Mindfulness in Mental Health: A Critical Reflection

Mindfulness in Mental Health: A Critical Reflection

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We were recently invited to write a paper for the inaugural issue of the Journal of Psychology, Neuropsychiatric Disorders and Brain Stimulation. Our contribution (which was co-authored with our friend and colleague Professor Mark Griffiths) was entitled ‘Mindfulness in Mental Health: A Critical Reflection’. In light of the substantial growth of scientific and public interest into the health-related applications of mindfulness, our paper discussed whether the scientific evidence for mindfulness-based interventions actually merits their growing popularity amongst mental health practitioners, scientists, and the public more generally. We concluded that mindfulness-based interventions have the potential to play an important role in mental health treatment settings. However, due to the rapidity at which mindfulness has been taken out of its traditional Buddhist setting, and what is possibly evidence of media and/or scientific hype concerning the effectiveness of mindfulness, we recommended that future research should seek to:

  1. Establish whether the benefits of participating in mindfulness-based interventions are maintained over periods of years rather than just months.
  2. Examine whether there are any risks or unwanted consequences associated with participating in mindfulness-based interventions.
  3. Make sure that research findings are not influenced by what is perhaps best described as a form of ‘intervention effect’. Rather than behavioural and psychological changes arising from actually practising mindful awareness, it is possible that some of the positive outcomes observed by researchers actually reflect a belief amongst participants that they are receiving a very popular and ‘proven’ therapeutic or ‘spiritual’ technique. In other words, rather than mindfulness practice per se leading to health improvements, one of the reasons that mindfulness-based interventions are effective might be due to participants’ expectations, and their belief that mindfulness works.
  4. Investigate the Buddhist position that sustainable improvements to mental and spiritual health typically require consistent daily mindfulness practice over a period of many years (i.e., they do not arise after attendance at just eight two-hour classes with some self-practice in between).

The full reference for the article is shown below, and the article can be downloaded (free of charge) from here: Mindfulness_A critical reflection 2015

Article Reference: Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Mindfulness in Mental Health: A Critical Reflection. Journal of Psychology, Neuropsychiatric Disorders and Brain Stimulation, 1(1), 102.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

What Science Can Tell Us about How Mindfulness Actually Works

What Science Can Tell Us about How Mindfulness Actually Works

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Throughout recent decades there have been increasing attempts by scientists to understand how mindfulness actually works. However, because there are so many factors that could potentially exert an influence, coming to a definitive conclusion over the precise mechanisms of action that underlie the biological, psychological, or spiritual changes caused by mindfulness practice is not an easy task. Consequently, when scientists propose a mechanism in terms of how mindfulness causes change in individuals receiving mindfulness training, these proposals tend to be treated as just one piece of the larger jigsaw rather than as the final verdict. In today’s post, we summarise and discuss a selection – covering numerous remits of scientific enquiry – of the mechanisms of action that have been put forward to date.

