Presented to The Developing Group, 25 Nov 2017
Mindfulness is a hot topic. There are claims it can help reduce stress, increase educational attainment, support physical and mental wellbeing, open up spiritual development – and more. While there are many definitions and descriptions, there is common agreement that mindfulness can be developed with certain practices; and that sustaining it presents a challenge.
A quick trawl of the Web reveals plenty of general advice to “be in the now”, “rest in stillness” and “witness your monkey mind”, but there is little detail at an internal perceptual level on how to do these things.
In order to assess whether Clean Language and Symbolic Modelling can support people to access, cultivate and sustain mindfulness, we need to be clear about what it is, and what it isn’t. What is the nature of the first-person experience we are calling “mindful”?
I have been modelling a number of descriptions of mindfulness. To do this I devised three simple models that:
- Make sense of the various definitions and explanations of mindfulness
- Identify the core abilities which underly most, if not all forms of mindfulness
Facilitate a person to self-model both what happens during mindfulness and where improvement can take place.
In researching the mindfulness literature I’ve come to a few conclusions:
- Mindfulness means a lot of different things – there is no consensus definition.
- Mindfulness cannot be described without metaphor.
- Mindfulness is not one thing, it involves a number of processes working together.
- Mindfulness can be a conceptual minefield unless you separate four elements: Purpose, Practice, Experience, Effects.
- Mindfulness is a complex concept because the same feature often appears in more than one category.
It is possible to exclude much of what is considered mindfulness and still be mindful.
So, what is the basis of mindfulness? What do all the variants rely on?
1. Mindfulness means a lot of different things – there is no consensus
To give you a sense of the family that is mindfulness, here are a few definitions.
In 1994, Jon Kabat-Zinn proposed that mindfulness be operationally defined as:
Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.
Thich Nhat Hanh states:
I define mindfulness as the practice of being fully present and alive, body and mind united. Mindfulness is the energy that helps us to know what is going on in the present moment.
Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you carefully observe your thoughts and feelings without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to your current experience, rather than dwelling on the past or anticipating the future.
Mindfulness researchers, Cortland Dahl, Antoine Lutz & Richard Davidson say it is:
A self-regulated attentional stance oriented toward present-moment experience that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance.
2. Mindfulness cannot be described without metaphor
Fully present and alive
Body and mind united
The energy that helps us
Active, open attention
Letting your life pass you by
Awakening to your current experience,
Dwelling on the past
Oriented toward present-moment
Figure 1: Metaphors point to experience
3. Mindfulness is not one thing, it is a number of processes working together
Whatever mindfulness is, it is not one thing. Even though people do not agree precisely what mindfulness is, they seem to agree that it involves a number of processes woking together to produce a particular kind of awareness. However, the range of things people include can be confusing.
I have found the dissection of mindfulness by the group of researchers which includes Antoine Lutz, Richard Davidson and their colleagues to be some of the most helpful. If you like academic writing, I recommend their papers. In a special issue of the American Psychologist devoted to mindfulness, they reviewed the field and produced a “phenomenological matrix of mindfulness-related practices” which includes:
3 primary dimensions:
4 secondary qualities:
Stability (frequency of change)
Effort (little – a lot)
4 shared contextual features:
Non-aversive affect (not negative response)
Axiological framework (values, goals, ethics)
Task-set maintenance or retention
They use these distinctions to classify mindful practices. However, I am interested in modelling the experience of being mindful, about which Lutz and co. concede:
This framework would be greatly enhanced by gathering first-person data from mindfulness practitioners at various levels, where the collection method would focus especially on the phenomenological features of engaging in formal mindfulness practice. However, such data are not yet available, and its collection remains an important desideratum for mindfulness research. (p.637)
4. Mindfulness can be a conceptual minefield unless you separate four elements
The four elements are:
Purpose – what mindfulness is (said to be) for.
Practice – what you do to access, experience and develop mindfulness.
Experience – what happens inside, the first-person (phenomenological) view.
Effects – what happens as a result of the practice and the experience.
Increase educational attainment
Support physical health
Improve mental wellbeing
Amplify compassion for self and other
Fulfil inner potential
A practice is what you do. It is a set of external and/or internal behaviours. Many activities both for individuals and groups have been devised to support people to access, experience and develop mindfulness. The most common of these are called meditation. Often, but not always, mindfulness is an intended experience of the meditation.
Sometimes meditation aims to develop a particular aspect of mindfulness and not mindful awareness directly – focussed attention, for example. These meditations are akin to the “wax on, wax off” scene in The Karate Kid movie where a boy is instructed to engage in repetitive menial tasks, not realising he is developing some of the martial arts of karate.
The experience of being mindful is the first-personal (phenomenological) view. It’s what happens in the private world of the individual.
5. Mindfulness is a complex concept because the same feature often appears in more than one category.
6. It is possible to exclude much of what is considered mindfulness and still be mindful.
As part of my approach to understanding what is involved in the huge topic of mindfulness I used a process of elimination. I reasoned that if it was possible to be mindful without having a particular purpose, using a particular practice, having a particular experience or getting particular effects, I could remove that aspect from my model of ‘mindfulness at its most fundamental’.
