Ever since I wrote a previous column, Mindfulness for a Mindless Age, I’ve been growing more mindful of mindfulness, and more eager than ever to wrap my head around this concept that—for one trained in the physical sciences—is like trying to trap a mole of air molecules in a kitchen sieve.
Like many people, I have often equated mindfulness with meditation, but I’ve learned that the two terms are neither interchangeable nor synonymous. Meditation may serve as a pathway to mindfulness, but it is the route, not the destination.
In my search for a better understanding of mindfulness, I’ve found a recent review article that, although written for clinicians, is easy for most everyone to read and learn from. It is a review of mindfulness research written by William Marchand and published in the July issue of the Journal of Psychiatric Practice.
Mindfulness, says Marchand, involves “learning to focus attention on moment-by-moment experience with an attitude of curiosity, openness, and acceptance.” It is a real-time consciousness of one’s own experience and emotional state. That awareness may be outer-directed, toward sights, sounds, smells, or touches; or it may be inner-directed toward an awareness of the position of the body or its sensations, including pain.
Perhaps more important, mindfulness is awareness of the mind’s internal workings. “Thus, during mindfulness, one becomes an observer of one’s own stream of consciousness,” writes Marchand. That observation occurs with detachment, even objectivity, so the observation remains emotionally neutral.
This definition begs the question, Why seek mindfulness? Is it anything more than an intellectual curiosity? Marchand's article summarizes a wealth of evidence to satisfy the practical minded. Dealing specifically with three mindfulness interventions—Zen meditation, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT)—Marchand's review features research studies that demonstrate the power of mindfulness to ameliorate psychiatric symptoms and/or pain.
• Zen results in reduction of stress effects and decreased sensitivity to pain.
• MBSR and MBCT have broad antidepressant and antianxiety effects and decrease general psychological distress.
• MBCT is an effective adjunctive treatment for unipolar depression.
• Both MBSR and MBCT can alleviate anxiety symptoms.
How do these mindfulness therapies work? We can look to anatomy and physiology for answers. Ample evidence demonstrates that meditation and other mindfulness-seeking processes alter brain structure and function. Effects have been documented in several regions of the brain, including areas involved with thinking about self, emotional processing and regulation, mood, anxiety, the perception of pain intensity and unpleasantness, and behavioral control. There is even some evidence to suggest that mindfulness may help slow age-related structural changes in some parts of the brain and, thereby, help preserve cognitive functions, including memory. Mindfulness effects are not confined to the brain and nervous system. Mindfulness has been shown to decrease blood pressure, improve sleep, ameliorate negative responses to stress, and enhance the functioning of the immune system.
So, in my view, the next obvious question is, How does mindfulness affect an individual's feelings and thoughts? The hypothesis of reperceiving (see Shapiro et al) makes sense to me. Reperceiving is a shift in psychological perspective that allows one to step back from one's own thoughts and emotions. This reorientation promotes a comprehension that “this pain is not me” or “this depression is not me,” which, in turn, diminishes the power that the pain or depression can exert over the individual. Marchand writes:
[R]eperceiving may also lead to a realization that self is only a psychological concept made up of changing memories, beliefs, sensations, and ideas. Thus, by practicing mindfulness, one becomes less identified with the concept of self and less attached to an egocentric world view. This shift in perception can facilitate increased compassion and concern for both self and others. Moreover, it can lead to decreased distress when the concept of self is threatened, whether the threat is actual (e.g., old-age and death) or perceived (e.g., negative thinking about the self).
Marchand is quick to point out that mindfulness interventions cannot currently be recommended as one-and-only treatments for psychiatric disorders, but they can serve as effective and supportive adjuncts to other therapies. There is also good evidence that mindfulness techniques (specifically MBSR) can stand alone as a beneficial approach to stress management among healthy individuals.
How mindful are you? It's hard to answer that question, because the concept is broad, but I found a quiz that helped make the abstractions more concrete for me. Maybe for you too—as you grow more mindful of mindfulness.
The Greater Good website quiz is credited to Cardaciotto, L., Herbert, J. D., Forman, E. M., Moitra, E., & Farrow, V. (2008). “The Assessment of Present-Moment Awareness and Acceptance: The Philadelphia Mindfulness Scale.” Assessment, 15 (2), 204-223.
For More Information:
Marchand, William R. “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, and Zen Meditation for Depression, Anxiety, Pain, and Psychological Distress.” Journal of Psychiatric Practice Vol. 18, No. 4 July 2012.
Shapiro SL, Carlson LE, Astin JA, et al. "Mechanisms of Mindfulness." J Clin Psychol 2006;62:373–86.