Mindfulness - What it is and Why it is Positive by Dennis Paul
And just keeping your attention on the breath for the full duration of each inbreath, and the full duration of each outbreath. Riding the waves of your own breathing as a raft would ride up and down on the waves of the sea shore. Fully in touch with the sensations. . . . Breath by breath, moment by moment. Allowing the breath to remind you over and over again to be fully present. To be right here, right now (Kabat-Zinn, 2012, track 1).
This snippet from an audio guided mindfulness meditation represents the spirit of mindfulness as it is pervading the Western culture. Its global impact is shown in the transformation of the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program, developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 (Kabat-Zinn et al., 1998; Kabat-Zinn, 2003), from its origin in the medical context with regard to patients’ pain acceptance and stress coping to a widely applied method for promoting well-being. As the famous Buddhist Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh puts it: “Mindfulness helps you go home to the present. And every time you go there and recognize a condition of happiness that you have, happiness comes” (Hanh, 2010, p. 3). If this awareness of the present moment is lost, the ensuing unconsciousness may lead to a feeling of being out of touch with one’s life; the capacity to direct one’s energy toward satisfaction, health, and happiness may be decimated (Kabat-Zinn, 2014). That is why mindfulness is becoming increasingly important during the emergence of digitalization and issues of addiction to the all- pervasive media on the one side (Faiola & Srinivas, 2014; van Gordon, 2013) and increasing occupational workload and working hours on the other side (Hulsheger, Alberts, Feinholdt & Lang, 2013). The application of mindfulness has gained much more popularity in the West in the past decades, which is generally contributed to Jon Kabat-Zinn and his application of mindfulness in the clinical context (Harrington & Dunne, 2015). Also in the field of positive psychology, which is concerned with human well-being and flourishing by focusing on positive experiences, traits, and virtues (Gable & Haidt, 2005; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000), concept and practice of mindfulness have been established as a focus of research regarding its potential for improving well-being (Gable & Haidt, 2005; Sin & Lyubomirsky, 2009). In sport, exercise and performance psychology, mindfulness meditation is examined as a means to improve sports performance and adopt beneficial mental skills (Bernier, Thienot, Codron & Fournier, 2009).
The Construct of Mindfulness
Mindfulness, in its modern scientific understanding, can be defined as “. . . the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment” (Kabat-Zinn, 2003, p. 145). This might involve one’s own thoughts and emotions or the surrounding perceived through the senses. Even though its origins lie for the most part in Buddhist traditions in East Asia, as it is said to be the core of the Buddha’s teachings - his strife to overcome human suffering and way to enlightenment -, mindfulness is a universal and inherently human capacity. (Kabat-Zinn, 2015). Conceptualization
A synonym often used for mindfulness is insight meditation (Thera, 2005). That means the practitioner looks into his own mind and the world around him and thereby inquires about what arises in the present moment. It generally corresponds to Open Monitoring (OM) meditation, as a more narrowly defined term than mindfulness (Lutz, Slagter, Dunne & Davidson, 2008) and the traditional Buddhist vipassana meditation, the means to develop wisdom (Grossman & van Dam, 2011; Thera, 2005). These objects of attention are non-conceptionally perceived and recognized. In this way, a mindful state necessarily includes knowing that one is aware and paying attention (Kabat-Zinn, 2003). Therefore, it can be contrasted to the concept of flow: People in flow are aware of what they are currently doing but not aware that they are aware of doing so (Reid, 2011; Snyder & Lopez, 2002). Nevertheless, the full experience of the present moment cultivated my mindfulness practice might induce flow-related states (Kabat-Zinn, 2014). Moreover, one needs to distinguish between the Eastern concept of mindfulness as meditation and the Western socio-cognitive concept defined by Langer (1991), referring to the creation of new categories of thinking as opposed to mindless clinging to a single perspective. The two approaches may appear to be partly contradictory due to the encouragement of active thought, that is cognition, on the one side and its discouragement on the other side (Langer, 1991). However, one could argue that even though mindfulness is seen as the result of accepting all categories or antithetically as challenging them, both approaches can be integrated by the way they both thwart the attachment to illusionary concepts (Djikic, 2014).
The construct of mindfulness is described as inherently being a mode of consciousness, as opposed to other mental processes like cognition, emotions, and motives. In this way, it interlinks awareness - the background monitoring - and attention - the conscious focusing (Brown & Ryan, 2003; Brown, Ryan & Creswell, 2007). Brown et al. (2007) characterize mindfulness by outlining several core features: Clarity of Awareness allows for unbiased, receptive insight. Nonconceptual, Nondiscriminatory Awareness refers to non-interference and simple noticing. Flexibility of Awareness and Attention enables shifting from larger perspectives to more focused ones. Empirical Stance Toward Reality connotes the active, objective observation of facts. Present-oriented Consciousness means staying in the now, and Stability or Continuity of Attention and Awareness concerns the steadiness of the mindful mental state which recognizes and refrains from conceptual thinking.
