What is mindfulness? Any construct that has existed for thousands of years has many definitions. We would like to offer two of the most widely accepted descriptions of mindfulness. In our research, we found two predominant streams of mindfulness research and practice, meditative mindfulness and socio-cognitive mindfulness .

Meditative Mindfulness

Although it is widely used as part of a secular mindfulness practice, mindfulness is the core of Buddhist meditation. Thich Nhat Hanh, Gunaratana, Kabat- Zinn, and other present day authors advocate developing mindfulness through meditation techniques to help people heal themselves and live intentionally. A distinction of meditative mindfulness is that it requires a discipline of anchoring the mind in the present moment. This is often accompanied with a practice of awareness and acceptance through breathing. Kabat- Zinn (1994) defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” (p.4).

Non-judgment, in mindfulness theory, is accepting the current state as part of a constant flow of changing experiences. This paradigm suggests that letting go of judgment strengthens the mind, and it challenges the illusion that overthinking something gives one control over it. Authors who discuss mind-fulness within these parameters also talk about the antithesis of mindfulness which is mindlessness, or a state of autopilot and lack of intention. Are you aware of your breathing right now? Try some deep calm breaths from the diaphragm prior to reading on. Try practicing acceptance of whatever you are experiencing in the moment by letting go of evaluation and judgment.

Socio-Cognitive Mindfulness

Developed by social psychologists, this understanding of mindfulness emphasizes cognitive categorization, context and situational awareness (Langer 1997; Langer, 2000). Harvard social psychologist Ellen Langer, often relates mindfulness to learning:

When we are mindful, we implicitly or explicitly:

  1. view a situation from several perspectives
  2. see information presented in the situation as novel
  3. attend to the context in which we perceive the information, and eventually,
  4. create new categories through which this information may be understood.

People argue that our school systems largely encourage mindless learning through the accumulation of “objective” truths, rather than mindful learning which places a value on context, uncertainty, and doubt. As with meditative mindfulness, socio-cognitive mindfulness authors contrast mindfulness with mindlessness, which is described as automatic behavior. When mindless, “we act like automatons who have been programmed to act according to the sense our behavior made in the past, rather than the present.”

Mindfulness from the socio-cognitive perspective requires broadening one’s repertoire of cognitive categories. The idea of creating new categories was influenced by Langer’s earlier studies in bias and prejudice. Explaining the practical benefits she illustrates that “If we describe someone we dislike intensely, a single statement usually does it. But if, instead, we are forced to describe the person in great detail, eventually there will be some quality we appreciate” (Langer, 1989, p.66).

One of the reasons Langer’s work is so compelling is that it thoroughly supports the notion that simple labels (e.g., good and evil) do not accurately reflect the complexity of the world. Instead they allow for mindless rationalizations that justify a broad range of dysfunctional behaviors, from ineffective to criminal. Are you aware of how you are sorting and labeling what you are reading right now?

So what is mindfulness? Are you using it? Are you aware of the images, memories, and thoughts that your mind is recalling as you are reading this article?