The "mindfulness" revolution

“Whether you walk, stand, sit, lie down, or sleep, whether you stretch or bend your limbs, whether you look around, whether you put on your clothes, whether you talk or keep silent, whether you eat or drink—even whether you answer the call of nature—in these and other activities you should be fully aware and mindful of the act performed at the moment. That is to say, that you should live in the present moment, in the present action.”

(Rahula 1959)

Mindfulness as a concept is not new, as the quotation from Rahula reveals. However, the explosion of interest in mindfulness, to the point where it is now such a well-known concept, very much is. Formal definitions include “moment by moment awareness” (Germer et al. 2005); “paying attention with purpose, non-judgmentally, and while in the present moment” (Kabat-Zinn 2005); and “the bringing of one’s awareness to current experience through observing and attending to the changing field of thoughts, feelings and sensations from moment to moment” (Bishop et al. 2004).

The growth in interest in mindfulness arose from clinical applications, led particularly by Jon Kabat-Zinn (1990, 1994, 2003), who saw it as a practice to promote full awareness of the present moment with the intention of embodying an orientation of calm and equanimity. At the same time another stream of mindfulness research in psychology was flowing, and not springing from a meditation source. The work of Ellen Langer contrasted mindfulness and choice with mindlessness, and prescribed actively drawing novel distinctions in our experience of the world by being in the present moment, staying open to novelty, maintaining alertness to distinctions, nurturing sensitivity to different contexts, and developing awareness of multiple perspectives (Ie et al 2014a). This less well known concept of mindfulness involves a heightened sense of awareness through maintaining an open awareness of novel information and forming new categories out of one’s experience.

Here we focus on the concept of mindfulness springing from the meditative traditions—the more widely known approach and most germane to the content of this book. Kabat-Zinn initially defined this as “placing one’s attention and awareness in the present moment with an attitude of non-judgemental acceptance”

  • (Kabat-Zinn et al. 1985). Research by Kabat-Zinn and others suggested that mindfulness practice could be helpful for those experiencing chronic pain (Kabat-Zinn 1982), major depression (Teasdale et al. 2000), anxiety (Kabat-Zinn et al. 1992), and substance abuse (Bowen et al. 2006; Brewer et al. 2009). This mindful practice has four elements:
    • 1 Awareness—of all possible experiences such as sensations in the body, thoughts, emotions, sights, and sounds. It might include awareness of what otherwise would be behaviors we would not normally be aware of, such as intergroup bias: “I am having thoughts and reactions to this person because I know this person is a Muslim and I would not normally be aware of reacting automatically in this way"
    • 2 Sustained attention—this involves gently but firmly bringing attention back to the current moment; reducing rumination; reducing anxious thoughts about the future; and bringing attention back to the here and now.
    • 3 Focus on the present moment—rather than becoming immersed or lost in thoughts about the past, the future, plans, and preoccupations.
    • 4 Non-judgmental acceptance—this involves not making judgments about experience; not labeling or reacting to experience in the current moment as good or bad, desirable or undesirable, but instead allowing experiences to arise without blocking, controlling, changing, or avoiding them.

Mindfulness practice has since been applied in a wide range of clinical settings— in therapy (McCracken 2014), anxiety (Woodruff et al. 2014), post-traumatic stress disorder (Wahbeh 2014), chronic illness (Phillips and Pagnini 2014), eating disorders (Kristeller and Epel 2014), pregnancy (Zilcha-Mano 2014), womens sexual dysfunction (Brotto and Smith 2014), and, ofcourse, stress (Crum and Lyddy 2014).

Meditation versus mindfulness—what is the difference then? It is clear from our review of meditation practices across cultures and history that mindfulness has long been a practice in many different traditions. And part of mindfulness practice in modern settings is having times of formal practice of mindfulness—time sitting and focusing on the breath, the body, sensations, or awareness, as well as mindfulness of experience through the day. So meditation and mindfulness overlap. Many meditation practices, if not all, involve mindfulness—awareness, sustained attention, focus on the present moment, and non-judgmental acceptance.

Therefore, when we try to distinguish between meditation and mindfulness we are distinguishing between the water flowing at overlapping stretches of the same stream. Yes, mindfulness practice is very much about developing awareness of each moment throughout the day, but the purpose of sitting meditation is also to increase the meditator’s awareness of the moment (or God, love, compassion, or whatever). Mindfulness practiced in clinical settings is secular rather than spiritual in orientation, so there is that difference.

However, the reality is that meditation and mindfulness are simply different names for overlapping concepts and practices. Meditation refers mostly (but far from exclusively) to sitting in formal meditation practice, silent and still. Mindfulness mostly refers to maintaining awareness moment by moment in daily living (but this is usually only possible through the regular practice of sitting meditation). They are fundamentally interwoven concepts.

In this book, the contributors will use the terms they choose and make clear what practice they are describing, regardless of the name they choose (meditation or mindfulness).

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