Blog #48 – Mindfulness
In recent posts, we have been focusing on conscious awareness and our tendency in the modern world to spend more time in a kind of auto-pilot state on a day-to-day basis than is necessarily healthy.
In highlighting this tendency, we identified the desirability of cultivating conscious awareness, but acknowledged the difficulty of doing so while remaining in our normal environment and while having little choice but to stick to the default routines of our daily life.
It is this dilemma that partly accounts for the growing popularity of the practice of mindfulness in Western countries over recent years.
Mindfulness has its roots in Eastern traditions and is most closely associated with Buddhism and the contemplative practices engaged in by believers. In this setting, mindfulness is said to relate to self-directed behaviour that focuses on the active cultivation of conscious attention and awareness.
Jon Kabat-Zinn is perhaps the name most closely associated with the promotion and popularisation of mindfulness in the West. In a deep body of writing – both for academic and popular audiences – he has outlined the 2,500 years of history behind the practice of mindfulness in the East, and, in 2003, reflecting upon this history insisted that the techniques and philosophy behind the practice speak to universal human concerns and, as such, are as applicable to a Western audience as an Eastern audience.
However, Kabat-Zinn recognises that there are cultural differences between the East and the West and with that in mind has proposed a Western-oriented definition of mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment”.
Other definitions have also been proposed, each with their own particular emphasis. For example, Scott Bishop was the lead author of a 2006 academic paper that characterised mindfulness as “an approach for increasing awareness and responding skilfully to mental processes that contribute to emotional distress and maladaptive behaviour”, before going on to emphasise the importance of self-regulation of attention and the need to cultivate curiosity, openness, and acceptance as it relates to ongoing experiences. Elsewhere, Amishi Jha, Jason Krompinger, and Michael Baime, writing in 2007, offered a straightforward definition of mindfulness as paying attention in the present moment. However, they also went deeper when stating that it facilitates circumstances in which attention becomes receptive to the entire field of awareness and when in that open state can be steered towards moment-to-moment experienced sensations, thoughts, emotions, and memories. Writing a couple of years earlier, in a paper entitled “Perils and promise in defining and measuring mindfulness”, Kirk Warren Brown and Richard Ryan noted that mindfulness was a deceptively simple concept and that this made it difficult to characterise accurately. These same authors had previously described mindfulness as an attribute of consciousness, one which is believed to promote well-being. They added that it can be considered an enhanced attention to and awareness of ongoing, moment-to-moment experiences in day-to-day reality.
In a 2013 review entitled “The difficulty of defining mindfulness”, Alberto Chiesa noted this lack of unanimity on definitions and suggested it is surprising that more time and effort has not been deployed in attempting to reach consensus on an unequivocal definition in terms of modern Western psychology. Highlighting the variation that exists, he points to quantitative definitions and related measures which conceive of mindfulness as either a single-faceted or multifaceted state, while also directing readers’ attention to the question of whether mindfulness is a state, a trait-like quality, or both. Chiesa feels that modern definitions that regard mindfulness as a single faceted trait with the emphasis on attention centred on the present stand in “stark contrast with the complex and multifaceted definitions of mindfulness employed by classical authors”. He states that while such a definition may seem feasible for a Western audience heretofore not familiar with the concept, classical thinking has it that long-term training would be required before any in-depth experience and understanding of mindfulness could be credibly claimed to have been achieved. He adds that while there is relative agreement in the Western context on defining mindfulness as present moment awareness/attention, the Buddhist view would have it that attention and awareness are inherent in any discriminative mental state and should therefore be considered as preconditions to rather than equivalents of mindfulness.
So, it seems that the very term mindfulness may refer to a more complex process or set of processes than first meets the eye or at least as has been assumed by Western audiences. However, this is not the forum in which to explore that point too deeply. Next time, we will focus on how mindfulness is taught and practiced in the West and the degree to which existing research evidence suggests it is beneficial in terms of cultivating conscious awareness and facilitating benefits to well-being.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013 and is also a freelance writer.