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November 6, 2015       
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Mindfulness: What's in a Name?
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

meditation

When we are talking about mindfulness, we are often referring to several different aspects of mindfulness. Depending upon each individual's needs, the practice of mindfulness may look very different which can lead to confusion about what mindfulness is. “Simply put, some researchers, clinicians and Buddhist scholars have suggested that mindfulness...has been altered from its traditional Buddhist construction to such an extent that it is inaccurate and/or misleading to refer to the resultant technique as ‘mindfulness’ (Van Gordon, et al., 2015).”

When working with clients I recognize they have various needs. Some just want to feel better and need some tools to help with that. Some need to learn to tolerate uncomfortable emotions. Others need a new approach to life or a change in perspective. However, when using a mindful approach to each of these goals we refer to it as “mindfulness” which can be confusing when trying to explain or define mindfulness. To reduce the confusion, we need to have clearer terms:

1) Mindful focus. I refer to mindful focus as the basic ability to use the mindfulness methods. As such, it is a tool that can be used in a variety of ways. The following terms describe the common ways in which mindful focus training may be used.

2) Mindful awareness. Sometimes mindfulness is used as a technique to increase focus or to help reduce intensity of emotion or the effects of stress. Some people might use mindful awareness of the present moment as a way of relaxing or reducing anxiety. The mindful grounding technique is helpful for those with high anxiety from trauma. This aspect of mindfulness is simply bringing awareness to the present moment in a very concrete way. As such, it tends to be a more passive form of mindfulness.

3) Mindful tolerance. Another aspect of mindfulness is to learn to tolerate discomfort which is helpful especially when we can't control the discomfort. Many problems become more overwhelming due to our desire to get rid of the physical or emotional pain: “I can't stand this! It is horrible!” When we reduce judgment and demand which helps develop a tolerance for uncomfortable situations, we eliminate a part of the discomfort—our frustration at not being able to control or prevent the problem. We are able to come to an acceptance of the situation which, paradoxically, may reduce the intensity of the discomfort.

4) Mindful attitude. Finally, mindfulness can be part of a philosophy of life based upon the Buddhist philosophy which incorporates acceptance, loving-kindness, and compassion for all things (including ourselves). In this instance, mindfulness becomes an approach to all aspects of life instead of a technique to manage life problems. The mindful attitude is an active approach to life that incorporates mindful awareness and mindful tolerance to objectively observe and to let go of demands so as to adjust behavior and respond flexibly to situations.

People can benefit from any of these aspects of mindfulness but it is important to understand what each is and what it can do for you. As a technique, mindfulness has limitations and may not be much different than other stress management or focus techniques. Using mindfulness as a philosophy of life, however, may present other problems. For instance, it requires sustained effort and a radical change in thinking for many people. Some people may have discomfort with using the mindful philosophy because it conflicts with religious beliefs. Yet, they may still be able to benefit from the technique. Other people may want to develop a more mindful attitude throughout all aspects of their lives. Therefore, by knowing the differences in mindfulness, you can determine how it can best help you and who can best teach you.

For more info: see Understanding Mindfulness.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Towards a second generation of mindfulness-based interventions. Australia and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 49 , 591-592.


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Dr. Monica Frank



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