  1. Perceptual Shift: Practising mindfulness is believed to create a perceptual shift in terms of how individuals respond and relate to thoughts, feelings, and sensory stimuli (e.g., sounds, sights, smells, pain, etc.). This greater perceptual distance is understood to help individuals objectify their psychological and somatic experiences and to regard them as passing phenomena.
  2. Increase in Spirituality: Some scientists (including ourselves) believe that mindfulness can increase spirituality and that this, in turn, acts as a buffer against feelings of loneliness as well as the various adversities we encounter in life. This growth in spiritual awareness is understood to help broaden an individual’s perspective on life and cause them to re-evaluate their life priorities.
  3. Reduced Autonomic and Psychological Arousal: It has been shown that mindfulness – and in particular conscious breathing – increases vagus nerve output which causes the heart and breathing rate to lower. Keeping the heart and breathing rate under control is understood to go hand in hand with remaining calm and being able to cope with stressful situations.
  4. Neuroplastic Changes: Neuroplasticity refers to changes in the brain neural pathways and synapses. Neuropsychological functional and structural imaging studies have demonstrated that mindfulness practice results in neuroplastic changes in various areas of the brain (including the anterior cingulate cortex, insula, temporo-parietal junction, fronto-limbic network, and default mode network structures). These neuroplastic changes are believed to improve an individual’s ability to regulate and remain in control of their choices, feelings, and behaviours.
  5. Increase in Self-Awareness: Mindfulness is understood to improve self-awareness which, in-turn, is believed to make it easier for people to identify and label negative mood states and thinking patterns. This relates closely to the above ‘perceptual shift’ mechanism because being able to accurately label mental processes makes it easier for people to objectify them.
  6. Addiction Substitution: One recently proposed mechanism of mindfulness (and other forms of Buddhist meditation) is that the peaceful/blissful states associated with mindfulness can be substituted for the highs and various forms of mood modification experienced by individuals with addictive behaviours. This particular mechanism was actually proposed by ourselves and it basically involves a ‘negative addiction’ (e.g., to drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc.) being substituted with a ‘positive addiction’ (i.e., to mindfulness/meditation).
  7. Urge Surfing: Another proposed mechanism of action (not by ourselves this time) relating to how mindfulness works as a treatment for addiction is that of ‘urge surfing’. Urge surfing basically refers to the process of an individual observing and not reacting to mental urges. In other words, they surf the urge and are therefore better able to regulate habitual compulsive responses.
  8. Letting Go: By mindfully observing the coming and going of thoughts and feelings (and other phenomena), it is believed that mindfulness practitioners cultivate a better understanding of the ‘transient’ nature of existence. This helps them to let-go of difficult situations and not to see things as fixed or permanent.
  9. Increase in Patience: Some scientists (including ourselves) believe that mindfulness increases an individual’s levels of patience. This is understood to reduce an individual’s desire for instant gratitude as well as their propensity for anger.
  10. Greater Situational Awareness: Outcomes from our own research have shown that mindfulness can help people feel more in touch with the physical and social environment in which they find themselves. This greater situational awareness is understood to improve decision-making competency, job performance, and the ability to pre-empt how a particular situation might unfold.

It is beyond the scope of today’s post to discuss every single mechanism of action that has been proposed in relation to how mindfulness causes somatic, psychological, or spiritual change. Nevertheless, the above overview represents a mixture of recently proposed mechanisms of action as well as those that are more established. As scientific enquiry continues, it is likley that new mechanisms of actions will be identified and that a more complete picture of ways in which mindfulness leads to positive change will emerge.

Further Reading

Dane, E. (2010). Paying attention to mindfulness and its effects on task performance in the workplace. Journal of Management, 37, 997-1018.

de Lisle, S. M., Dowling, N. A. & Allen, J. S. (2012). Mindfulness and problem gambling: A review of the literature. Journal of Gambling Studies, 28, 719–739.

Derezotes, D. (2000). Evaluation of yoga and meditation trainings with adolescent sex offenders. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 17, 97-113.

Gillespie, S. M., Mitchell, I. J., Fisher, D., & Beech, A. R. (2012). Treating disturbed emotional regulation in sexual offenders: The potential applications of mindful self-regulation and controlled breathing techniques. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 17, 333-343.

Holzel, B., Lazar, S., & Gard, T., et al. (2011). How does mindfulness meditation work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective. Perspectives in Psychological Science, 6, 537-559.

Howells, K., Tennant, A., Day, A., & Elmer, R. (2010). Mindfulness in forensic mental health; Does it have a role? Mindfulness, 1, 4-9.

Rungreangkulkji, S., Wongtakee, W., & Thongyot, S. (2011). Buddhist Group Therapy for diabetes patients with depressive symptoms. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 25, 195-205.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Mindfulness-based interventions: Towards mindful clinical integration. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 1-4. DOI:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00194. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3629307/)

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., Slade, K., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Mindfulness and other Buddhist-derived interventions in correctional settings: A systematic review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 18, 365-372.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Managers’ experiences of Meditation Awareness Training. Mindfulness, DOI: 10.1007/s12671-014-0334-y.

