Blog #49 – Mindfulness
As highlighted last time, Jon Kabat-Zinn has become the primary face and name attached to the introduction and popularisation of what we call mindfulness in the Western world.
As such, he has developed one of the most used mindfulness-based approaches – Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). The three key components of this group-based intervention programme are sitting meditation, Hatha Yoga, and body scan, the latter referring to a sustained practice in which attention is directed throughout the body on a sequential basis, body part by body part. From the perspective of well-being, the stated objective is that through repeated mindfulness practice, individuals will become more able to recognise their habitual and maladaptive thinking patterns and behaviour, and arising from that awareness break those repeating cycles.
MBSR was first developed in 1979 and offered through an outpatient stress reduction clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Kabat-Zinn has explained that the programme was originally conceived as having a dual purpose. Firstly, to establish whether it would be possible to train medical patients in an intensive form of mindfulness meditation and its applications to the stress, pain, and illnesses they were experiencing in their lives. He emphasised that the intervention needed to be presented free of any potential cultural, religious, and ideological factors related to its Buddhist origins, as the purpose of MBSR was to create a space within which people could engage and experiment with novel ways of confronting and relieving suffering and distress in body and mind, while also recognising the body/mind connection as they did so, and not to teach Buddhism or to make participants meditation experts. The second initial purpose was to look at MBSR as a model, in that if it was found to be successful in its initial setting and acceptable both to participants and referring physicians, then the next step would be to transfer it to other settings in which stress, emotional and physical pain, or illness and disease were major concerns.
Following the success of those initial efforts, MBSR programmes have subsequently been offered in a range of settings, both clinical and non-clinical, including hospitals, medical centres, schools, workplaces, and prisons.
Kabat-Zinn has also stressed the need for would-be MBSR instructors to practice the techniques in their own life prior to and while attempting to lead others in cultivating those same skills. He added that mindfulness meditation is not meant to be practiced occasionally or over a brief period of time when feeling stressed; more correctly, it should be practiced on an ongoing basis. He has described it as “a way of being” and therefore it requires effort to cultivate and develop over time.
In 2011, in a review paper published in Clinical Psychology Review, Shian-Ling Keng, Moria J. Smoski, and Clive J. Robins looked at the effects of mindfulness on psychological health. They reported that many studies have been conducted looking at self-reported mindfulness and psychological health in diverse populations, e.g., undergraduate college students, community-residing adults, and diverse clinical populations, including cancer patients, psychiatric patients, and individuals with a history of depression. They highlighted findings showing that trait mindfulness has been positively associated with life satisfaction, agreeableness, conscientiousness, self-esteem, optimism, and pleasant affect; while significant negative correlations have been reported with depression, neuroticism, absent-mindedness, rumination, cognitive reactivity, and dissociation.
With regard to mindfulness-based interventions, they analysed findings from several different approaches, including 16 MBSR randomised controlled trials, with the findings reporting reduced self-reported levels of a number of negative variables, including anxiety, depression, anger, rumination, and general psychological distress, and improved ratings related to positive affect, sense of spirituality, empathy, sense of cohesion, mindfulness, forgiveness, self-compassion, life satisfaction, and quality of life.
The authors concluded that a growing body of research supported the contention that mindfulness and its cultivation can impact positively on psychological functioning and that mindfulness training may facilitate positive mental health outcomes.
Next time, we will continue to look at what the research evidence has to say about the relationship between cultivating mindfulness and individual well-being.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013 and is also a freelance writer.