Wednesday, July 23, 2008

What’s the Buzz about Mindfulness?

In America, mindfulness has been a buzz word since the 80’s and it is just as strong now as it was when it first appeared on the scene. Usually, a buzz word’s life span is pretty short. There is no doubt that mindfulness has staying power. Even though mindfulness has only been in the USA for a few decades, it has fascinated cultures around the world for thousands of years. Currently, there are a group of scientists who are trying to understand what exactly it is about mindfulness that makes people feel so good. The purpose of this essay is define and draw a distinction between mindfulness and meditation. 

Mindfulness is a good term because it implies that people can control their bodily drives by applying their mind in a particular way. It shares many qualities with self-regulation, and all people need that kind of reassurance. In fact, many human pursuits attempt to impose some type of regulatory principle over the body’s “evil” defaults of carelessness and selfishness. In Eastern mindfulness practices, there is a place for the mind to share in the internal regulation of bodily functions not just simply behavior modification. Unfortunately, many people confuse the terms mindfulness and meditation. They are often used synonymously but there are major differences. Mindfulness has been defined many ways. The most common definition is by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who defines mindfulness “as paying attention in a particular way on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” Ellen Langer and Herbert Benson were some of the first people to explore this phenomenon. In her 1974 bestselling book “Mindfulness,” she gives us many related phrases like “being open to process.” Later in her 2000 paper on the construct of mindfulness, Langer states her definition this way: “The concept of mindfulness can be best understood as the process of drawing novel distinctions.” Herbert Benson went a different route. He looked at the physiological measures of meditation and found that meditation lowers the heart rate. He called this process the “relaxation response” (Benson & Wallace, 1972). Langer’s and Kabat-Zinn’s definitions make similar points. Langer’s “process of drawing novel distinctions” and Zinn’s “paying attention to things we ordinarily never give a moment’s notice to” propose that the mechanism of action within mindfulness is a cognitive one, while Benson relies more on physiological correlations. 

As you can see, there is still a lot of confusion surrounding the definition of mindfulness. It is a relatively new concept to the West and there are many components to mindfulness. In fact, mindfulness is such a broad term that it maybe impossible to truly define. One important point to bring up is that there are two meanings to mindfulness. First and foremost, it refers to a state of being in which one is being very careful and focusing attention on the task at hand while still keeping the mind open to new possibilities (my definition). Secondly, when many people use the term they actually mean meditation. Meditation is defined as a technique for self-induced manipulation of awareness. When the definition says, “technique,” it is referring to any activity such as, walking, sitting, moving, doing the dishes, and even lying down; really any action that requires intense focus with the intended purpose of altering consciousness.  So when athletes mention “being in the zone” they are talking about a special moment when then are deeply focused and all actions seem effortless and coordinated. My definition of meditation is a category of techniques that build self regulatory awareness over the mind and body, while maintaining a mind open to new possibilities.   

While teaching Tai Chi for the past 7 years, I became interested in how Tai Chi could develop a type of control over the body’s movements. One could control the distribution of weight from one part of their body to another. This more subtle level of control is a skill and it takes time to develop which is rather useful when one has an injury. If the front of one’s knee has a strain, that person could redistribute the weight towards the muscles in back of their knee and avoid re-injuring the front. The interesting element here is that people can intentionally regulate which part of the body received the majority of force or weight. Based on my experience and research in mindfulness meditation, it appears to me that meditation is the same technique of dispersion that is done with the body, only applied to the mind. It has been demonstrated in psychology that people often focus on a small portion of reality when speaking about it in the past tense. That theory is called, focalism. If mindfulness allows a person the ability to shift the attention to other aspects and broaden or enrich the person’s perception of reality in the present moment, then it is a similar tool as Tai Chi. 

I believe that shifting attention happens because of the sensory systems of the brain. Humans have five sensory systems, an optical, auditory, olfactory, gustatory and finally, somatosensory or touch. It is here in the very order that these senses are listed in every scientific text published, is also where our problem begins. Our culture is so visually and auditorily oriented that we suppress or ignore the other senses. When we have a problem we deal with it in our limited ways. This happens so many times we develop a repetitive motion injury of the mind. Our thinking becomes fixated on a narrow set of information and then we have trouble seeing beyond our problem or obstacle. We remain inside a small box. Mindfulness allows an opportunity for the other senses to contribute to our perception of the moment. We feel things emotionally and physically, we also hear things from outside this narrow margin of reality that our cognitive resources confine us to. Mindfulness opens up that door to other possibilities. It brings us outside that proverbial box. Also, we have to mention other possible senses that are not yet recognized scientifically. Although, this might make some scientists wince it is important to understand that things like, x-rays and wireless were science fiction, not too long ago. So that wince could slow the advancement of science. We must remain open to the possibility of other senses if we are to discover them. 

Finally, we could sum up that mindfulness is a large umbrella term that entails many components—for example, some type of “special awareness,” an internal sensory awareness with an external cognitive lens that allows out-of-the-box thinking. There is also a relaxation component and some physiological skills as well, such as posture and breathing; these components of mindfulness work together to assist in regulating these powerful biological determinants. Meditations have a different focus, referring to a specific means, where as mindfulness is a general state of being; a tactics vs. strategy kind of thing, meditation being the tactic and mindfulness being the overall strategy. With meditation, one could be more cognitive in nature while another is more physical. There are many components of a meditation practice, such as breathing, posture, relaxation, and usually a lecture giving instructions on how to deal with thoughts, especially emotionally-charged ones but they are focused. In mindfulness anything could be done mindfully from throwing out the garbage to painting a wall to sitting in a temple in front of a statue of the Buddha. The meditation would be called throwing out the garbage meditation, or painting wall meditation if of course they were performed mindfully. So here we are, meditation is the vehicle with the aim of achieving a state of being called mindfulness. 

1 comment:

  1. I am going to rewrite this to make it more readable.