Mindfulness is so powerful that the fact that it comes out of Buddhism is irrelevant.
~ Jon Kabat-Zinn
Thinking is for doing. ~ William James
People who want to do better or get better look to psychology, religion, the self-help industry (among others) for ideas, advice, and cures. The demand is great and so is the supply. Some delight in the variety of that supply, but perhaps they should not. If there are so many offers on the table that promise to make you happy and productive, chances are that some are hokum. A skeptical debunking industry has sprung up to go after the chaff. Not that this industry has had much impact, but they are trying. Professional, spiritual, and charlatanian helpers remain highly eclectic and profitable. Everyone is different, they say, and so any treatment, however outlandish, may be just the thing for someone. In this cultural milieu, methods that flatter the patient do (sell) particularly well.
One method du jour (de la décienne) is mindfulness, thanks to the efforts of the irrepressible Jon Kabat-Zinn. The practice of mindfulness is supposed to improve a person’s cognitive, emotional, and behavioral life (and perhaps it does). In other words, the practice is meant to have an instrumental effect. What is more, mindfulness may be seen as a good thing in itself. This valuation is self-evident from the label. Would you rather be mindful or mindless? Whom do you respect more, a mindful person or a mindless person? Once you can claim mindfulness, you have achieved a psychic victory regardless of other cognitive, emotional, or behavioral consequences. Other methods of clinical intervention do not confound the consequential with the instrumental in quite the same way. Going to analysis, receiving hypnosis, following a behavioral protocol are noteworthy efforts to get better, but the effects will need to be seen. In contrast, having attained a state of mindfulness is an advance to a higher plane in its own right.
Some psychologists have tried to measure mindfulness and ask whether it creates anything worthwhile beyond its self-congratulatory l‘art pour l’art effect. Brown and Ryan (2003) published the results of a comprehensive research program in the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. They developed and validated a psychometric scale for the measurement of mindfulness and found that it predicts various facets of subjective and emotional well-being. This is good news because it allays the concern that a state of mindfulness will devolve into a maladaptive state of self-focused rumination and neurotic worry. Inspection of the scale items shows that mindfulness, as conceptualized by Brown and Ryan, is about awareness of and attention to what is happening in the moment. Neurotic rumination, by contrast, tends to focus on the past or the future as well.
A few items of the scale are about awareness of emotion, but most are about awareness of action. And here it gets interesting. Brown and Ryan wish to show that mindfulness contributes to autonomy, that is, a person’s self-regulated, goal-directed agency. With this mission, Brown and Ryan step beyond that concept of mindfulness as they say it has been defined, namely, “Nyanaponika Thera (1972) called mindfulness ‘the clear and single-minded awareness of what actually happens to us and in us at the successive moments of perception’ (p. 5). Hanh (1976) similarly defined mindfulness as ‘keeping one’s consciousness alive to the present reality’ (p. 11)” (p. 824) [I hope the mindful reader will not mind quotes embedded in quotes]. There is no claim here that mindfulness helps cause autonomous behavior. The very idea seems paradoxical. If mindfulness is watchfulness in the Neo-Buddhist, Neo-Taoist, sense, we might expect a disavowal of autonomous action as such action would constitute an intervention into ‘what is going on.’ Mindfulness as intervention would interfere with mindfulness as observation.
The Taoist type of mindfulness makes sense when a person is in a state of flow, as Brown and Ryan note. A person in a state of flow is absorbed in a challenging activity and has no higher-level consciousness of what she is doing or what it is like. She is one with the task. As such, it is difficult—I want to say impossible—to separate the person’s autonomous agency from the causal feedback provided by the task environment. Each individual action is a response to what just happened, the effects of the previous action. These actions may be consistent with the person’s superordinate goals (to finish the painting), but how are they (the individual brushstrokes) caused by self-regulated, micro-managed, autonomous agency?
Yet, Brown and Ryan press on, suggesting that “open awareness may be especially valuable in facilitating the choice of behaviors that are consistent with one’s needs, values, and interests [and that] mindfulness may facilitate well-being through self-regulated activity and fulfillment of the basic psychological needs for autonomy (self-endorsed or freely chosen activity), competence, and relatedness” (p. 824). Their target is automatic behavior, demonstrations of which swamped the social psychological literature at the time of their writing. Note that behavior in flow is largely automatic, and thus mindless.
What is Brown and Ryan’s evidence for the claim that mindfulness facilitates personal causation? There is no evidence in Study 1, which is concerned with scale development and validation. Nor is there evidence in Study 2, which shows that zen practitioners have higher scale scores than controls. Study 3 is putatively about self-regulation, which “depends on this capacity for self-insight” (p. 833), but instead, the study is about concordance between implicit and explicit self-esteem. Study 4 looks at data from experience sampling and finds that ratings of autonomy (i.e., perceptions that one has caused one’s own behavior) are correlated with scores on the mindfulness scale (r = .27). Finally, Study 5 looks at cancer patients and finds that mindfulness is related to subjective well-being but not treatment outcomes.
Study 4 then is the only one that comes close to speaking to the autonomy hypothesis. The claim remains weak because the data are correlational. It is difficult to support a claim about causation with correlational data. In the case of autonomous action, a convincing demonstration might be impossible. An experimental approach would require the independent (by the experimenter) manipulation of the putative causal variable. If a person’s autonomous agency were manipulated independently, it would be negated at the same time, for, by definition, autonomy means independence from independent manipulation. Grim, huh?
Brown and Ryan modestly submit that “Autonomy reflects behavior that is fully endorsed by the person” (p. 839). That makes sense as far as it goes. You and I can endorse our behavior (and other experiences such as dreams) without claiming to have caused it. Indeed, such endorsement is the goal of many schools of therapy. The idea that you can cause yourself to do stuff belongs to the wonderland of free will.
Near and how
Brown and Ryan's third study has promise. If they want to show that mindfulness fosters greater within-person concordance, they might want to tackle the (notoriously low) correlations between attitude and behavior. For mindful individuals, this correlation should be higher. In a pre-posttest design, one might test whether mindfulness training brings behavior in line with relevant attitudes. If it does, Brown and Ryan can rejoice. If it does not, they cannot.
Be that as it may, the conceptual concerns remain. Chief among these is the assumption that disinterested, non-interventionist self-observation is possible. Everything we know from scientific psychology suggests that it is not. When was the last time psychologists announced that we can see reality as it is, that the mind passively records “what is”? Perception is an active process. The mind constructs a workable model of the world. It has to do so because the stimulus input is insufficient. Textbook examples are legion. Max Wertheimer famously found that we see motion when there is none (the “phi’ phenomenon). Even earlier, and with greater relevance to claims of mindfulness, was William James’s insight that the recognition and the experience of emotion are inseparable. The inability of reality to speak to us directly and in unmediated fashion makes the claim that we have enjoy a “clear and single-minded awareness of what actually happens” an example of naïve realism. Very naïve, in fact.
Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 822-848.