What is Mindfulness?

Excerpt from Master's Degree thesis on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. (© 2005, David A. Spound)

What is Mindfulness?

In studies related to possible health benefits such as stress reduction, researchers have grouped meditation techniques into two main categories: concentration and mindfulness. Transcendental Meditation (TM) and Dr. Herbert Benson's Relaxation Response technique are examples of concentration meditation, described by Psychologist Greg Bogart (1991) as a technique in which the practitioner,

fixes the mind on a single object such as the breath or a mantra and attempts to exclude all other thoughts from awareness... Concentration practices suppress ordinary mental functioning, restrict attention to one point, and induce states of absorption characterized by tranquility and bliss.

Mindfulness meditation differs from concentration practices such as TM in that the intention is to be fully aware of all thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations as they are, rather than attempting to change one's state of consciousness through concentrated attention. They do not involve suppression or exclusion. The purpose, according to Brantley (n.d), is to, "develop and nourish present moment awareness. They encourage paying attention in a way so as to be more aware in the present moment of all that is here, and of the constantly changing nature of what is here."

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., having studied and taught meditation and yoga for many years, and having conducted and participated in many clinical studies on the effectiveness of such techniques, has become one of the most widely quote authorities on mindfulness practices. He describes mindfulness as arising from:

paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. This kind of attention nurtures greater awareness, clarity, and acceptance of present-moment reality. It wakes us up to the fact that our lives unfold only in moments. If we are not fully present for many of those moments, we may not only miss what is most valuable in our lives but also fail to realize the richness and the depth of our possibilities for growth and transformation.
(Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p.4)

In terms of the actual practice, Kabat-Zinn (Goleman & Gurin, 1993) offers this description of mindfulness meditation as taught in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programs:

You begin by utilizing one-pointed attention to cultivate calmness and stability, but then you move beyond that by introducing a wider scope to the observing, as well as an element of inquiry. When thoughts or feelings come up in your mind, you don't ignore or suppress them, nor do you judge or analyze their content. Rather, you simply note any thoughts as they occur as best you can and observe them intentionally but nonjudgmentally, moment by moment, as events in the field of your awareness. (p. 262)

Typically, this one-pointed attention is achieved by focusing on the breath. "The breath functions as an anchor for [one's] attention" (Kabat-Zinn, 1990, p. 52).

Breathing is fundamental to life... As a rule, we don't pay much attention to it unless we are choking or drowning, or have allergies or a bad cold. But imagine resting in an awareness of breathing. To do so requires first that we feel the breath and afford it a place in the field of awareness, which is always changing in terms of what the mind or the body or the world offers up to divert and distract our attention. (Kabat-Zinn, 2005, p. 76)

According to Brantley (2003), a significant effect of utilizing such techniques to reconnect to the present moment is that:

the natural ability of the mind and body to calm can arise. Also, very importantly, with the breath as your focus of attention, there is an immediate shift in perspective. You are now capable of taking a different relationship to all the other elements of your life experience present in the moment. It becomes possible for you to see them just as they are. This means that you are able to come in to relationship to them and are no long living from them or as them. (p. 106)

Joan Borysenko, Ph.D. (1987), a psychologist and longtime researcher in the field of psychoneuroimmunology, believes that this quality of seeing things as they are, is essential if one is to deal with stress effectively:

The only escape from stress, fear and doubt is to confront them directly and see them for what they are. Attempts to hide from stress can only have brief apparent effectiveness. In actuality, hiding strengthens the original fear and heightens the sense of helplessness and inability to cope. Attempts to avoid stress through drugs, alcohol, or repressions weaken self-esteem. Repression is a mind/body mine field. Becoming unconscious of anything renders you blind and out of control, leading to mental and physical explosions which seem to have no basis since you have chosen not to look. Fears that are faced, even if the act is difficult, lead to transformation of attitudes, leaving you with an increased sense of self-worth, control, and inner strength. (p. 209)

Kabat-Zinn agrees with this perspective which is why mindfulness meditation is at the heart of the stress reduction program he designed:

An integral part of mindfulness practice is to face, accept, and even welcome your tension, stress, and physical pain, as well as mind states such as fear, anger, frustration, disappointment, and feelings of insecurity and unworthiness when they are present. Why? Because acknowledging present-moment reality as it actually is, whether it is pleasant or unpleasant, is the first step toward transforming that reality and your relationship to it. (Goleman & Gurin, 1993, p. 261)

Current medical research shows that such a practice, over time, actually alters how our brains function, according to Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., a psychologist, researcher, and widely published author:

The good news is that the brain is plastic throughout life—it is shaped through repeated training and experience. That means we can acquire emotional skills. Mindfulness is a good example—the ability to notice what is going on as it arises and to pause before we respond is a crucial emotional skill. Mindful meditation has been discovered to foster the ability to inhibit those very quick emotional impulses. (Hughes, n.d.)

One of Goleman's best known publications is his 1995 book Emotional Intelligence. In defining his subject, he states that,

Self-awareness—recognizing a feeling as it happens—is the keystone of emotional intelligence... the ability to monitor feelings from moment to moment is crucial to psychological insight and self-understanding. An inability to notice our true feelings leaves us at their mercy. (p. 43)

The Harvard Women's Health Watch (2004) cites evidence that mindfulness practice can help, "increase our enjoyment of life, expand our capacity to cope with illness, and possibly improve our physical and emotional health. While it doesn't replace traditional therapies and medications, it can reduce stress and may help other treatments work better" (p. 1).

Kabat-Zinn, Saki Santorelli, Ed.D., Jeff Brantley, M.D., and others who teach MBSR have written about how patients such as those with chronic pain are able to reduce their apparent levels of suffering. Kabat-Zinn observed,

Over time we have found that systematic mindfulness practice can help people come to see their discomfort as physical sensations that are separate and distinguishable from the negative emotions, thoughts and interpretations those sensations often generate. This change in perception can lead to a more neutral and accepting perspective on the pain itself... and is usually enough to help people go on to develop effective practical strategies for living with significant chronic pain and the limitations it imposes, so that the pain need not totally dominate their existence and erode the quality of their lives. (Goleman & Gurin, 1993, p. 269)

Santorelli (1999) says the most profound benefits of mindfulness practice are often the unexpected, rather than the ones practioners initially set as goals:

Certainly, all of us want relief from pain and physical illness, but the relief of suffering, even if there is little change in physical pain, is a healing balm, a transformation beyond expectation. Most often when this occurs it is because we touch something deeper and more fundamental within ourselves. We feel connected, whole, filled with an undeniable sense of belonging, no matter what the condition of the body. (p. 120)

Click this link for a list of references.


“Mind and body are inextricably linked, and their second-by-second interaction exerts a profound influence upon health and illness, life and death.”
Kenneth Pelletier, PhD.,
Stanford Medical School



“Mindfulness provides a simple but powerful route for getting ourselves unstuck, back into touch with our own wisdom and vitality. It is a way to take charge of the direction and quality of our own lives.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D.



Meditation can reduce anxiety, stress, blood pressure, chronic pain, and insomnia.
American Cancer Society






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