Toneatto, T., Pillai, S., & Courtice, E. L. (2014). Mindfulness-enhanced Cognitive Behavior Therapy for problem gambling: A controlled pilot study, International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12, 197-205

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Sumich, A., Sundin, E., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Meditation Awareness Training (MAT) for psychological wellbeing in a sub-clinical sample of university students: A controlled pilot study. Mindfulness, 5, 381-391.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2015). The lineage of mindfulness. Mindfulness, 6, 141-145.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Meditation as medication: Are attitudes changing? British Journal of General Practice, 63, 654.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. (2015). Towards a second-generation of mindfulness-based interventions. Australia and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 49, 591-591.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., Compare, A., Zangeneh, M., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Buddhist-derived loving-kindness and compassion meditation for the treatment of psychopathology: A systematic review. Mindfulness, 6, 1161-1180.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2013). Searching for the present moment, Mindfulness, 5, 105-107.

 

A Buddhist’s Guide to Safe Sex

A Buddhist’s Guide to Safe Sex

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In our capacity as Buddhist teachers we are sometimes asked questions regarding the role of sex in Buddhist practice. In the last few months, we have also received several requests for us to write a post on this subject. The nature of these questions and/or requests generally relate to misunderstandings as to the Buddhist teachings on this subject. Specifically, it appears that there is uncertainty over what appear to be conflicting Buddhist teachings regarding how a Buddhist practitioner should relate to sex so that it does not become an obstacle to spiritual awakening. Therefore, in today’s post we provide our perspective on the role of sex in Buddhist practice and provide five recommendations to help individuals contextualise and/or engage in sexual activity in a manner that is conducive to spiritual practice:

1. Have sex responsibly: The Buddha did not provide extensive details as to what constitutes having responsible sex and what sexual activity was acceptable or inappropriate. However, the sentiment of the Buddha’s teachings on sex (and on life more generally) were that nobody should ever be hurt or abused as a result of a sexual encounter. This not only includes the individuals having sexual intercourse but also includes anybody else that might be adversely affected. For example, before two people have sex together, they should ensure that an unwanted child will not be born as a result of their actions. Similarly, promiscuous sex should also be avoided because it invariably causes suffering for all concerned. We have always taught that sex within the context of a loving and stable relationship is the most ideal situation. However, if this is not possible then it is important to at least make sure that nobody is taken advantage of or hurt as a result of a sexual encounter.

2. Don’t turn sex into something it isn’t: We are not sure whether any credible research has been conducted to determine the average number of people per day in the world that have sexual intercourse. However, since there are credible estimates of the number of babies born each day in the world, then we can be fairly certain that at least twice this number of people in the world have sex on any given day. For example, current estimates place the birth rate at approximately 370,000 new born babies each day. This means that about nine months prior to this, approximately 740,000 people had sexual intercourse (this does not take into account babies that were born due to artificial insemination, premature births, or instances where twins or triplets were born). However, common sense tells us that in reality, the figure is much higher because not all acts of sexual intercourse result in the birth of a child. Some explanations for this might be that: (i) the act of sexual intercourse was between individuals of the same sex, (ii) contraception was used, (iii) one or both of the individuals had fertility issues, and (iv) there was a miscarriage or the foetus was aborted.

The reason for emphasising the fact that sex is very common is to help us see sex for what it is and not to assign it more importance than it warrants. As human beings, we have certain biological needs. We need to eat, drink water, sleep, and go to the toilet. At the point human beings reach the pubescent stage, the human body also has a biological need to discharge sexual energy. If any of the aforementioned biological needs are not addressed in one way or another, then sooner or later discomfort and pain arise. There are various ways an individual can deal with the build-up of sexual energy in the body, of which having sexual intercourse or masturbation are probably the most obvious (but there are also other means depending on a person’s level of meditative awareness and their familiarity with the various gross and subtle energies in their body). Nevertheless, the point is that just like eating or going to the toilet, sex is neither a wholesome nor an unwholesome act, and it is neither important nor unimportant. The way in which sex is viewed by an individual (and society) depends entirely on the level of importance and meaning they assign to it. The energy that is created and discharged during sex can be incredibly pleasurable, and sex is also necessary for bringing new life into the world. However, it seems to us that sex is afforded too much significance in modern society and this has actually cheapened this otherwise natural and neutral aspect of human behaviour. In other words, sex has become such a big part of peoples’ thoughts and conversation and has been given so much importance, that it has been debased and become unimportant.

