Modern Mindfulness

Mindfulness is about achieving authentic integrity.

Posted Apr 29, 2018

Mindfulness, original oil, Frank John Ninivaggi MD, 1965
Source: Mindfulness, original oil, Frank John Ninivaggi MD, 1965

Mindfulness in perspective calls for a realistic orientation of its place chronologically, historically, and culturally. The origins of mindfulness have deep roots in the meditative traditions of religious practices, notably Hinduism and Buddhism. The Orthodox Christian, Jewish, and Islamic faiths also have well-established practices, although these will not be discussed here.

The Buddhist term translated into English as "mindfulness" comes from the Pali term sati and its Sanskrit counterpart smṛiti. The Sanskrit term smriti strongly connotes remembering, recalling, and bearing in mind values, viewpoints, and beliefs from the voluminous teachings of Buddhist dhamma and Hindu dharma — sacred scriptures, respectively.

These terms come from Hindu Sanskrit or Buddhist Pali language sources, sometimes mixtures of both; rigid distinctions are difficult to make. However, in mindfulness and meditation contexts, each term has essential nuances. For example, in those languages, sati means mindfulness, dhyana means meditation, and Samadhi typically denotes profound meditative absorption, a level of spiritual refinement viewed as the peak of self-development in the yoga system (Ninivaggi, 2008).

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness, therefore, as a mode of awareness involves the self-regulation of attention maintained on immediate experience with an orientation that is curious, inquiring, open, and accepting. Receptivity and acceptance with monitoring, rather than active efforts to reach a specific goal, characterize mindful awareness. This article emphasizes this psychologically aware dimension, instead of the more meditative aspect. 

Thus, the term "mindfulness" is used in this way. 

Concentrated practices toward mindfulness are used to clear and re-boot the brain of mind-wandering proclivities and patterns of “fixedness” in thought and emotional processing. Current mindfulness systems define the term “practice” to mean being in the present moment on purpose for a specific time during the day or week. 

Mindfulness in the West does not denote the traditional Eastern idea of emptying the mind wholly of all its objects or contents; instead, Western mindfulness aspires to a mind that can be alert and aware for significant times during the day. Intensive practices used periodically strengthen the mind’s ability to remain mindful in between periodic exercises.

The health-promoting benefits of these derive from the modulation or cessation of discursive, rambling thoughts. Practitioners suggest that these roaming, digressive ideas correlate with mental distress and suffering. Yet, the cultural origins of mindfulness have always incorporated dimensions of remembering and recalling the framework of beliefs and moral values — the dharma upon which the practice roots itself.

Why Mindfulness?

Practices aimed at producing mindfulness as a mode of awareness are inquiries into one’s mind. Implied in this activity is an intention to make sense of one’s individual subjective experience — and to better it. 

As seen from the above origins of mindfulness as a meditative practice, those who engage (in the past and even now) seek psychological and spiritual refinement — self-realization, enlightenment, Nirvana, and Moksha (i.e., liberation). Mindfulness meditation has long been inextricably entwined with religion. Now, particularly in the West, the emphasis is on stress reduction, relaxation, reduced anxiety, and greater peace of mind.

Mindfulness as an aspiration seems to arise from the typical default state of mind-wandering and the habitual distractedness of thoughts. The wish to regulate this unsettled condition evokes the dialectic of opposites: mind-wandering and its contrast, mindfulness. 

The Foundations of Mindfulness in the West    

In the West, modern mindfulness practices originated in a formal and structured way in the early 1980s. The fundamental principles of mindfulness-based therapies continue to be attention regulation, openness to present experience, curiosity, acceptance of the present moment, and nonjudgmental awareness of sensations, emotions, thoughts, and one’s environment. Stress reduction and an increased capacity to relax thus become nurtured.  

The efficacy of mindfulness practices correlates with our increased ability to manage stressors, become more mindfully aware, and experience less anxiety and rumination. The Westernizing of Eastern systems has led to periodic tries to deemphasize connotations of mysticism and perceived “hocus-pocus” and to emphasize “meditation” as genuinely paying attention as a mindfully “present-centered” awareness. Scholars (Scharf, 2015) question whether Western systems are congruent with Eastern definitions of meditation.

The structured and repeatedly validated techniques of "Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction" (MBSR), established in the 1980s by distinguished psychologist Jon Kabat-Zinn, focus on the physical level of stress and supportive care for ailments, such as cancer, chronic pain, heart disease, and fibromyalgia. 

