Unpacking the Meaning of Mindfulness.
The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence.
No longer the exclusive purview of the skinny-jeans-wearing-yoga-mat-toting-chai–latte-drinking-hipster, mindfulness has nosed its way into the mainstream and is now being touted as an indispensable mental training tool used by the likes of professional athletes and Fortune 50 CEOs. These days it seems almost shameful to admit to not having a regular mindfulness practice.
But what exactly is this thing we call mindfulness?
In this article, I will attempt to bring some conceptual clarity to the subject by first chronicling the emergence of the word mindfulness in the popular lexicon and then examining recent attempts by researchers to establish a consensus operational definition.
Back to the Source
If you want to determine the fundamental meaning of a word, perhaps the best place to start is at the beginning – to track down the origin of the word and discover the reason for its coinage.
The first use of mindfulness (with its modern meaning) can be traced to 1881 when T.W. Rhys Davids, a British scholar of the Pali language used in Buddhist texts, chose mindfulness as an approximate translation of the Pali word sati. Because sati has no precise single-word equivalent in English (as is often the case with imported words), Davids’ translation has been the subject of intense scrutiny and debate (see Gethin, 2011).
While “attention” or “awareness” are frequently offered as alternative translations, some Buddhist scholars have repeatedly cautioned that sati also carries the connotation of “remembrance” or “recollection” – not in the sense of recalling past historical events, but in the sense of remembering to be present with one’s immediate experience as opposed to being lost in ruminative thought.
Mindfulness’ Big Break
Following Davids’ translation, the word mindfulness existed in relative obscurity for nearly a century until Jon Kabat-Zinn, the widely recognized “father of mindfulness,” stumbled upon it in 1972.
Kabat-Zinn, an avid practitioner and teacher of meditation, saw in this innocuous-sounding word an opportunity to relieve meditation of its spiritual baggage and make the practice of meditation more palatable to a secular-minded Western audience bent on personal growth and achievement.
Mindfulness was well on its way to becoming an American brand.
Countering the Intuitive
Despite its successful transition from hippie festivals to business conferences, mindfulness has not completely shed its roots in new age spirituality. Teachers often speak about mindfulness using inscrutable terms like “intuitive” and “pre-conceptual,” arguing that mindfulness cannot be described in words but rather must be directly experienced. It is a “way of being” – one of those “you know it when you feel it” sort-a-things.
Consider the following description from the White Wind Zen Community based in Ottawa, Ontario:
“Mindfulness is wordless. Mindfulness is meeting the moment as it is, moment after moment after moment, wordlessly attending to our experiencing as it actually is. It is opening to not just the fragments of our lives that we like or dislike or view as important, but the whole of our experiencing.”
Such flowing language, though quite eloquent and perhaps even accurate, simply does not lend itself to the sort of fine-grained analysis we are after here. We must take something that is smack dab in the heart of metaphysics and attempt to bring it under the purview of rational scientific scrutiny. We are tasked, as Alan Watts so aptly put it, with “effing the ineffable.”
Effing the Ineffable
A quick web search for the meaning of mindfulness returns a dizzying array of definitions. Nearly early every major player in the mindfulness game has provided their own unique spin on the term, with varying levels of woo to satisfy any taste. Perhaps the most commonly cited definition of mindfulness was provided by none other than the granddaddy of mindfulness himself, Jon Kabat-Zinn:
This definition was a step in the rational direction because it makes an attempt to pare the experience of mindfulness down to its essential features. But it does not go quite far enough for those who want to get their scientific talons around it. Around the turn of the millennium, researchers began to recognize the need to operationalize mindfulness in order to establish consistency across theory, research, and practice. In science-speak, operational means precise and measurable.
A group of clinical psychologists came together and proposed a model of mindfulness comprising two essential components: self-regulation of attention and orientation to experience (see Bishop et al., 2004)
For the sake of simplicity, I will call these two facets awareness and acceptance.
Thought can organize the world so well that you are no longer able to see it.
~Anthony De Mello~
Awareness refers to a quality of consciousness (one that is exceedingly rare) in which life is experienced directly rather than through a screen of concepts or as a bundle of projections of our expectations, desires, fears, and aversions.
There is nothing particularly spooky or abstruse about this idea. Such complete absorption in present-moment experience is at the heart of the flow state, one of the most well-researched topics in positive psychology.
By becoming more aware of what is occurring within and around us, we can begin to untangle ourselves from our mental preoccupations and the difficult emotions that stem from them.
Simple but not easy, realizing this sort of undivided attention requires quieting the incessant rambling of our perpetually evaluative minds.
When you argue with reality you lose, but only 100% of the time.
Acceptance is a tricky word. I am using it here because it is the word most often used to describe the attitude that one is supposed to adopt toward present moment experience.
The problem with the word acceptance is that many people often conflate it with the worn-out platitude “it is what it is,” which conveys a sense of resignation and lack of agency that is not intended here.
What we are trying to describe is simply a non-evaluative approach to experience in which we can allow things to be as they are without indulging our compulsive desire to label things as good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, desirable or undesirable.
Acceptance means adopting a stance of open curiosity to whatever is happening in each moment rather than fighting against it or wanting it to be different.
In this article, I traced the history of the term mindfulness from its historical roots in Buddhist teaching to the most up-to-date definition used in clinical psychology research.
If we are trying to be as scientific about this as possible (we are by the way), mindfulness amounts to the intentional self-regulation of attention so that it is directed toward present moment awareness and characterized by non-evaluative acceptance of experience as it is.
In the end, mindfulness means full engagement with our experience as it is rather than the story we tell about it. It involves the recognition that you need not be perpetually identified with or held captive by your thoughts. It means stopping, even if only in brief spurts, the running narrative of me, my, and mine that is the source of most of our collective suffering.
With you in the pursuit,
References and Suggested Reading:
On Some Definitions of Mindfulness, by Rupert Gethin, 2011
Wherever You Go, There You Are, by Jon Kabat-Zinn, 1994
Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition, by Bishop et al, 2004