It seems like every time I turn around nowadays I hear another reference to mindfulness. The idea is catching on in psychotherapy, in treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in reducing test anxiety for students, and in increasing physical health. Its positive impact is being scientifically studied, and the positive psychology community is increasingly aware of its beneficial role as a powerful intervention.
I’m not sure we all mean the same thing when we talk about mindfulness, though, and my intention with this article is to propose a straightforward definition so that we are all speaking the same language.
Although mindfulness has been around for centuries and I could comb Eastern wisdom for a satisfactory definition, I will instead reference the work done by psychologists Snyder and Lopez, since they have studied the ideas of mindfulness meditation practitioners. Mindfulness is “attending nonjudgmentally to all stimuli in the internal and external environments” (2006, p. 248). But what does this really mean?
Be the StreamA widely used metaphor in Eastern philosophy likens a wise person to a stream flowing down a mountain. The direction of the stream is determined by the pull of gravity and the slant of the mountain, but the actual path is constantly shifting and changing.
When the stream encounters an obstacle – say a boulder or a thick tangle of sticks – it doesn’t stop flowing, and it doesn’t waste its energy in forcing a path through inpenetrable obstacles. Instead, it flows easily around, following the path of least resistance.
Eventually, the stream’s movement against an obstacle even as dense as a rock will wear it down, but that is not the intention of the stream – it is simply a consequence of its movement.
In my own life I try to adopt this metaphor in as many situations as possible.
I try to be aware and conscious of the path that my life is taking and to my emotional inner workings. When I am mindful, decision-making is a natural outcome of being fully in tune with my external environment and my emotions. It is being present to what is without labeling any of it as good or bad, and then using that objective input to make the most efficacious decisions.
Present Moment Living
I have heard people equate the idea of being “fully present” with mindfulness, and I want to tighten that idea. What do we mean when we talk of being fully present? Some equate mindfulness with the experience of savoring, an experience that has been shown to enhance well-being and which I think is valuable in and of its own right.
However, savoring is not the same as mindfulness. I’ll use an example to illustrate what I mean.
Let’s say I take a walk in a beautiful wood, and I come upon an exquisite flower. If I choose to direct my attention to the flower and I study it carefully, noting its delicate features, its enticing aroma, and its vibrant colors, I am savoring it and my mood will most likely lift.
What if, however, a young child comes bursting through a nearby clump of bushes and tramples on the flower that I am savoring. What happens to my mood then? I probably experience a flash of irritation or sadness at having had my pleasure terminated so abruptly, and my well-being is compromised. But I don’t have to stop there.
Nonjudgmental Observation is the Key
Typical reactions might be shouting at the boy or trying to shoo away my feelings of irritation (“oh, he didn’t mean to trample the flower”). A truly mindful strategy, however, would be simply to notice the feelings of irritation and loss and perhaps empathy for the boy, label the feelings, and then evaluate the external environment without judgment. Based on this non-judgmental information about my internal and external worlds, I might choose to talk to the boy about the consequences of his actions, I might turn my attention to the surrounding area to see if there is another flower nearby, or I might stand up and continue on my walk knowing that that flower will not be the only wonder I will encounter. Note: mindfulness does not mean that I am a doormat, but it does mean that my internal emotional state is not determined by the actions of others or by the fleeting thoughts that are a part of my normal life.
So mindfulness is the most sophisticated form of cognitive activity. It enables the practitioner to choose carefully from many possible emotional, intellectual, and circumstantial inputs, to act wisely, and not be ruled by the less adaptive immediate responses that are often triggered during times of stress.
There are many ways to cultivate mindfulness, some of which I will address in my next article. And I will also highlight the growing body of research that outlines the benefits of mindfulness in many different arenas.
Snyder, C.R. & Lopez, S.J. (2007) Positive Psychology: The Scientific and Practical Explorations of Human Strengths. Sage Publications.
Berking, M., Wupperman, P., Reichardt, A., Pejic, T., Dippel, A., & Znoj, H. (2008). Emotion-regulation skills as a treatment target in psychotherapy. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 46, 1230-1237.
Langer, E. (1990). Mindfulness. Da Capo Press.
