receptive, open) or his or her orientation during the experience (impartial, curious, non-judgmental, accepting).4 Beyond this deﬁnition, there are varied opinions as to what mindfulness represents. Some scientists consider mindfulness to be a cognitive ability, a capacity to think in a certain way; others consider it part of personality, a disposition to respond to the world in a certain way; and still others consider it a cognitive style, a preferred way of thinking.5 All three of these concepts may describe some aspect of mindfulness; it does not appear to fall neatly into any one category. To know where it ﬁts best requires investigation, and that requires a working deﬁnition and tools to measure it.
Most measures of mindfulness use self-report questionnaires, which include items such as: “I pay attention to how my emotions affect my thoughts and behavior,” “I don’t pay attention to what I’m doing because I’m daydreaming, worried, or otherwise distracted,” “I disapprove of myself when I have irrational ideas,”6 and, “It seems I am ‘running on automatic’ without much awareness of what I am doing.”7 Perusing those items, you can see that some describe attention, some describe a quality of observation, and some describe a tendency to be highly critical. The items are scored in such a way that the more curious and attentive to present-moment experience (without criticism), the higher the mindfulness score. Perhaps the most consistent set of items across all the instruments to date have to do with attention itself: the ability to maintain attention to present-moment experience.
The questionnaires have good reliability, meaning that they are stable over time; a person’s score on the instrument could change because the person has changed, not because of the scale items. A reliable measure of weight, for instance, would be a doctor’s scale; a less reliable measure would be a friend’s estimation (perhaps a friend will always underestimate it). A measure with good validity is one that actually reﬂects the thing you want to measure. This is our central question here: How do we know how well the self-reports of mindfulness measure the construct of “mindfulness”?
There are currently no objective ways to measure mindfulness that we can use to compare and validate the self-report scales, yet, as we will see in later chapters, this is an area of active research. However, if practicing meditation increases mindfulness, we would expect to see a positive association between time spent in meditation and mindfulness scores; there is evidence to support this positive relationship, but only moderately.8 Self-report scales, currently the only instruments of measuring mindfulness, may be a serious limitation. Perhaps the more mindful you think you are, the less insight you really have into your own mindfulness! That’s not too hard to believe. By analogy, consider a piano tuner and a piano that is slightly out of tune. A minor departure from perfect tone noticed by the tuner might be undetectable to you or me. Indeed, we would probably describe the piano very differently: What the piano tuner says is out of tune you and I might ﬁnd to be very well in tune. Perhaps the more mindful you are, the greater is your ability to detect subtle deviations from present-moment attention compared to the abilities of a less well-trained, less mindful individual.
Thus, it may be that self-reports are useful only up to a point and that they fail to reﬂect the most mindful among us. Alternative methods of measuring mindfulness are needed, such as the physiological markers that are associated with mindful states, including brain, body, or even gene expression patterns. Although research is beginning to uncover biological correlates of mindfulness, as you will see throughout this book, none are as yet used as direct measures of mindfulness.
Mindfulness as a Trait
In the last ten years of research on mindfulness, there has been an increasing understanding that mindfulness has the qualities of both a trait and a state. A trait is a feature by which individuals differ owing to genes and environment, and it is relatively stable over time; a state is a temporary biological or psychological feature that may be induced but does not persist over time.9 Your eye color is a trait, but using colored contact lenses changes the state of your eye color.
Even with little or no formal meditation training, people differ greatly in their self-reports of mindfulness. Are some of us genetically destined to be monks, contemplatives, or other mindfulness “experts”? Studies of mindfulness as a trait are just beginning, but preliminary ﬁndings suggest that differences reﬂect biological variation and are probably inﬂuenced in part by our inherited genetic blueprints. For example, David Creswell, a psychologist at Car negie Mellon, and his colleagues demonstrated that people who vary in trait mindfulness also vary in the brain activity associated with how well we regulate our emotions (the more mindful the greater the ability to regulate emotion).10 Others have found comparable associations with attention regulation (the more mindful, or the more hours of mindfulness practice, the greater the attention regulation).11 Taken together, these ﬁndings show that mindfulness may reﬂect differences in self-regulation as a whole, a trait known to vary in the population and to have genetic causes.12
Excerpted from Fully Present: The Science, Art and Practice of Mindfulness