Another technique is a psychotherapy called "Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy" (MBCT), used for depression relapse. MBCT emphasizes changing our awareness of and relationship to thoughts, rather than altering the thoughts themselves. 

The vital process of decentering in most mindfulness practices calls for distinguishing rigid identification with one’s thoughts as personal facts. Therapeutic interventions are typically administered 45 minutes per day, six days per week, over eight weekly sessions followed by a day-long retreat.

Mindfulness systems see themselves as a “process,” more a way of life than merely an isolated series of meditation practices. Intimacy with the present moment, not bound by time, and a relaxation of the frenetic pace of routine activities characterize mindfulness. In fact, mindfulness is often compared a worthwhile counterbalance to the habit of experiencing life as an “emergency.” 

Mindfulness is frequently likened to becoming acquainted with learning “non-doing,” which highlights the acceptance of oneself attentively at the now of the present moment, in whatever condition is at hand.

Another mindfulness system is "Acceptance and Commitment Therapy" (ACT), developed in the 1990s by Steven Hayes and colleagues. It aims to increase psychological flexibility using mindfulness approaches. This mental flexibility involves engaging with the present moment fully as a consciously aware person and changing your behaviors in the service of your chosen values. An underlying premise is that core distress results from avoidance and fear

The acronym "FEAR" represents:

  • Fusion with your thoughts
  • Evaluation of experience
  • Avoidance of your experience
  • Reason-giving for your behavior

In this system, a healthier alternative is to adhere to the guidelines showed by the acronym "ACT":

  • Accept your reactions and be present-focused
  • Choose a valued direction
  • Take action

Also, mindfulness meditation has been used that include: instead of or as an occasional replacement for traditional psychotherapy, as a relevant part of "Dialectical Behavior Therapy" (DBT), a tool for corporate well-being, an educational instrument, and a regimen for building more resilient soldiers. Mindfulness falls under the aegis of mind/body perspectives, such as the fields of Integrative Medicine, Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM), and the American Consortium on Integrative Medicine associated with medical schools.

Over the last decade in the medical field, occupational burnout has been recognized as a prevalent matter in health care. Physician burnout syndrome appears to have about a 54-percent prevalence (Shanafelt et al., 2015). It has become a modern medical challenge. Mindfulness is becoming a vital intervention to prevent and improve physician burnout. 

The benefits of becoming mindful include stress reduction and a reduction in anxiety and mood instability. Greater mental clarity and focus also seem to be sought-after by-products. Mindfulness practice is sure to develop more significant self-knowledge and understanding.

Mindfulness: Western Perspectives

The Western style of thinking tends toward scientific, logical, organized, and rational approaches, which focus on what is conscious and even testable to the reader. While this may seem reasonable at first glance, classicists see it at odds with the sources from which mindfulness meditative practices arose. Mindfulness and meditation typically put everyday critical thinking on hold — for a short while — so that the mind can both clear itself and rest.

There are distinctions among mindfulness, mindfulness meditation, and meditation. Most people involved in mindfulness pursuits, however, recognize mindfulness as a state of awareness that is: (1) attentively single, (2) clear, and (3) emotionally poised.

To achieve this state of mindfulness, most practitioners use mindfulness exercises. The phrase “meditation practices” is used; less frequently, “meditation.” Meditation in any form is a more intensive practice, with each technique having its valued goals. Mindfulness in this article is more psychologically based.

The spiritual and religious roots of mindfulness cannot be culturally dismissed without losing the heart and soul of any practice. Yet, Western methods have tried to Westernize mindfulness practices by minimizing cultural and spiritual references — at least mostly, although there are exceptions. 

Benefits of Mindfulness

Almost all mindfulness systems regard self-regulation as the overarching effect that mindfulness has on the mind and body. Self-regulation involves a gathering of disparate and split experiences toward a bio-mental unification. This sense of self-integrity reflects a mind that is clear, openly receptive, balanced, poised, steady, and fluidly mobile without a fixed bottom line (e.g., the need to reach a set conclusion) at any moment. 

A decentering of exclusivity of and on the self — aka diminished narcissism — occurs. This loosened attachment also involves rigid identifications (e.g., “I am anger/happiness/bad/good/etc.") of all that transpires mentally and emotionally, both thought and felt, with thinker and feeler being almost in an entangled fusion. 

