CNMB Lab, Nashville, TN

What is Mindfulness?

Cognitive, Affective, & Contemplative Neuroscience Research

Contemporary usage of the term mindfulness in clinical settings has its roots in Buddhist contemplative practices that outline a systematic form of training of the mind involving meditation. In the classical Buddhist context, the term meditation is used to translate the Sanskrit term bhävana and its Tibetan equivalent, sgoms. Etymologically, the Sanskrit term connotes the notion of “cultivation,” or “causing to become” and the Tibetan equivalent, refers to “development of familiarity”. Thus, mindfulness is originally conceptualized through a framework for developing familiarity with one’s mind. 

It is also helpful to note that Contemplative practice, in general, refers to a particular form of observation in which there is a total devotion to revealing, clarifying, and making manifest the nature of reality. Buddhist scholar, Alan Wallace goes into detail about the concept of “contemplation” in science in his book, “Contemplative Science“.

The word mindfulness has been literally translated from the Pali root, sati, (or Sanskrit translation, smṛti; Tibetan, dran pa), meaning “that which is remembered”. The term is closely related to the verb sarati referring to the process, “to remember”. The concept of mindfulness has its roots in the classical Buddhist Abhidhamma and is described at length in various Buddhist texts, including “The Heart of Buddhist Meditation” (Thera, 1962), the “Visuddhimagga” (the path of purification) (Buddhaghosa, 1991), and the Satipatthāna sutta (“the foundation [or presence] of mindfulness”) (Analayo, 2003). From the classical Buddhist context, views on the concept of mindfulness vary considerably (Dreyfus, 2011; Dunne, 2011), although most agree the Satipatthāna is one of the most influential texts that describes the practice of mindfulness as both a state of awareness and path for “cessation of suffering”, “awakening” or “realization”. The path includes the state of  mindfulness as a critical and essential factor, but along with  a set of mental processes or factors that must co-arise together. For example, the majority of schools of Buddhism describe the concept of mindfulness as one of four essential mental factors: (1) mindfulness; (2) balanced application of effort (Pali: atapi); (3) an equanimous state of concentration (Pali/Sanskrit: samadhi) free of desire (Pali: abhijha) and discontent (Pali: domanassa); and (4) a form of wisdom or “discriminating alertness” (Pali: sampajana). Also described as “clear comprehension”, some scholars will fuse sati with sampajaña (sati-sampajaña) to illustrate the compound nature of the concepts. Apart from being a basic mental factor, the state of mindfulness is also thought to have the critical quality of monitoring the development and balance of the other three faculties. Furthermore, the Buddhist definition of right mindfulness is ethically discerning, noting the distinction between wholesome and unwholesome states of mind, and then cultivating the former while rejecting the latter. Thus, mindfulness becomes a state of awareness with discernment – rooted in an ethical framework.

You may be keenly aware that there are many uses of mindfulness in secular settings and it is defined in ways that capture elements of the Buddhist dharma, but with less continuity or intensity by which it is cultivated through meditative practice and/or commitment to the dharma. In order to avoid too much confusion between contemporary and historical accounts, we need only to understand the differences in context, content, and process by which we refer to the concept.

The common everyday usage of mindfulness:

• Most dictionaries describe mindfulness as “Being aware, heedful or careful of something (to be mindful of the danger).”
• “The trait of staying aware of (paying close attention) to your responsibilities.”
• Langer (1978): The counterpart to mindlessness; continual categorization and labeling of experience, seeing multiple views, developing sensitivity to context
• Linehan (DBT-1993): “Learning to observe and describe events and personal responses in words

As clinicians, researchers, and basic scientists, we are slowly operationalizing the concept of mindfulness as a state, trait, and process for stabilizing the mind and developing insight. In doing so in a clinical context, in a neurphenomenological context, or in a context that is related to the nature of mind, it is repeatedly emphasized that we consider the historical and cultural context from which the term arises and clearly distinguish it from common, everyday usage, and from secular practices like:

Progressive Muscle Relaxation (E.Jacobson)

PMR was originally developed by Edmund Jacobson in 1925 as a technique to gain introspective control over tension.