3. Practice mindful sex: Research demonstrates that there are various health benefits associated with practising mindfulness. The Buddha did not teach that the idea was to practice mindfulness when engaging in some activities but not in others. Rather, he taught that mindfulness should be practised at all times. Therefore, when you are having sex, try to do so mindfully. We are not aware of a program of empirical research that has investigated whether mindful sex heightens sexual pleasure, but there are preliminary research findings indicating that mindfulness can improve sexual dysfunction (see further reading list below). The way to practice mindful sex is – as with all other forms of mindfulness practice – to be fully aware of one’s thoughts, feelings, bodily movements, and bodily sensations during and after sexual intercourse. In other words, mindful sex involves the individual becoming a participating observer. They fully participate in the act of having sex but allow a certain perceptual distance to be introduced between them and the psychosomatic experience of sexual intercourse. This prevents the act of sex and the powerful feelings and sensations that it produces from causing the spiritual practitioner to lose their meditative awareness and to succumb to mindless ways of thinking and behaving.

4. Don’t reject the experience of having sex:  Some Buddhist practitioners take vows of celibacy in relation to sexual activity. If, for example, a Buddhist nun or monk has taken a vow of celibacy, then it is very important that they honour that vow. However, for individuals that have not taken such vows, it is essential not to consider the act of having sex as something that happens outside of one’s spiritual practice. The Buddha taught that a mind intoxicated with desire for sensual and/or sexual pleasure is not conducive to spiritual awakening. Despite this, the Buddha certainly never implied that the act of having sex was wrong in and of itself. As we discussed in our post on False Spiritual Economy, the crucial point is not to become attached to any objects or experiences that we encounter – including sex. Attachment and/or desire are considered to be primary mental poisons in Buddhism and will definitely present an obstacle to spiritual growth. In fact, as our colleague and friend Professor Mark Griffiths has written extensively about on his own blog, it is actually possible for people to become so preoccupied with sex that they eventually become addicted to it.

The exact same principle applies to being averse to having sex as it does to being attached to it. If a person rejects the sexual feelings and energy that they experience, then they are effectively rejecting a part of their being and introducing a degree of conflict or resistance into their mind. It is for this reason that in place of the path of celibacy advocated by certain Buddhist monastic traditions, other (mostly tantric) Buddhist approaches advocate accepting sexual energy and using it as a means of making spiritual progress. The point in tantric Buddhism is for the spiritual practitioner to accept and work with sexual energy but in such a manner that they use it as a means of realising the inherent emptiness of all that exists (including feelings of sexual pleasure). However, it doesn’t take a genius to understand that the fairly graphic nature of some of the tantric Buddhist teachings means that they can be easily abused or misunderstood. The tantric teachings relating to sex and sexual energy are intended for experienced meditation practitioners that have already acquired advanced levels of spiritual insight and that are already well on the path to enlightenment. Despite this and due to not keeping their egos under control, some Buddhist practitioners and teachers automatically assume that they are already at an advanced stage of meditation practice and use these tantric teachings as an excuse to behave irresponsibly (i.e., they think they can go around sleeping with anybody and everybody and they lose sight of their original goal).

5. Enjoy the wonder of sex: As discussed above, the way in which we relate to sex largely depends on the level of meaning and importance that we assign to it. In other words, it is basically up to us whether sex and our thoughts and behaviours in relation to it becomes something that advances spiritual development or impedes it. Given this choice, it is completely within the power of every spiritual practitioner to turn sex into a wholesome practice and conduct. The way to do this is to load the act of having sex not just with mindful awareness but with positive and compassionate intentions. Sex can be a way for people to be intimate together, to be naked as human beings, and to show love and kindness. If one loads the act of having sex with such positive intentions and awareness, then it becomes a spiritual act. The same applies to everything we do. If a person eats or goes to the toilet with spiritual awareness and a compassionate intention, then these actions also become spiritually productive.

