Psychological vs. Meditation-Based Mindfulness

Understanding the difference between psychological and meditative mindfulness.

Posted May 15, 2020

This past week, I had a Zoom meeting with a group of about 20 psychologists, mental health professionals, and other scholars and students discussing the CALM MO approach to socio-emotional health. The context was that we were exploring the possibility of launching a community well-being movement1 and how CALM MO might serve as a guiding framework for processing difficult emotions and fostering supportive relationships.

During the discussion an important point emerged that I think warrants being shared with a broader audience. As people commented and shared their experience, it became clear that it was necessary to make an important distinction between what might be called “psychological mindfulness” and "meditative mindfulness," or meditation-based mindfulness practices.

As the name implies, meditative mindfulness refers to the practice of increasing one’s mindfulness skills through meditation. There are many different kinds of meditative practices. For example, this site lists 16 different approaches, including guided versus unguided and calming versus insight practices. The site also briefly describes the differences and overlap between the various traditions, such as Zen, Mantra, Yoga, Qigong, and others.

Psychological mindfulness is different. It shares the emphasis on increasing the core mindfulness aspects of awareness and acceptance. However, it does not necessarily rely on meditation practices. Rather, it relies on building capacities for meta-cognitive observation and insight. For example, when you go to see a therapist or just have a deep and meaningful conversation with a friend and you feel that you understand your self or your past or your situation much better, you have expanded your capacity for mindful awareness.

CALM MO is an integrative approach to psychological mindfulness. It overlaps significantly with approaches like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy’s focus "wise mind," Metacognitive Therapy, and the central tenets of Interpersonal Neurobiology.

So, this gives rise to the question, what exactly is the difference between psychological and meditative mindfulness? As Iain McGhilcrist articulates in his popular work, The Master and His Emissary, there is a difference between the justifying mind and the phenomenological perceiving mind, with the latter being more associated with right hemisphere processing and the former being more associated with the left.

Meditative mindfulness it is more about phenomenology and being in the world. It is about building skills associated with the mind’s “witnessing function.” It is about learning to orient the witnessing function, control the focus of perceptual attention, and expand the capacity to accept what is seen and felt. For an excellent free series on meditation, see here

CALM-MO enters the mindfulness space more via the justifying mind. That is, it is more located in the self-conscious narrator, and uses insight-based reflection to cultivate a set of attitudes and ways of responding (i.e., curiosity, acceptance, loving-compassion, and motivated toward valued outcomes). It is also based more on logic and adaptive analysis than embodied experience, and focused more on reflective responsiveness instead of mindless reactivity.

Paulihna Sorbi/Gregg Henriques
Source: Paulihna Sorbi/Gregg Henriques

Psychological mindfulness also requires skill development in areas such as self-reflective awareness, distress tolerance, and impulse control. However, it does not necessarily depend on meditation to achieve high levels of psychological mindfulness. Indeed, although I generated the CALM MO model, I am a novice at meditation. However, as a therapist and trainer of doctoral clinicians for almost 20 years, I am well-versed in psychological mindfulness skills.   

Our group concurred this distinction was both important and was often not made clear in the literature and so I thought it might be helpful to articulate it for folks here.



1. See here for a web page that describes this movement; feel free to contact me (henriqgx at jmu dot edu) if you are interested.