Bishop et al. (2004) extend the attention focus by another factor. Their definition comprises the components Self-Regulation and Attention along with Orientation of Experience, which refers to an attitude of acceptance and curiosity.
In line with this, Shapiro, Carlson, Astin and Freedman (2006) add a third element and propose a theoretical model of mindfulness, based upon the interwoven axioms Intention, Attention, and Attitude (IAA). Hereby, Intention refers to the purpose of practice, Attention to the observation of the present experience, and Attitude to the quality of practice, which may include compassion, openheartedness, non-jugmentalness, acceptance, and kindness. These three behavioral building blocks eventually lead eventually to a “fundamental shift in perspective” (Shapiro et al., 2006, p. 377), which the authors call reperceiving. This meta-mechanism enables a mindful person to witness, rather than to be absorbed by the ongoing stream of life events.
The theoretical framework of mindfulness is substantiated by neurological findings. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) measures showed that subjects trained in mindfulness exhibit less activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), which is associated with the narrative self-reference. Mindfulness training may hence have the capacity to dissociate the experiential focus, that is present-moment awareness, from narrative awareness focused on meaning-making across time (Farb et al., 2007). Correspondingly, magnetic resonance (MR) examinations confirmed increases in grey matter concentration, especially within the left hippocampus, for mindfulness practitioners. The results point towards the beneficial effects mindfulness as a meditation practice has for self-reference, emotion regulation, and perspective taking (Holzel et al., 2011).
The need for measurement arises to examine the effects of mindfulness training on practitioners and to what extent these effects play a mediating part in the improvement of well-being and health. The most common way mindfulness is measured is as a self-reported trait, the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ) by Baer et al. (2008) being the most prevalent example. Its five subscales comprise Observing, Describing, Acting with attention, Non-judging of inner experience, and Non-reactivity to inner experience. In contrast to this multi-facet approach, Brown and Ryan (2003) suggest a single factor measure, the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS), whose core is not non-jugmentalness like with the FFMQ but the attentional focus on the present moment.
Nonetheless, it is criticized that self-description as a measurement does not rely “. . . upon concrete evidence that one is actively engaged in mindfulness practice” (Grossman & van Dam, 2011, p. 221), as it seems to be the current practice in social and personality psychology (Baumeister, Vohs & Funder, 2007). It is argued that the common operationalizations do not give enough credit to the original Buddhist phenomenology which must be considered in order to properly quantify mindfulness (Grossman & van Dam, 2011).
Just like one trains his or her body to become stronger, more flexible, or develop certain skills, one can train the inborn qualities of the mind and must do so in order to develop and improve the ability to be in the attentional state of mindful presence (Kabat-Zinn, 2015).
Research findings support the idea that training may imply a substantial contribution to mindfulness capacity (Brown & Ryan, 2003). It takes effort and dedication in practice to develop stability in this skill of non-conceptual awareness, especially when confronted with aversive and unpleasant thoughts and emotions (Kabat-Zinn, 2003).
That is why special classes were established and teachers trained to provide guidance and support for practitioners. Probably the most famous example of a mindfulness program is the previously mentioned MBSR (Kabat-Zinn et al., 1998; Kabat-Zinn, 2003). More accessible guidance is provided by a range of internet and smartphone applications (Creswell, 2017).
An important principle seems to be that one should “practice without attachment to outcome” (Kabat-Zinn, 2003, p. 148). That is mindfulness is inherently not about pursuing a state or object but about accepting and allowing what is in the present moment (Kabat-Zinn, 2003, 2013, 2014), or as Brown and Ryan (2003) put it: “In fact, mindfulness, as perceptual presence, is not about achieving well-being; it is purposeless in this sense” (p. 844). Yet, one must have a certain vision in mind, a reason for practicing mindfulness (Kabat-Zinn, 2013). Moreover, it must not be confused with positive thinking, which may obviously be helpful. But mindfulness is watching the thinking and goes far beyond the thinking process itself (Kabat- Zinn, 2014).
