Monday, March 22, 2010

Mindfulness from the Bottom Up

The term “mindfulness” as it is used in much of the psychological literature was originally inspired by Buddhist meditation practices. It's since been adapted by mental health and medical professionals for a number of different problems across different settings. As mindfulness treatment and techniques continue to accumulate empirical support for their effectiveness, mindfulness researchers have made attempts to come up with more precise operational definitions of mindfulness (e.g., Bishop et al., 2004; Cardaciotto et al., 2008).

In a 2007 paper by Hayes and Plumb, the authors argue that trying to come up with a technical definition of a lay concept such as mindfulness is a “fool’s errand” and “scientific dead end.” The reason for their position: given the number of mindfulness traditions, even within Buddhism, it is impossible to come with a precise definition that everyone one can agree on. The use of term in Buddhism (Pali: Sati) even predates the development of the scientific method entirely! Like any lay term (such as self-esteem), it was never meant to be used as a scientific definition.

These attempts to operationally define a lay term reflect a top down strategy. Instead, the authors argue that we might make greater scientific progress with a bottom up approach: that is, begin with constructs for which we have precise definitions and work our way up using the lay notion of mindfulness as a model. Drawing from their background in behavior analysis, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and Relational Frame Theory—a behavioral understanding of the processes of human language—the authors offer a 5-step syllogism written in lay language about how people may find mindfulness helpful:

1. We learn to think relationally,

2. which works instrumentally,

3. but increases our access to pain, and causes misery when applied to our own insides.

4. You cannot rein in this kind of judgment judgmentally,

5. but you can learn to do so mindfully, with resulting broad and deep benefits, especially when it is part of a pattern of values-based action.

What they mean is that our minds relate internal and external stimuli. This is very useful in many ways, but it also results in creating extra pain and misery for ourselves. We can’t get rid of these painful internal experiences as we can get rid of something in the physical environment we don’t like, and trying to do so often creates more pain. We may begin to have judgments about our judgments (e.g., “I shouldn’t feel bad about myself”). Through mindfulness, we can become aware of this process. By mindfully observing our experience, we can move towards what’s important to us, regardless of what our minds might tell us.

The authors acknowledge that their model isn’t the only way to conceptualize mindfulness from a bottom up approach, but they offer it as an example of how it might be done.

You can download the full article if you’re a member of, or would like to join, the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science. (For as little as a $1 valued-based due, you can join ACBS and have access to tons for resources.)

The full reference is below:

Hayes, S.C., & Plumb, J. C. (2007). Mindfulness from the bottom up: Providing an inductive framework for mindfulness processes and their application to human suffering. Psychological Inquiry, 18(4), 242-248.

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