Many of the descriptions of mindful experiences are related to the purpose and the practice undertaken. If the aim is to cultivate a mindfulness that involves “loving kindness” that will be designed into the practice – perhaps by focusing on an icon of loving-kindness – and the practitioner will expect to experience loving-kindness in relation to self and others. There are however, thousands of practices which serve to access, experience, cultivate, sustain, deepen and extend mindfulness that do not mention loving kindness. Since many roads can lead to Rome (or Nirvana) any particular practice cannot be fundamental.
Likewise, the mindfulness-based interventions which have a therapeutic purpose (e.g. MBSR and MBCT) aim to bring about a change in the practitioner’s well-being. These practices and looked-for experiences are intimately tied to their purpose and desired effects. But at its most basic, being mindful notices what is. It does not involve an intention to change even though that’s what tends to happen as a natural byproduct. Since there are dozens of different purposes for being mindful, none of them can be fundamental. However, they all share an intention to be mindful! That might seem circular thinking, but there it is.
I note that practices with particular intended outcomes have to be careful not to provide contractionary (and potentially binding) instructions. For example, some practices give an instruction to be “non-judgmental” and yet they presuppose that “stress”, “anxiety” and “rumination” etc. are unwanted and unhealthy experiences – these are judgements. Kabat-Zinn points out that with care it is possible to avoid these potential incongruences, otherwise:
… mindfulness can easily remain simply one more thought to fill your head and make you feel inadequate…one more concept, one more slogan, one more chore, one more thing to schedule into your already too-busy day … Mindfulness is not some kind of cold, hard, clinical, or analytical witnessing, nor is it a pushing through to some special, more desirable state of mind, nor a sorting through the detritus and debris of the mind to discover the gold underneath.
7. So what is 'being mindful'?
Having excluded all that is not fundamental, what is left? What is the basis of mindfulness? What do all the variants rely on?
It seems all forms of mindfulness include four aspects that come in two inter-related pairs:
- Intentional attention
- Noticing what’s happening (is happening now)
- Background awareness
Let’s look at what I mean by each of these in a little more detail.
Let’s state the obvious. Mindfulness is state of consciousness that involves us being aware that we are aware. And a feature of this kind of consciousness is that it involves our attention. While we can stumble unwittingly into mindfulness, without some intention to maintain that state, our mind will soon wander on to another state.
Attention comes in a variety of guises, two of the most common being: A “narrow focus” on something; and a “broad open” attention that notices whatever comes into awareness.
Using the Perceiver-Perceived-Relationship-Context (PPRC) model we can characterise these two types of attention as attending to the Perceived (e.g. a mandala) and attending to the Context.
Figure 2: The PPRC model
Whether one maintains a broad or narrow attention and attends to ‘external’ or ‘internal’ phenomena is more a matter of the chosen practice than mindful awareness itself.
Noticing what’s happening (now)
Simply intending to attend to something is not sufficient for maintaning mindfulness. We need some way of knowing whether that is happening. Many terms are used to describe the quality of this feedback-to-self, e.g. non-reactivity, non-attachment, a non-aversive affective tone, non-judgmental, acceptance.
Embedded in each of these terms is what can be called a primary recognition: The awareness of the existence or appearance of the something perceived. It is a kind of noticing that does not require the naming of the something. It is a kind of mental sawubona, the Zulu greeting that means “I see you.” (As an aside, the traditional response is ngikhonameaning “I am here”.) I am going to call this noticing what’s happening (is happening now).
Reaction follows recognition and the initial noticing. And, in an ever tightening spiral, the reaction can be noticed. Being aware of noticing a reaction (wanted or unwanted, pleasant or otherwise) is being mindful. Developing the capacity to extend the time and range of noticing usually has some very interesting side-effects which I discuss below.
Background-awareness and task retention
The nub of the lived in-the-moment experience of mindfulness involves a relationship between two processes: intentional attention and noticing what’s happening. But those two alone are not sufficient for the mindful state to continue for a period of time. Mind-wandering is the path of least resistance and therefore easily taken. For mindfulness to be sustained, two other processes are required: a background-awareness that monitors experience and in particular non-mindful states; and task retention, the capacity to hold for a period of time the intention to be mindful and the specifics of the practice.
Without a background awareness that monitors our mind’s non-compliance, it could be a very long time before we noticed that our mind had wandered into a different non-mindful state. And even when we have noticed, unless we retain knowledge of the task we set ourselves, we will not know what we were supposed to be doing.
I’m know I’m not alone in having had the experience of walking into a room knowing I went in there for a reason but having no idea what that was. A background awareness alerted me that I was in the room for a purpose but the original intention, set in another room, had not been retained after I crossed the threshold between rooms. The same kind of thing can happen as we cross the threshold from a mindful to non-mindful state.
Ironically, given the instruction to “be in the now”, background awareness must involve some awareness of “outside the now” since when the mind wanders, the intention to be mindful and the practice being undertaken were set in the past. Furthermore, a comparison is required to determine that what is happening now is not what was intended, and that something different has to happen in the future to return to the task.
