5 Distinctions of Mindfulness in Academic Psychology


When I first started meditating in the late 1970s there was almost no literature in the West on meditation, let along mindfulness or concentration practices.  That’s all changed. These days we use the words to point to something often without having a robust understanding inherent in the simpleness of the words.

It can sometimes seem that mindfulness is just noticing.  Yet, it can be so much more.   Some definitions that have become popular in the West are:

Thich Nhat Hanh:  “the miracle which can call back in a flash our dispersed mind and restore it to wholeness so that we can live each minute of life.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition is used widely: “Mindfulness can be thought of as moment-to-moment, nonjudgmental awareness, sultivated by paying attention in a specific way, that is, in the present moment, as non-reactively and as openheartedly as possible”

Jack Kornfield: “an innate human capacity to deliberately pay full attention to where we are, to our actual experience, and to learn from it”

That last piece of Jack Kornfield’s definition adds an important distinction.   Mindfulness is not just noticing but also has the ability to teach us about life, about ethics, about character, about cultivating the goodness and open heartedness of being truly alive.

Nyanaponika Thera, a Buddhist monk, teachers, and scholar who lived in the mid 20th century wrote that mindfulness was the heart of Buddhist meditation.

Our use of mindfulness stems from the Pali word  sati.  Perhaps we have oversimplified the translation in order to make it easily useful in the West.   If you want to read more deeply about the underlying conversations of this translation here’s a good place to start as if written material by B. Alan Wallace.     John Dunne, a scholar at Emory University,  talks about mindfulness being more comprehensive than sati, or “remembering” or “lacking confusion” adding in the ability to perceive phenomena without being clouded by distortion that comes from thoughts, moods and emotions.  He adds this other wonderful element of the meta-cognitive capacity to monitor the quality of attention.  He calls this quality “heedfulness” which can be understood as bringing to bear, during meditation, what has been learned in the past about which thoughts, choices, and actions lead to happiness and which lead to suffering.

Academics have tended to create the distinctions of mindfulness as:

1.  Observing – attending to or noticing internal or external stimuli such as sensations, emotions, cognitions, sights, sounds, smells

2.  Describing – noting or labelling what you observe

3.  Acting with awareness – as opposed to behavior that is automatically absentmindly carried out

4.  Non-judgment of experience – reframing and evaluating sensations, emotions, and cognitions

5.  Non-reactivity to experience



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