Mindfulness - the new must do mystery

Written on the 11 April 2016

Mindfulness seems to be the new "The Secret." Everyone is talking about, "it is just about being more mindful." Approving heads nodding in agreement around the coffee table or at networking events. 

Mindfulness is often spoken in the same breath as wellbeing, resilience, happiness and the good life, it seems that everyone is "being more mindful and loving it.

What exactly is this mindfulness? Probably because of my well-known association with applied positive psychology, I am often asked this question, usually, in hushed whispers or covert conversations. Apparently it is not cool to have to ask what mindfulness is, and hence, an air of mystery separates the mindful from the mob.

It is one of those things that "everyone" is doing. If you have to ask what it is, you must be on the outer. But, you're probably doing it too - you're just not mindful of it!

Mindfulness is paying attention to what is happening to you now.

Mindfulness is paying attention to your own ongoing experience in real time. It is being totally present and aware as you go about your daily activities. Being mindful allows for openness and flexibility of mind.

When people are mindful they are open to new experiences and points of view, able to create new thought patterns and process information differently (neural connections).

In a mindful state, you can pay attention to your life process and living experiences in the moment, and reflect on how that experience impacts or will impact your outcomes or goal attainment.

Still not sure? Let's look at the opposite to mindfulness, which is mindlessness. A state of mindlessness our thoughts wander, we are not paying attention to what's going on around us, we are "miles away" or "spaced out."

It is impossible actively process all the information that comes to us every moment of the day. On the other hand, when we live in a chronic state of mindlessness, we are on automatic pilot and respond habitually to our world without thinking about what we are actually doing or saying.

Are you starting to see how being mindful enables us more, and often better, options and choices as to how we respond?  Respond (verb - do something as a reaction to someone or something)

The confusion with the concept of mindfulness comes from two somewhat different definitions and research traditions on mindfulness.

The first perspective comes from Eastern psychology, specifically  Buddhist meditative practices, which define mindfulness as a receptive awareness - the attenton is focused on one's ongoing immediate experience (Brown & Ryan 2003). An element of this focused awareness: attention to experience without attachment to one's experience. Called bare attention, this meditation involves a calm observation of your ongoing experiences without reaction or impulse to associate thoughts and memories (www.buddhanet.net).

The second perspective, which is related to increased wellbeing and can be easily adapted in contemporary workplaces, is a cognitive approach to Mindfulness. Ellen Langer's research began in 1976 and culminated in Mindfulness, published in 1989 Reading, MA: Perseus and other works. In Langer's view, wellbeing is not associated with moving through life on automatic pilot but actively participating in the ongoing experiences of life with attention and openness. Again, I think of John Lennon's words - life is what happens while we are busy making other plans.

So next time someone mentions their mindfulness, do enquire whether they follow the Buddhist or Langer approach to being mindful?



Compton, C. & Hoffman, E. (2015) Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing, Second edition. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.