On Mindfulness

I recently participated in the Mindfulness Summit, a 31-day online event hosted by mrsmindfulness.com. Each day in October, a new interview and/or meditation was posted and featured  some of the most important minds in mindfulness, including Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jack Kornfield, Russ Harris, Tara Brach, and Rick Hanson. Needless to say, I did a lot of nerding out at the chance to learn more about mindfulness from these experts. The grand finale was a live, online guided meditation with Jon Kabat-Zinn and thousands of other people from all over the world. There was something very powerful about being part of that collective experience.


Throughout the month of the summit, I was struck by how personalized mindfulness is for each person. Though the most commonly used or accepted description of mindfulness, as put forth by Jon Kabat-Zinn, is “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally,” how that happens and the effects of it vary from person to person. Some people place more emphasis on formal practices while others note that informal practice also can be very effective. Some people describe a sudden awakening or “a-ha moment” as a result of their practice whereas others experience a more gradual change. For myself, when I first learned of mindfulness and began a practice, there was a marked change in how I approached stressful situations (and life in general) because I suddenly had a new and different perspective or skill. Over the years I plateaued, until last month when I noticed a subtle change in how I noticed things, like a scene slowly coming into focus or the sun beginning to rise and break through the clouds, slowly noticing more, feeling simultaneously calm and more alert, having more gratitude for the small things.


I think the flexibility of how one can approach mindfulness broadens its appeal. It also poses several problems. First, some have expressed concern that the essence of mindfulness can be diluted without a formal practice and trained teachers. Second, something that is of particular interest to clinicians and researchers attempting to better understand the mechanisms of mindfulness, an unstandardized practice is difficult to quantify and study. The American Psychologist recently published a special issue on challenges to the basic and clinical science of mindfulness in which Richard Davidson, a leading figure in mindfulness neuroscience research, and Alfred Kaszniak outline the particular issues with mindfulness research, from agreeing on a single definition of mindfulness to determining exactly what we should be measuring when we study it.


Also in the American Psychologist special issue is a reflection on a point with which I have struggled- namely that mindfulness was not intended to be a therapeutic technique. Anne Harrington and  John Dunne provide a historical perspective on how the medical and psychological communities (as well as popular culture) became enamored of mindfulness. I incorporate mindfulness-based practices into my clinical and educational work and feel a twinge of conflict each time I introduce it to someone, attempting to explain why practicing can be beneficial without promising it as a panacea.  I have found an interview with Jack Kornfield in Spirituality & Health to help ease my mind. In it, he notes the rising popularity of yoga and mindfulness practices and embraces them, noting that what may begin as something trendy can be transformative for some individuals. Quite the mindful way to view it!


I can say that mindfulness, when I make a conscious effort to practice, has made a noticeable difference in my life, and I have seen it make a difference in the lives of others, as well. I also have seen it do nothing, particularly when people are not able to commit to a practice, whether formal or informal. My own participation in the Mindfulness Summit was variable, and I was able to accept that and re-commit to a practice when I needed to. I have been using informal practices more regularly since the summit and plan to continue with them, adding formal practices when I am able to commit the time and attention. Flexible or flaky? Either way, it is working for me in the moment, and I can change course at any time.