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