- Mountain stream courtesy of Nicholas T
- Flower from Andreas Neumann’s page, China/Tibet 2001; ICA Post conference excursion – From Shigaze to Lhasa with Pass Kampala
- Boy stepping on flower: http://www.krunk4ever.net/doodle_files/step-on-flower.gif
Thank you! Mindfulness, for all the advantages awareness brings, in the practical world we benefit from clarity unburdened by the limitations of language.
Kirsten, I love the distinction you make between savoring and mindfulness– your story is a great example. Thanks for so clearly, beautifully and succinctly describing mindfulness!
Very important thesis – the construct of mindfulness, as does much of positive psychology, tends to be watered down and trivialized through overly broad and simplistic definitions. It is very important to tighten many of our definitions as the field matures. Your title suggests the importance of your topic by issuing a “Call” for clarification, not just a suggestion. “Call” is a word of great cultural power, at least in America(Call to Duty, Call to the Alter, etc.) Good work – do I sense a series of articles here on definitions? Maybe a book?
Wow! Happiness is being in the presence of great teachers: who keep it clear, simple and beautiful.Great Job, Kirsten! I can’t wait for the next installment
Kirsten, you might be interested in research that shows that mindfulness might be more powerful than CBT (the ABC’s). See http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=394
I really enjoy reading your article.
I have to be mindful while I’m waiting for the next one.
I’m glad this article resonated with you. Mindfulness is about clarity, isn’t it? I’m curious, though, about what exactly you mean when you say “unburdened by the limitations of language.” Can you say more about that?
Thanks for your kind words about the article – I’m glad my example made my message clear. I’d say that mindfulness promotes a very pragmatic approach to life – an attitude of “This doesn’t seem to be working; let’s see what else is available.”
There’s been lots of discussion lately about the relationship between mindfulness and optimism. Do you have any thoughts about that?
Interesting – a book on definitions. I’m not sure I need another project right now, but I’ll squirrel that suggestion away for a day when I have more time. For now I’m really hoping just to focus on mindfulness and to see if we can come to a more widely held and recognized definition. I can see that you understand why this is important.
Maybe you’ll want to write the book on definitions?
Thanks, George, for your supportive comments. Do stay tuned for the next couple articles in which I will highlight more on this important topic.
Yes, thanks for that link. I do plan to highlight research findings in my next couple of articles. I’ll add the article you suggested to my long list.
I’m glad you liked the article. What are your favorite mindfulness strategies?
Are you familiar with the serenity prayer:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
I supect that mindfulness is the foundation of the serenity prayer
Yes, Wayne. I have long appreciated the serenity prayer. And I agree that it illustrates mindfulness and resilience in a powerful way. What specifically in the prayer do you see to be illustrating mindfulness?
Accepting takes the energy away from negative thoughts and produces a postive emotion called calmness. And the calmness according to Barbara Fredricksen and Alice Isen enhances your thinking allowing you the “wisdom to know the difference”
Nicely written Kirsten. I see this mindfullness you clarify as stepping out of ourselves, the triggering beliefs and emotions, that can create negative reactions to events. To me mindfullness is experiencing a transcendental state of existance. One that impacts the change I want to see in the world.
Looking forward to your next posting.
Thanks for your thoughts, Anna. I agree that practicing mindfulness puts us in a much better place to choose our reactions, rather than be ruled by them. And this is a place where new patterns are created and reinforced.
Buddhism suggests that we should not get too caught up in sensory pleasures, so should you be seeking out flowers? If you walk past the flower with mindfulness shouldn’t you just be treating it in the same way as a turd? That is, walking past both with equal equanimity?
Might the boy be a Zen master trampling on an illusion to make a point? An ultimately mindful person would, surely, see no loss and no irritation would be felt. If the boy seemed distraught (and not a Zen master!) then empathy and any means to ease his suffering should be found. I’m not sure that a moralising lecture on “flowers are beautiful, so you shouldn’t trample on them” would help.
Talking to the boy and finding out the cause of his suffering might. Making him feel worse by suggesting (falsely) that trampling the flower is a defective moral action will, surely, make him suffer more. Are there *really* any consequences to his actions? Flowers do not suffer, only you suffer, and that’s your problem because of your attachment to sensory pleasure.
Isn’t savouring a deviation from the Right Path? One bound to come to grief when someone tramples on your flower, or a doctor bans you from drinking wines, or you get tinnitus and can’t listen to classical music?
I have a few thoughts about mindfulness and optimism, as you asked about above: