A mindful moment

A themed trawl of the Psychologist and Research Digest archives.

Are you a ‘walking corpse’, or one who goes through life on autopilot, never stopping to take a few conscious breaths in and out in order to be fully present with yourself? Then perhaps you are not familiar with 'mindfulness', a 2500-year-old Buddhist meditation practice which is increasingly finding a place in modern psychological research and practice.

According to Edo Shonin and colleagues in their January 2015 article, Buddhist thought is that individuals have a tendency to ruminate about the past and/or rush towards the ‘ungraspable’ future, which never materialises – it is always the present. Buddhism asserts that this behavioural tendency of ‘not being fully present’ can distort an individual’s perception of reality and lessen their ability to consciously participate in the present moment.

Shonin et al go on to explain that in terms of Western psychology’s understanding of mindfulness, there is a lack of consensus as to exactly what defines the mindfulness construct. However, it is generally accepted by psychologists that mindfulness 
I    is fundamentally concerned with becoming more aware of the present moment; 
I    can (and should) be practised during everyday activities and not just when seated in meditation; 
I    is generated more easily by using a ‘meditative anchor’, such as observing the breath; 
I    should not involve any forced breathing (i.e. where the breath is used as a meditative anchor it should be allowed to follow its natural course); 
I    is a practice that requires deliberate effort and sustained meditative concentration; 
I    is concerned with observing both sensory and cognitive-affective processes; and 
I    is generally easier to learn if individuals are taught using guided mindfulness meditations.

Back in 2011, Dan Jones considered mindfulness in schools: can 'habits of mind' boost the well-being and resilience of the nation's children? Dan spoke to psychologist Guy Claxton, who concluded that mindfulness would be hugely beneficial for both teachers and students: ‘If I ruled the world I would make it mandatory – there is no downside risk, and the evidence shows these things work.’

Mindfulness has been a particularly popular topic with first-time authors writing for our 'New voices' format.

In this March 2015 article, Kate Williams asked 'Are we mindful of how we talk about mindfulness?'. She argues that 'we must remain ‘mindful’ of how we promote and talk about mindfulness to ensure we carefully promote its use and application to mental or physical health issues whilst in the early days of its research. If we can avoid overstating mindfulness as a gold standard or panacea, those new to mindfulness can start to practise with realistic expectations, under suitably qualified courses, and can begin to experience the wonderful world of mindfulness meditation.'

In May 2013, Alice Malzfeldt called for 'a mindful moment for older adults'. According to Alice, 'when we consider the published literature reviews, a worrying gap appears. They only include adults of working age. Older adults, of 65 years of age or above, seem to have been largely exempt from being offered this promising new intervention, and from being included in research trials. This oversight is all the more concerning when we consider that there are a number of characteristics of the older adult population that make this group very suitable for mindfulness-based interventions.'

And in December 2012, Carly Samson called for us to be more mindful of psychosis, concluding that mindfulness 'can complement and enhance the effectiveness of existing psychological treatment approaches, and offer a way to develop insight, empathy and tolerance.'

In May 2015, Edo Shonin interviewed Jon Kabat-Zinn for us: 'This is not McMindfulness by any stretch of the imagination', he argued.

Over on our Research Digest blog, studies have suggested that just 15 minutes of mindfulness meditation can improve your decision making; that 'mindfulness resistance techniques' might help people avoid the temptation of chocolate; and even that mindfulness meditation can make parts of the cerebral cortex thicker and protect other parts from age-related thinning. These studies and more were collected together in a June 2015 special.

As with any growing trend in psychology, not all are convinced by mindfulness. In 2018, Bergljot Gjelsvik, Alice Tickell, Ruth Baer, Chris O’Neill and Catherine Crane call for more rigour and less hype when considering the clinical science of mindfulness. As Shonin and colleagues conclude, 'if mindfulness is truly going to be a breath of fresh air in terms of advancing understanding of the human mind, then it is vital that more methodologically robust research is undertaken and that future investigations look beyond the superficial attributes of mindfulness and seek to identify the cooperating and underlying psycho-spiritual properties that are traditionally assumed to authenticate mindfulness practice.'

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