Self-regulation involves alignment on several different levels of functioning. These include:

1. Self-regulation of attention

2. Self-regulation of sensory awareness (e.g., raw, inchoate sensations become less coarse)

3. Self-regulation of perception (i.e., refinements of forming sensations, emotions, and thoughts)

4. Self-regulation of thinking

5. Self-regulation of performance

In everyday life, the benefits of mindfulness and overall self-regulation lead to more significant, mindful listening and more responsive, mindfully aware speaking.

Attentional Regulation in All Mindfulness Practices

The primary tool used to access and manage thought and feelings is attention. Working with one’s attention is referred to as the self-regulation of attention. This modulated, contoured attention halos onto and then regulates sensation, perception, thinking, and performance. Various techniques are used. 

When self-regulating attention, the components of one’s attitude most conducive to mindfulness — focused attention, clarity, and emotional poise — work best. Attitudes that are open, curious, explorative, nonjudgmental, patient, trusting, intentional but not harshly goal-oriented, accepting, non-grasping, and easy to let go and move on are consistently noted as being conducive to ease in mindfulness practice.

Another attitude that may be more cordial to Eastern thought is that of surrender. Surrender is akin to acceptance. Surrender in mindfulness meditation, however, is nuanced with themes of permission, deference, and receptivity. 

One relaxes one’s active striving for well-formed, logical, even strident goals toward achieving specific end states of mind. Preferably, one tries to relax harshly analytic thought processes and open the mind to receive what may seem to be the randomness of streaming, apparently disorganized ideas and feelings, letting them flow through — merely noticing, possibly labeling them as they pass, then allowing them to fade.

This Eastern perspective has entered Western practice in suggestions to welcome whatever arises in mind, linger with it rather than instantly accepting or rejecting it, even if it appears distasteful, then graciously permit it to dissipate or dissolve. For example, if one feels boredom, the suggestion might be to embrace the boredom, feel it, linger with it for a time without acting on it by getting up and walking around, then permitting it to dissipate. This technique also applies to feeling and managing the discomfort of mild to moderate pain. For example, when in a quiet state, if pain emerges, focus on it, examine its sensations, stay with it for a while, and then, if possible, hope it will attenuate. 

While these examples may challenge the non-meditator to imagine as being ordinary ways to manage distress, meditators and those well-versed in mindfulness have reported positive results with practice over time. Expert meditators say that relaxing into discomfort sometimes reduces their pain intensity. Their point is that each person does have the ability to manage thoughts by either relating or not relating to them. This conscious choice is an art and skill requiring learning over time.

Western systems of mindfulness position the self-regulation of attention in high regard. The term “regulation” presumes a conscious, effortful control over a vast area of neuropsychological processes that have somatosensory and internally habit-laden conditioning. Put differently, the self-regulation of attention is a daunting challenge but considered central to the mindfulness process.

Eastern perspectives have recognized this matter regarding variable states of attention and mind wandering. They describe the stabilizing task as one of steadying the constant fluctuations inherent in thinking processes. Some have even referred to this attentional lability as the default automaticity of “mental chatter.” This conglomeration of thoughts and feelings, back to back, clashing in an unending cacophony, has also been likened to the image of “rush hour,” with all its dissonance, confusion, frustration, and heated, angry feelings.

For any attentional mindfulness work, the setting, one’s posture, breathing, and the time duration of each session are concrete “details” needing forethought. There are many varieties available. No standard guidelines can be given; each person and each context offer a comparatively unique situation to take account of and customize.

Mindfulness practices are lifelong endeavors. However, there is evidence that positive change can occur in five to 60 hours of formal training (Vargo, 2015). This improvement may be a starting point, indeed, and not a finalized accomplishment.

This article was a brief overview of a complex subject. My forthcoming book on Mindfulness digs deep into its history and how it may be expressed and put into action in everyday living.

References

Ninivaggi, F.J. (2008). Ayurveda: A Comprehensive Guide to Traditional Indian Medicine for the West. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Shanafelt, T. D., Hasan, O., Dyrbye L. N., Sinsky, C., Satele, D., Sloan, J., & West, C. P. (2015). Changes in burnout and satisfaction with work-life balance in physicians and the general US working population between 2011 and 2014. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 90(12), 1600–1613. 

Sharf, R.H. (2015). Is mindfulness Buddhist? (and why it matters). Transcultural Psychiatry, 52 (4):470-484.

Vargo, D.R. (2015). Brain’s response to meditation, PsychologyToday.com, July 31, 2015.