Task retention is a feature of all meditation practices; without it the meditation would only ever last until the first distraction. The combination of high-background awareness and strong retention of the task will inhibit distractions and re-establish the task more quickly after a distraction has occurred. It is probably a vital feature for succeeding at lots of other things too.
What mindfulness is not
While there may be some overlap, mindfulness is not the same as introspection, metacognition and other forms of self-awareness. Self-awareness means being aware of our behaviours, habits, emotions, desires, thoughts and images. Mindfulness can be too, and it includes the capacity to notice that we are aware while simultaneously maintaining a primary focus on something else.
A person may be able to make precise observations of what is going on in their interior experience, be able to interpret these observations with sophisticated reasoning, and be immersed in the ongoing flow of that experience. Whereas mindfulness retains awareness that the introspection is a task, and this involves a kind of meta-awareness.
Also, mindfulness is not the same as the flow state that athletes and others say are associated with peak performances. Flow is a state of absorption that is mind-less, almost the opposite of mindful.
A simple model
The diagram illustrates six places to model:
Figure 3: A model of mindfulness
A = Process of accessing the mindful state.
B = Process of sustaining a mindful state.
C = Process of losing mindful state (distraction).
D = Process of noticing not-on-task.
E = Process of reestablishing mindful state.
F = Process of stopping being mindful.
Much of the literature suggests that ‘dereification’ and ‘disidentification’ are natural effects of regular mindfulness, and some practices make these the primary purpose.
Dereification is the degree of recognition that my thoughts, feelings and perceptions are transient, insubstantial mental events rather than accurate representations of reality. I recognise they are my constructs “experienced simply as mental events, situated and embodied within a field of sensory, proprioceptive, affective, and somatic feeling tones.” (Lutz et al. p.639)
Disidentification is similar but applied to the notion of the self. It is the detachment from identifying a static unified self with the contents of consciousness. It is not dissociation. It is the recognition that our identity itself is a construct, that our self-representations are more fluid and flexible than they first appear to be. In some instances a sense of a self can disappear altogether.
Using our PPRC model, we can see that as our mindful attention shifts from external things to our internal perceptions, to our relationship with those perceptions, it arrives at the perceiver of the perceptions, the thinker of the thoughts, and the notion of “my self” – and so does the opportunity to increasingly de-reify and dis-identify.
8. Five uses for Clean Language and Symbolic Modelling
- A mindfulness meditation.
- Self-modelling of a mindfulness process.
- Self-modelling of mindful awareness itself.
- Enhancing an aspect of mindfulness.
Also, there are indications that becoming experienced at using Clean Language and Symbolic Modelling automatically develops capacities that are remarkably like the four aspects of mindfulness defined in sction 7.
It seems mindfulness is a way to counter the evolutionary tendency for repetitive and habitual faculties to be handled out of awareness. In everyday life our attention, noticing and task retention are largely determined by the context. There is so much going on in the foreground that our awareness of being aware is very much in the background.
However, when we set our mind to it, intentional attention, noticing what is happening, background-awareness and task retention together form a particular kind of meta-awareness that we call mindfulness.
Having gone round many circles that left my head spinning, my conclusion sounds a bit like a Zen koan:
The purpose of mindfulness is to be mindful.
You cannot practice mindfulness, since
Mindfulness is the experience of being mindful.
The effect of mindfulness is mindfulness.
 You can listen to some short guided meditations taken from Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s book Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World at http://franticworld.com/free-meditations-from-mindfulness/.
 Lutz, A., Jha, A.P., Dunne, J.D., & Saron, C.D. (2015). Investigating the phenomenological matrix of mindfulness-related practices from a neurocognitive perspective. American Psychologist, 70(7), 632-658.
 Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Mindfulness Meditation for Beginners, reissued 2004 as Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. See also mindful.org/jon-kabat-zinn-defining-mindfulness/
 Dahl C.J., Lutz A., Davidson, R.J. (2015). Reconstructing and deconstructing the self: cognitive mechanisms in meditation practice. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 19(9):515-523.
 There are some parallels with serendipity. If the import of the moment afforded by the stumbling is not recognised we usually pick ourselves up and carry on, oblivious to the opportunity.
 I have just ordered a coffee with cold milk. The barista repeated “cold milk”. Two minutes later I was given a coffee with hot milk. When I asked if the coffee had cold milk he said “Ah yes, cold milk”. He had not forgotten what I had said, but he had not retained the task of ‘make a coffee with cold milk’. In Symbolic Modelling, task retention is a vital aspect of outcome orientation and vectoring.
 Back in 1995 Penny Tompkins and I ran a workshop “Who is the “I” in identity?” which included a spatial activity combining Roberto Assagioli’s disidentification process with Robert Dilts’ logical levels. The purpose was for the ‘client’ to have an embodied sense of their own identity. Later we found out Ken Wilber maintained that before we can dis-identify with anything we first have to identify with it. Identifying thus is a step towards transcending. Not by excluding the dis-identified aspect but by including it. Having transcended and included we can identify it anew from a more inclusive perspective. This in summary is Wilber’s 1-2-1 model of development: identify with, dis-identify from, identify at a higher level. Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy (Shambhala, 2000).