- A growing number of researchers are making the argument that mindfulness is best thought of as a variety of cognitive processes.
- The feature that distinguishes mindfulness from other traits, paths, or processes is its emphasis on attention united with awareness.
- Meaning-making emerges from this awareness by keeping biases out of people's in-the-moment perceptions.
Mindfulness is in the news again. Forbes is asking whether mindfulness makes us selfish. USA Today is encouraging us to start a mindful practice for health benefits. And Literary Hub is chronicling the failure of one seeker to integrate mindfulness into their life.
The Many Meanings of Mindfulness
As we can see, “mindfulness” as a concept is being used to mean different things in each of these reports. The first story views mindfulness as a mental trait; the second story portrays mindfulness as a spiritual path conceived in health-promotion terms; and the third plays with mindfulness as a cognitive process that can be beneficially applied in many different activities. So which report got it right?
As it happens, a growing number of researchers are making the argument that mindfulness is best thought of as a variety of cognitive processes. Rather than trying to pin down the specific motivations or beliefs behind individual decisions to start looking at the world through the lens of mindfulness, it may be worthwhile to instead focus on where the mindful practitioner ends up. Let’s approach mindfulness as a cognitive tool that inspires mental processes that may have different names but similar behavioral outcomes.
For example, some folks view mindfulness as a personality trait strongly associated with being aware, flexible, and generally relaxed. Others see mindfulness less as a trait and more as a spiritual exercise designed to cultivate well-being and lower stress.
What Makes Mindfulness Unique?
Whether mindfulness is a trait, path, or process, the critical distinguishing feature that allows it to stand out from other traits, paths, or processes is its emphasis on attention, united with an awareness of that attention.
“Attention” means taking notice of something. “Awareness” is the conscious registration of how that something has stimulated our five physical senses and the subsequent activities of our mind. Most of us are not very good at controlling our attention. Our ability to focus attention on an object tends to be brief. Once stimulated, it is usually a very short time before we experience a cognitive or emotional reaction to the thing that has drawn our attention.
We perceive, focus for a moment or so if we’re lucky, and then we judge. We judge whether the thing that has captured our attention is good or bad, beneficial or harmful, novel or mundane, and so on. We base these reactive judgments on our past experiences. So when something draws our attention, it also begins a process where labels and judgments are imposed on whatever it is we are encountering.
The essence of mindfulness is not found simply in focused attention. To be attentive is a necessary but insufficient condition of mindfulness. The uniqueness of mindfulness is being cognizant of our attentive state. We are paying attention. And we are aware that our mind is paying attention. Which means we are also paying attention to the process of judgments that may instinctively follow. And we observe our observing without falling into the trap of being distracted by the processes that move us away from the focused attention.
Meaning emerges from awareness.
If we try to simplify this idea, we can say that a further definition of this umbrella term is understanding mindfulness as attention to and awareness of present events and experiences. Meaning emerges from this awareness. We are trying to retain our focus on the current stimulus that has drawn our attention as it is. Mindfulness is a tool in support of not clouding our experience of in-the-moment perception with the biases of past experiences and other distracting instinctual responses.
With this definition, the classic understanding of mindfulness is retained, but it is also ambiguous enough to allow for the breadth of ways in which the mindfulness idea has come to manifest in modern popular and corporate culture.
Austin, D. 2023. What is mindfulness meditation? How to get started and the health benefits you should know. USA Today, April 24.
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Good, D.J. et al. 2016. Contemplating Mindfulness at Work: An Integrative Review. Journal of Management, 42: 114–42.
Lutz, A., Jha, A.P., Dunne, J.D., & Saron, C.D. 2015. Investigating the Phenomenological Matrix of Mindfulness-Related Practices from a Neurocognitive Perspective. American Psychologist, 70: 632–58.
Ubel, P. 2023. Mindfulness Makes Some People Selfish—See If You Are One of Them. Forbes, April 24.
Weitzner, D. 2021. Connected Capitalism. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Zimmerman, Z. 2023. Missed Chances for Mindfulness: On Trying and Failing to Meditate. Literary Hub, April 21.