We sometimes observe Buddhist teachers attempt to side-step questions or requests for advice relating to sex. However, sex is a part of human existence and so we definitely don’t need to be afraid of it or steer away from talking about it just because we consider ourselves to be spiritual practitioners. Becoming comfortable with sex and knowing how to relate to it helps us to grow in wisdom and confidence as spiritual practitioners. In other words, if we are a person that wants to take spiritual practice seriously, we have to accept, love, and be comfortable talking and working with everything that we encounter in life. Therefore, if a Buddhist practitioner so wishes, they can certainly make use of sex as part of their spiritual practice. They can also fully enjoy and intricately experience the natural wonder of sex. This is very different than the person that becomes preoccupied with sex and uses it as an excuse to engender lustful, disrespectful, or smutty thoughts.

A great deal has been written about sex and Buddhism, including a lot of misinformation. The above suggestions are by no means exhaustive but we hope they will provide some food for thought for individuals seeking to make sense of this subject. The main thing to remember is to always have virtuous thoughts and intentions. If one can do this then having sex will certainly become an aid rather than a hindrance to spiritual awakening.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Barker, M. (2014). How social is your mindfulness? Towards a mindful sex and relationship therapy. In: Bazzano, Manu (ed). After Mindfulness: New Perspectives on Psychology and Meditation. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 81-100.

Brotto, L. A., & Heiman, J. R. (2007). .Mindfulness in sex therapy: Applications for women with sexual difficulties following gynecologic cancer. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 22, 3-11.

Laurent, H., Laurent, S., Hertz, R., Egan-Wright, D., & Granger, D. A. (2013). Sex-specific effects of mindfulness on romantic partners’ cortisol responses to conflict and relations with psychological adjustment. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 38, 2905-2913.

McCarthy, B., & Wald, L. M. (2013). Mindfulness and good enough sex. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 28, 39-47.

Trungpa, C. (2011). Work, sex, money: Real life on the path of mindfulness. Boston: Shambala

 

An Alternative Approach to Defining Mindfulness

An Alternative Approach to Defining Mindfulness

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It seems that nearly every academic paper concerning mindfulness includes a statement to the effect that ‘there is currently a lack of consensus amongst Western psychologists in terms of how to define mindfulness’. However, we’re not sure whether disagreement amongst psychologists regarding an appropriate definition for mindfulness is as prevalent as the academic literature might suggest. In other words, perhaps people are of the opinion that there is a lot of disagreement about mindfulness amongst Western psychologists only because everybody keeps saying that there is. Indeed, it could be argued that since it is only during the last few decades that mindfulness has been introduced into Western psychological settings, a certain number of ‘teething’ issues are to be expected and that, in terms of what constitutes some of the basic attributes of mindfulness practice, there is actually a decent level of concordance amongst psychologists. Examples of some of the things that Western psychologists generally seem to agree on in relation to mindfulness practice are that mindfulness: (i) is fundamentally concerned with becoming more aware of the present moment, (ii) can be practiced during everyday activities and not just when seated in meditation, (iii) is cultivated more easily by using concentrative anchors such as observing the breath, (iv) is a practice that requires deliberate effort, and (v) is concerned with observing both sensory and mental processes.

Our personal view is that too much emphasis is placed by Western psychologists on areas where there is disagreement rather than working with the aspects of mindfulness practice that have already been theoretically or empirically established. We also believe that too much emphasis is placed by academicians on attempting to devise and disseminate an ‘absolute’ or ‘all-encompassing’ definition of mindfulness. That is not to say that there are certain aspects of Western psychological definitions of mindfulness that wouldn’t benefit from additional clarification, but this doesn’t need to be made into too big a deal or detract from the insights and progress that have already been made. In today’s post, we briefly outline some of the key aspects of mindfulness practice where there is currently disagreement amongst Western psychologists. Following this, we propose a definition of mindfulness that (in our view) embodies a traditional Buddhist perspective on mindfulness and that may help to inform the ongoing scientific debate amongst Western psychologists in terms of how best to define the mindfulness construct.