There are many ways of practicing mindfulness, the foremost being the classical sitting meditation. Typically this is done by paying attention to one’s breath while sitting, kneeing or lying down. The breath serves as an anchor to the present moment (Kabat-Zinn, 2014). It is supposedly especially usable on that account, since it is a constantly ongoing body function which is in many ways sensitive to other vital functions and mental activities (Grossman & van Dam, 2011). Regarding the previously mentioned definition of insight meditation, this form of focusing on a selected object can be called Focused Attention (FA) meditation (Lutz et al., 2008). OM meditation appears to be a rather advanced technique and may develop as one progresses in more focused kinds of meditation (Kabat-Zinn, 2013). In this sense, this formal meditation training is not about a special activity but “. . . about stopping. . . .” (Kabat-Zinn, 2014, p. 11) and “. . . a time for non-doing” (Kabat-Zinn, 2014, p. 35).
Other techniques of formal practice include walking meditation whereby the attention is on the walking action and environment (Prakhinkit, Suppapitiporn, Tanaka & Suksom, 2014) or body scan whereby attention is successively directed at different body parts (Hummel, Brown, Hwang & Friesen, 1975).
Nevertheless, there is no need for special techniques; mindfulness may also be applied to everyday life as a rather informal practice leading to the development of paying mindful attention to any activity or whenever thoughts, emotions, or sensations arise throughout the day (Kabat-Zinn, 2003, 2014). This aspect of mindfulness is insofar related to the construct of emotional intelligence whereby clarity about one’s emotions is essential (Brown & Ryan, 2003). Yet, the assumption that everyday mindfulness refers to the same construct as mindfulness meditation is still disputed (Thompson & Waltz, 2007).
There seems to exist some contradictoriness to the idea of beneficial and adaptive daydreaming. Notably, the brain’s natural mode appears to be one of mind wandering (Buckner, Andrews- Hanna, & Schacter, 2008), as people spend nearly 50 percent of their waking life in it. Indeed, mind wandering might appear to be contrary to mindfulness and rather a failure of cognitive control with a range of adverse effects on cognition and affect having been reported (McMillan, Kaufman, & Singer, 2013), including greater unhappiness (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010). Although, there is evidence for advantages of positive constructive daydreaming, which is characterized by wishful imagination, future planning and creative thought. Research has shown its association with increased openness to experience, creativity, and the pursuit of goals and meaning (McMillan et al., 2013). Whether mindfulness constitutes a hindrance for creativity might depend on individual predispositions and preferences for cognitive regulation and the extent to which OM rather than FA meditation is applied (Lebuda, Zabelina, & Karwowski, 2016). Thus it could be concluded that “. . . long-term meditation gives us a more nonjudgmental awareness of our mind-wandering” (Kaufman, 2016) and may therefore promote divergent thinking.
Mindfulness in Positive Psychology
At the yearly conference of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1998 Martin Seligman’s presidential address focused on the building of human strength and thus officially initiated the emergence of positive psychology (Fowler, Seligman & Koocher, 1999). Since this psychological framework is concerned with human flourishing, the focus of mindfulness application lies on the way practitioners may develop or improve positive qualities. Besides well-being and happiness, positive emotions, and mental health, these qualities may also refer to certain positively valued character strengths which make life more fulfilling (Seligman, Steen, Park & Peterson, 2005). Parallels can be drawn to the field of Sport Psychology as well, as it is concerned - in its own way - with the facilitation of human functioning and potential, too (Gould, 2002). Human beings may benefit from positive mindfulness effects in all aspects of life.
Research has shown that mindfulness practice is associated with the thriving of wisdom, compassion, insight, and equanimity (Shapiro, Schwartz & Santerre, 2002). It is also associated with enhanced self-knowledge with regard to the key elements awareness and attention (Brown & Ryan, 2003). Especially wisdom and knowledge are found to be one of six overarching universal virtues (Seligman et al., 2005), one which is most likely to be affected by mindfulness. One way mindfulness training may lead to greater well-being is through self-regulation (Brown & Ryan, 2003) - a character strength ranged in the virtue temperance (Seligman et al., 2005). By bringing clarity to the present moment, a mindful person is more able to refrain from automatic, unhealthy behavior and live in a wakeful and non-ignorant manner. A second, more direct effect may follow through the vividness one’s experience can adopt. Much research is still needed but the direct experience of mindfulness might facilitate sensory perception and flow experiences (Brown & Ryan, 2003). This might be in line with Seligman's (2004)pleasant life as one of three ways to happiness. In this regard, mindfulness as a trait is most likely to be correlated with savoring, the capacity to attend to and fully appreciate positive experiences. However, since mindfulness refers to the open experience of all stimuli, that is also the unpleasant ones, the relation might not be that strong (Bryant & Veroff, 2017).
- Quote paper
- Dennis Paul (Author), 2018, What is Mindfulness and why is it positive?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/448654