Biofeedback-induced relaxation                                                            

Situational Awareness (E. Langer and M.R. Endsley)

“When we are mindful, we implicitly or explicitly (1) view a situation from several perspectives, (2) see information presented in the situation as novel,(3) attend to the context in which we perceive the information, and eventually (4) create new categories through which this information may be understood.” (Langer,1997, p.111)

Langer also likens the construct of mindfulness as the process of drawing novel distinctions. “Actively drawing distinctions keeps us situated in the present. It also makes us more aware of the context and perspective of our actions than if we rely upon distinctions and categories drawn in the past” (Langer & Moldoveanu, 2000)

Relaxation Response (H.Benson)

These practices all involve:

Cultivation of Mental Discipline, primarily through discursive strategies.
Heightened ability to stop and start thoughts and emotions
Reduced susceptibility to mental habits; increased ability to develop new habits. Any similarities with the state of discriminating attention to the present moment as described by the Buddhist satipatthana can be described simply as a difference in intensity and continuity in which the state is cultivated or experienced.

An Integrative Definition of Mindfulness?

Our interpretation of mindfulness as a path for reducing suffering and sustaining a healthy mind provides an empirical framework of self-awareness, regulation, and transcendence (S-ART) to illustrate a method for becoming aware of [and familiar with] the conditions which cause [and remove] distortions or biases in the individual‘s construction of his or her external or internal experience. Through training in FA, OM, and EE styles of meditation, a sustainable healthy mind is proposed to be supported – reducing maladaptive emotions and cognitions common to most ordinary experience, such as lustful desire, greed, anger, hatred, worry, etc., increasing pro-social dispositions (e.g., compassion, empathy, forgiveness) towards self and other, reducing attachments to thoughts and feelings, and removing biases inherent in habitual forms of cognition.

Although the state of mindfulness has its roots in a number of specific processes related to memory and attention, the concept is more broadly applied as a process/method for stabilizing the mind and developing insight. This process can refer to the quality with which one brings awareness to objects of attention, and in other contexts as the path for reducing suffering and achieving non-dualistic forms of experience. As we continue to investigate mindfulness as an integrative process and method and distinguish the method from the state of awareness, we will better grasp the subtleties of the concept and be able to measure it more effectively and objectively than through self-report measures. Thus, our operationalization of mindfulness does not come from any single process of memory or attention but is best conceptualized through a systems-based framework for a number of different cognitive, psychological, and biological processes involved in cultivating mindfulness as a state and trait and through a systematic form of training the mind that is rooted in an ethical framework. We can then better understand any other contemporary form of mindfulness as an adaptation of this conceptualization and which differs in context, content, and process.

The method of mindfulness cultivation is traditionally described through concentrative and receptive forms of meditation practice, two types of meditation that were originally described by the Buddha’s first and to some, most sacred, discourse, the satipathana sutta, the “setting up or foundation of mindfulness” or more appropriately translated, “direct path for realization”.

see vol 12 (2011) of Contemporary Buddhism for some great commentary on the difficulty of operationalizing mindfulness [Link]:

  • Dreyfus, G. (2011). “Is mindfulness present-centred and non-judgmental? A discussion of the cognitive dimensions of mindfulness.” Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12(1): 41 – 54.
  • Dunne, J. (2011). “Toward an understanding of non-dual mindfulness.” Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12(1): 71 – 88.
  • Williams, J. M. G. and J. Kabat-Zinn (2011). “Mindfulness: diverse perspectives on its meaning, origins, and multiple applications at the intersection of science and dharma.” Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12(1): 1 –
  • Gethin, R. (2011). “On some definitions of mindfulness.” Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12(1): 263 – 279.
Kabat-Zinn (2005) defines mindfulness broadly in his book, “Coming to Our Senses” as:

moment-to-moment, non-judgemental awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a specific way, that is, in the present moment, and as non-reactively, as non-judgementally, and openheartedly as possible. When it is cultivated intentionally, it is sometimes referred to as deliberate mindfulness. When it spontaneously arises, as it tends to do more and more the more it is cultivated intentionally, it is sometimes referred to as effortless mindfulness.