Key Areas of Confusion in Western Psychology

1. Non-judgemental awareness: Arguably, the most popular definition of mindfulness employed in the Western psychological literature is the one proposed by Jon Kabat-Zinn who defines mindfulness as the process of “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”. In the context of this definition, some people believe that the use of the term ‘non-judgemental’ is appropriate because it implies that mindfulness involves the acceptance (i.e., rather than the rejecting or ignoring) of present-moment sensory and cognitive-affective experiences. However, others believe that the term ‘non-judgemental’ is unsatisfactory and/or too ambiguous because it could imply that the mindfulness practitioner is essentially indifferent and doesn’t seek to discern which cognitive, emotional, and behavioural responses are conducive to ethically wholesome conduct.

2. Insight generation: In the Western psychological literature, ‘vipassana meditation’ and ‘insight meditation’ are often regarded as being the same as ‘mindfulness meditation’. However, this portrayal of vipassana meditation (and insight meditation) is not consistent with the traditional Buddhist perspective. According to the classical Buddhist literature, vipassana meditation (which means ‘superior seeing’) involves the use of penetrative investigation in order to intuit (for example) the ‘non-self’, ‘non-dual’, and ‘empty’ nature of reality (please see our posts on ‘Do We Really Exist?’ and ‘Exactly What is the Present Moment?’). Thus, although mindfulness meditation is certainly insight-generating in the sense that it leads to an intimate awareness of the mind, ‘mindfulness meditation’ is not ‘insight meditation’ as per the traditional Buddhist understanding. Therefore, there is debate amongst psychologists as to the role of insight in mindfulness meditation.

3. Context for practice: Mindfulness is traditionally practiced in the context of spiritual development. Indeed, within Buddhism, mindfulness is practiced in conjunction with numerous other spiritual practices and is just one aspect (the seventh aspect) of a key Buddhist teaching known as the Noble Eightfold Path. As we discussed in our post on ‘Meditation: A Threefold Approach’, the successful establishment of mindfulness relies upon a deep-seated understanding of the three Buddhist root principles of: (i) wisdom, (ii) meditation, and (iii) ethics (collectively known as ‘the three trainings’ – Sanksrit: trishiksha). In Buddhist practice, these three elements interact to form a cohesive whole, and there isn’t a single Buddhist practice that is not encompassed by the trishiksha principle. Therefore, there is debate in the Western psychological literature relating to whether or not mindfulness needs to be practiced within the context of spiritual development.

 

Mindfulness: A Traditional Buddhist Perspective

Needless to say, within Buddhism, there are different views about what constitutes mindfulness practice. That said, and as inferred in our post ‘When Buddha and Christ met for Tea’, we personally believe that there is actually no contradiction in the teachings from any of the different cycles of Buddhist transmission (known as the various ‘Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma’). Accordingly, in terms of a traditional Buddhist depiction, we would define mindfulness as ‘the full, direct, and active awareness of experienced phenomena that is spiritual in aspect and that is maintained from one moment to the next’.

The intended meaning of each of the words in this definition is as follows:

  • Full awareness’ means that mindfulness is all-embracing – nothing is left out and everything is accepted. This is the passive aspect of mindfulness.
  • Direct awareness’ means that there is no gap or delay between the experienced phenomena and our awareness of it. This is the insight aspect of mindful awareness. However, this doesn’t mean that mindfulness is the same as (the traditional Buddhist depiction of) insight meditation or vipassana meditation. Insight can definitely arise during mindfulness meditation but we are not actively trying to induce it as with vipassana meditation practice. Depending on a person’s level of experience, ‘direct awareness’ means doing ones best during mindfulness practice to remember that there is ‘self in other’ and ‘other in self’, or, in the case of very experienced practitioners, it means directly perceiving that this is so.
  • Active awareness’ is discerning and means that the mindfulness practitioner should not only observe the present moment but should also participate in it. Active awareness allows us to determine how to act skilfully in a given situation as well as how to create and shape the present moment. It also allows us to discern the ‘nutritional value’ of our various experiences and which environmental stimuli should be allowed to penetrate and nurture our being (please see our recent post on ‘The Absorbing Mind’). Active awareness is (obviously) the active aspect of mindfulness.
  • Experienced phenomena’ means that we should be natural and not over-exert ourselves in our practice of mindfulness. It means that we take ‘experience now’ as the path. This includes both the ‘external’ phenomena and the ‘internal’ phenomena (sometimes called noumena) that enter our field of awareness. This is the effortless or spontaneous aspect of mindfulness.
  • Spiritual in aspect’ means that the primary intention for practicing mindfulness is to effect spiritual awakening in oneself and in others. This is the compassionate aspect of mindfulness.
  • Sustained from one moment to the next’ means that the practitioner tries to maintain an unbroken flow of awareness throughout the day (and even during sleep if they are experienced enough). This is the enduring aspect of mindfulness.

A Different Approach to Defining Mindfulness

Our hope from introducing the above definition, is to try and give a small amount of ‘food for thought’ to certain aspects of the ongoing debate amongst academicians regarding the formulation of a suitable definition for mindfulness. If you like this definition then please don’t get too worked-up about it. Equally, if you think it is an unsatisfactory definition then please try not to become too upset. It’s just a definition and it would be far better if you practiced and experienced what mindfulness is for yourself. That way, it wouldn’t really matter how other people defined it. In fact, we believe that it’s unlikely that an ‘absolute’ definition of mindfulness will ever be developed because as a spiritual phenomenon, certain dimensions of the mindfulness construct will always be difficult to express in words and can only be fully understood by those individuals who can tap into them on the experiential rather than the academic level. Furthermore, it should also be kept in mind that people will have different understandings depending upon why they are interested in mindfulness and on their level of meditative experience. In this sense, we believe that one of the most insightful and pragmatic approaches to reconciling aspects of the ‘mindfulness definition debate’ is the one taken by Professor Nirbhay Singh (a leading mindfulness expert) and his team. According to Professor Singh and colleagues, “the definition of mindfulness will vary depending on whether one is interested in mindfulness from a social psychological, clinical, or spiritual context, or from the perspective of a researcher, clinician, or a practitioner, and their various combinations”.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

 

Further Reading

 

  1. Bodhi, B. (Ed.). (2009). Majjhima Nikaya: The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (4th ed.). (Bhikkhu Bodhi, & Bhikkhu Nanamoli, Trans.) Massachusetts: Wisdom Publications. (see the satipattana sutra [sutra no. 10] and the anapanasati sutra [sutra no. 118])
  2. Chah, A. (2011). The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah. Northumberland: Aruna Publications.
  3. Dalai Lama, & Berzin, A. (1997). The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra. New York: Snow Lion Publications.
  4. Dorjee, D. (2010). Kinds and dimensions of mindfulness: Why it is important to distinguish them. Mindfulness, 1, 152-160.
  5. Gethin, R. (2011). On some definitions of mindfulness. Contemporary Buddhism, 12, 263-279.
  6. Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. New York: Hyperion.
  7. Kang, C., & Whittingham, K. (2010). Mindfulness: A dialogue between Buddhism and clinical psychology. Mindfulness, 1, 161-173.
  8. Nhat Hanh, T. (1999). The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy and Liberation. New York: Broadway Books.
  9. Rosch, E. (2007). More than mindfulness: when you have a tiger by the tail, let it eat you. Psychological Inquiry, 18, 258-264.
  10. Singh, N. N., Lancioni, G. E., Wahler, R. G., Winton, A. S., & Singh, J. (2008). Mindfulness approaches in cognitive behavior therapy. Behavioral and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 36, 1-8.
  11. Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013d). Mindfulness-based interventions: Towards mindful clinical integration. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 194, DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00194.
  12. Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Sumich, A., Sundin, E., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Meditation Awareness Training (MAT) for psychological wellbeing in a sub-clinical sample of university students: A controlled pilot study. Mindfulness, DOI: 10.1007/s12671-012-0191-5.