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By Bob Marsh, LCSW
"Mindful" is a word dating from 1375-1425 in the English language, meaning, “attentive, aware, heedful.” “Mindfulness” is also the most common English translation of the Pali “sati” (Sanskrit “smrti”), a core Buddhist concept and practice going back some 2500 years to the earliest Buddhist teachings. However, there is nothing explicitly religious about mindfulness itself, nor exclusively Asian, which perhaps helps to account for why in the past 30 years or so, mindfulness has made its way not only into western psychology, but, more recently, into other fields as well, including business, law, medicine, law enforcement, corrections, and the armed forces. In the contemporary context, it is defined as follows:
“Mindfulness is the application of pure, nonreactive awareness to immediate experience.”
Daniel Brown, Ph.D.
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way. On purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D.
Why is this important and what is its clinical significance? A further definition provides elaboration:
“Mindfulness describes a particular quality of conscious relationship with an experience, which is open and accepting. Mindfulness is being completely present with whatever is being experienced as an interested observer, eager to investigate and learn. Mindfulness is the absence of reactivity, either in the form of identification with the story line of our experience, or aversion to what we are experiencing. These qualities are invaluable in psychotherapy, because they allow the client to investigate the deep structure...rather than staying stuck at the superficial surface structure [of psychological phenomena].”
Peter Strong, Ph.D.
By paying attention in a deliberate way to the contents of experience, by relating to those contents in the manner of an unbiased observer, at once interested and detached, one gains a distance from the contents of the mind which can render manageable what was previously threatening or overwhelming. Rather than becoming anger, anxiety, depression, one develops the capacity to watch these states arise and pass, thereby gaining a measure of freedom from them initially and the capacity to transform them into positive states ultimately.
Meditation teacher Jack Kornfield, Ph.D., puts it this way: “Mindfulness sees clearly what is happening in the present moment. It is observing and experiencing without reacting. As we practice it, mindfulness allows us to notice what is just here, to receive each experience without judgment, without grasping or aversion....Through the freshness and immediacy of our attention, and with less identification, we can begin to sense a whole new inner spirit of freedom.”
Research findings to date support the effectiveness of mindfulness-based therapies in the treatment of depression, anxiety, stress, anger management, pain management, addictions, eating disorders, and other conditions.
Current mindfulness-based or related therapies include but are not limited to the following: