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Am I Being Mindful?

Defining mindfulness can demystify what it is and how to approach it...

One of the most popular clinical conceptualizations of mindfulness which may be the best functional definition is Jon Kabat-Zinn’s 1999 definition: “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally.” This definition captures not only the classical Buddhist scholarly interpretations of mindfulness, which is that of an alert, equanimous, receptive observation (Analayo, 2003) but also encapsulates the practical instructional component of mindfulness, paying attention without evaluating the object of attention. This commonly cited definition provides a “map” for even the most novice person engaging in mindfulness practice to understand something about what it is and how they know they are doing it.

As many authors have noted, how mindfulness is defined will inevitably influence the practice of mindfulness and its systematic inquiry, which has become mainstream within the last few decades. Competing accounts of mindfulness, such as “focused attention” and “open awareness,” have been pitted against each other by various research, clinical, and Buddhist camps. Meanwhile, other researchers have argued that to isolate mindfulness into its component parts is a futile effort. Both narrow, concerted attention is required in mindfulness practice as well as nonreactive, openness to experience. Quaglia and colleagues (2016) suggested that focused attention is a first step in fostering awareness of experience as separate from oneself. This process has also been called “decentering” or “defusion” and involves attention regulation which is not taught in most societies and therefore, must be practiced to be honed.

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Most intriguingly, the classical Buddhist traditions have no one specific, agreed-upon definition of mindfulness. Perhaps they have beat Western society in the actualization that to benefit from mindfulness’ teachings, universal agreement may not be necessary. However, in Western society, operationalizing a construct and real-world practice such as mindfulness is necessary in order to track progress, examine its mechanisms of change, and explore any potential clinical benefit. Simply put, one’s intentions for the outcome of mindfulness practice must be informed by a clinician or researcher’s theoretical stance on what mindfulness is in the first place. These differing theoretical stances can continue to coexist in parallel, as these explanations of mindfulness each capture a different piece of a complex tapestry of human experience. For example, it may be more beneficial for cognitive scientists to assess disentangling attentional and awareness processes in mindfulness (Merikle & Joordens, 1997), so they may choose to define mindfulness with this language. For clinicians, the practical importance of teaching clients skillful nonreactivity in daily life leads to defining mindfulness as a kind of nonjudgmental state, which is not necessarily accounted for in classical definitions.

Perhaps rather than engaging in disagreements around what mindfulness is, it is more useful to clarify what mindfulness is not. Mistakenly, many believe the purpose of mindfulness is to relax, release tension, and shut out the world. In fact, this could not be a more gross misrepresentation. The purpose of real mindfulness by any definition is to shift from a cognitive interpretation of the world (in which we are constantly “in our heads,” evaluating the risks and benefits of every encounter) to a more clear, objective, and predominantly sensory-based experience of the environment. Evolution has chronicled the adaptive benefits of constantly attending to threats, however, the type of threats we face today are not clear and present dangers (e.g. sensing a hungry tiger is nearby and running in response), and therefore, overly attending to thoughts is unhelpful and often distressing.

The key principles of mindfulness (Carmody, 2016) include: a recognition of the components of experience (e.g. thoughts, emotions, physical sensations), knowledge that emotional arousal can be self-regulated through attentional training (e.g. choosing to attend to the breath as an arousal-neutral object), and development of a decentered perspective (e.g. being able to recognize a thought as a thought, rather than reality). Distress reduction or relaxation are often unintended by-products of mindfulness practice, however, they are never the explicit targets. It becomes abundantly clear when mindfulness is undertaken with this goal in mind, for instance, when individuals report “being bad at” mindfulness with self-evaluative language rather than descriptions rooted in the senses. It is not possible to be “bad” at mindfulness, only to realize one is not noticing in the first place.


Analayo (2003). Satipatthana: The direct path to realization. Bimingham, UK: Windhorse.

Carmody, J. (2016) Reconceptualizing Mindfulness in K. W. Brown, J. D. Creswell, & R. M. Ryan (Ed.) Handbook of Mindfulness: Theory, Research, and Practice (pp. 62-87). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Merikle, P. M., & Joordens, S. (1997). Parallels between perception without attention and perception without awareness. Consciousness and Cognition, 6(2-3), Pp. 219-236.

Quaglia, J. T., Brown, K. W., Lindsay, E. K., Creswell, J. D., & Goodman, R. J. (2016). From Conceptualization to Operationalization of Mindfulness in K. W. Brown, J. D. Creswell, & R. M. Ryan (Ed.) Handbook of Mindfulness: Theory, Research, and Practice (pp. 151-166). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

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