Below is a brief description of what mindfulness is – for visitors to our website who are not very familiar with this area of practice and research. This description is brief, and readers are advised to consult the wider literature, which includes some of the sources mentioned here.
Definitions of Mindfulness
A number of different definitions have been proposed. A commonly cited definition in the psychological literature has been provided by Kabat-Zinn (1994): “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” (p. 4). More detail and a wider range of aspects has been given by Bishop et al. (2004), who “see mindfulness as a process of regulating attention in order to bring a quality of nonelaborative awareness to current experience and a quality of relating to one’s experience within an orientation of curiosity, experiential openness, and acceptance. We further see mindfulness as a process of gaining insight into the nature of one’s mind and the adoption of a de-centered perspective…on thoughts and feelings so that they can be experienced in terms of their subjectivity (versus their necessary validity) and transient nature (versus their permanence)” (p.234).
Clinical Applications of Mindfulness
Mindfulness as a practice has been taught either explicitly or indirectly in various religious and spiritual traditions throughout the ages. However, the systematic integration of mindfulness into modern-day health intervention did not occur until the pioneering work by Jon Kabat-Zinn. In 1979, Kabat-Zinn started a programme called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. This structured programme includes meditation and mindfulness practices adapted from Buddhism taught in a nonreligious manner. Originally intended to help patients who did not respond well to traditional medical and psychological treatments (Kabat-Zinn, 2003), mindfulness has since then been integrated into many other types of therapies and found a firm place in mainstream psychology (Shapiro, 2009; Crane, 2017). Apart from MBSR, numerous interventions have now been developed and tested, each with a slightly different focus or aim. Collectively, such interventions are referred to as mindfulness-based interventions (MBI).
The number of academic peer-reviewed articles about mindfulness has been growing exponentially (Kabat-Zinn, in press), many of which confirming the utility of MBIs for a variety of health benefits. This includes mindfulness for stress, anxiety, depression, chronic pain, or substance abuse (Chiesa & Serretti, 2009, 2010; Hofmann et al. 2010; Khoury et al., 2013; Reiner et al., 2013). Mindfulness has also been linked to increased coping with symptoms from chronic illness (Grossman et al., 2004) as well as improvement in regulation of emotions and well-being (Chambers et al. 2009; Eberth & Sedlmeir, 2012).
Mindfulness and Neuroscience
Brain imagining studies are providing converging evidence for the benefits of mindfulness and are able to link meditative practices to specific brain regions. One functional magnetic resonance imaging study (Pagnoni et al., 2008) reported that experienced Zen practitioners exhibit decreased duration of neural activity associated with conceptual automatic thinking compared to controls. The authors suggested that higher level of experience in meditation may facilitate voluntary regulation of the flow of mentations. Additionally, evidence obtained using magnetic resonance imaging (Pagnoni & Cekic, 2007) shows that grey matter volume correlates negatively with both attention task performance and age in the normal, non-meditative population but not in experienced Zen practitioners. These findings suggest that Zen meditation practice may prevent age-related cognitive deterioration by inhibiting reduction of grey matter volume. Consistent with these findings, Hölzel et al. (2011) reported increased grey matter density in the brain regions involved in emotion regulation, learning, memory, perspective taking, and self-related cognitions after an MBI. These areas include hippocampus, posterior cingulate cortex, cerebellum, and temporo-parietal junction. Similarly, Grant et al. (2010) found regular long-term meditators to have thicker cortex in areas of the brain related to affect and pain.
Mindfulness in Non-Clinical Settings
Mindfulness is increasingly being applied in a variety of different contexts. This includes mindfulness at the workplace to reduce stress and burnout (Hyland et al., 2015) or the application of mindfulness in educational settings, such to foster wellbeing in students (Bernay et al., 2016). The value of contextualisation of mindfulness within the practitioners’ value and belief system is also increasingly being recognised (Krägeloh, 2016), leading to additional adaptations or so-called second-generation MBIs that emphasise a more active application of mindfulness in everyday life or may be more explicit about the role of spirituality in mindfulness training (Van Gordon et al., 2015).
Mindfulness is now also increasingly recognised as a key variable in the prediction of psychological well-being in the general population (Tomlinson et al., in press) – irrespective of actual mindfulness practice. Mindfulness may be viewed as a disposition (as opposed to a temporary state), which varies across individuals.
Future Challenges and Current Research Directions
While the effectiveness of MBIs has been firmly established, recent research has increasingly attempted to apply mindfulness in a larger variety of setting and find ways to make delivery of MBIs more efficient. This includes investigations into possible adverse effects of mindfulness practice or how the cost effectiveness of MBIs may be enhanced (Creswell, 2017). Mindfulness has also been delivered in various eHealth formats (Plaza et al., 2013; Spijkerman et al., 2016) – a trend that is likely to continue.
Trying to understand how mindfulness exerts its health benefits also requires increased sophistication in the measurement of the construct. While there are some behavioural measures of mindfulness available (Levinson et al., 2014), the majority of research uses self-report questionnaires. Recent research has employed advanced statistical techniques such as Item Response Theory (Van Dam et al., 2010), Rasch analysis (Medvedev et al., 2017a), Generalisability Theory (Medvedev et al., 2017b) or multi-group invariance testing for response shift (Krägeloh et al., in press), but more work is still required to optimise measurement in mindfulness research.
Other areas of growth are the role of mindfulness to address wider social issues (Kabat-Zinn, in press), such as mindfulness and sustainability (Ericson et al., 2014) or fostering increased self-awareness and contemplative practice in education (Zajonc, 2016).
ICM Asia Pacific will undoubtedly be a forum where the latest developments will be presented.