Alan Wallace (2006) defines mindfulness [from the context of samatha practice] as “Non-conceptual [meta-]awareness that does not label or categorize experiences and involves attending continuously to a familiar object, without forgetfulness or distraction”

Steven C. Hayes, 1999 defines a two-component model of mindfulness:

(a) the intentional self-regulation of attention to facilitate greater awareness of bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions; and (b) a specific quality of attention characterized by endeavoring to connect with each object in one’s awareness (e.g., each bodily sensation, thought, or emotion) with curiosity, acceptance, and openness to experience. Such a state involves an active process of relating openly with one’s current experience by allowing current thoughts, feelings, and sensations

Scott Bishop (2004) defines mindfulness practice as:

An intentional, reflective style of introspection or self-observation that differs from concentrative meditation. Concentrative practices involve maintaining one’s attention on a single focus of awareness such as a single word or phrase, a candle flame, or even one’s own breathing (e.g., transcendental meditation, breath meditation). Although mindfulness, or insight meditation, also includes some concentrative practices,the focus of attention is unrestricted such that the meditator develops an awareness of one’s present experience, including thoughts, feelings, or physical sensations as they consciously occur on a moment-by-moment basis. Scott’s citation can be found HERE.

Andrea Grabovac published an very insightful Buddhist psychological model of mindfulness (2011) and elaborates upon it at depth on her blog [Link]. She breaks mindfulness down into a simplified process of self-regulation of attention and open orientation to experience

In order to put these sensitive semantic issues in proper context, I also would like to provide you with an excerpt from a paper (Is Meditation a Means of Knowing our Mental World?) written by Thupten Jinpa, Institute of Tibetan Classics, McGill University:

The word meditation in a contemporary cultural context often has the connotation of doing something special to calm the mind or to try and achieve some form of altered state of consciousness. One obvious fact that we tend to forget is that “meditation” is actually an English term and that, when applying it to convey a core element of Eastern spiritual practice, such as that of Buddhism, there might involve unrecognized conflation of meanings. In the classical Buddhist context, however, the term meditation is used to translate the Sanskrit term bhävana and its Tibetan equivalent gom (spelt sgoms). Etymologically, the Sanskrit term connotes the notion of “cultivation,” while its Tibetan equivalent gom carries the idea of developing “familiarity,” together implying the idea of some kind of repetitive process of cultivating a familiarity, whether it is with respect to a habit, a way of seeing, or a way of being. In its actual usage, however, the term gom is applied not only to the process of “cultivation” or “development of familiarity,” it is also applied to the resultant states achieved through such processes. So, in this sense, meditation can refer both to the practice of disciplined cultivation as well as the cultivated result of such a discipline. One can also extend the definition: we are all cultivating our minds in one way or another all the time. The quality of our lives reflects the ways we have cultivated our minds until now.

One MUST understand the cultural sensitivities involved in the introduction of these practices and therefore encourage you all to approach “mindfulness” and “contemplative practice” as a respectful anthropologist would treat an encounter with an indigenous culture (as Jon K-Z would say), while being careful to not unwittingly ignore or dismiss the deepest and most subtle features of such practices.

Great commentary by Shinzen Young at the Cognitive-Affective & Contemplative Neuroscience Lab:

[vimeo w=500&h=281]


Feel free to comment and Stay tuned for future updates

4 Responses

  1. rinchen says:

    I think mindfulness is a mental skill that brings back our attention to object; and it is one type of mental factors, that’s it! If you say how many functions or characters does the mindfulness have ? for me, that is another question, because it depends on our practice, different mental states involve different mindfulness skill, for instance, meditate on impermanence and emptiness come up with different mindfulness, because it is parts of awareness and intelligence, always!

  2. one other thing to keep in mind when conceptualizing mindfulness is its use as a state or trait. As a state of mindfulness, it can be conceptualized as Rinchen mentions…as a quality of the mind or mental faculty that co-arises with 3 other qualities: diligence, wisdom, and equanimous freedom from desire and discontent. In this context, the state of mindfulness is a form of awareness and can be more appropriately labeled, “mindful awareness” —- The four qualities can be thought of as qualities that compose a method for developing the mind – such a method can also take the broader definition of mindfulness as a means to developing and sustaining a healthy mind. This method is also described to be applied towards four central domains: the body, feeling states, ethical qualities of mind, and any object of mind that arises.

    so when I say I am mindful…it can translate to the following:
    Here I am mindfully aware….in each breath…before I even know it…my attention is expanded – effortlessly conserving cognitive resources – it is more diffuse and alert to a higher resolution of my phenomenal experience – I am efficiently monitoring and evaluating – rapidly discriminating features of the environment as novel or familiar – maintaining equanimity while inhibiting impulses without awareness – the clarity of my senses is intense and unbiased – providing stable emotion to feed the exhale and awareness of the my surroundings without fixating on any thought or sensation.

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