I once had a psychologist colleague who was extremely interested in the practice of Mindfulness. He bought all the books, deployed it in his clinical work and developed his own disciplined personal practice. I remember his bemusement when his wife got curious as to what this mindfulness thing was all about. My colleague enthusiastically told her all he had read; about the concentration, the breathing, the non-judgmental awareness. “Oh” she replied, with some disappointment, “I basically already do that”.
We have become so used to thinking of Mindfulness as something we learn to do (in courses, workshops, as part of an ongoing process of therapy) that we forget that to some extent it is also something we have.
The literature on mindfulness is increasingly dominated by studies examining its effectiveness as an intervention. This literature explores the phenomenon of mindfulness training, typically in the form of courses of several weeks, in which the cognitive skills of mindfulness are taught to people so they can draw on them to improve their health or wellbeing.
However, behind these studies lies a smaller literature on mindfulness as a trait, a predisposition some people have, which suggests that my colleague’s wife wasn’t simply being flippant when she said “I already do that”.
Psychologists Kirk Brown and Richard Ryan posited that some people may be more mindful than others in a 2003 paper where they suggested that “because of inherent capability, discipline, or inclination, individuals may differ in the frequency with which they deploy attention and awareness”. They then developed a survey to try and assess the extent of people’s mindfulness, and found that practitioners of Zen meditation (an activity expected to enhance mindfulness) scored higher on this measure than matched-control non-meditators.
So far so unsurprising, but Warren and Ryan then went on to examine differences in score on their measure among people who had not been exposed to a systematic intervention, and who might therefore be said to be showing variations in their general disposition toward mindfulness. They found that people who scored higher on their measure (those high in “trait mindfulness”) went on to report experiencing themselves as having fewer unpleasant emotions and a greater degree of autonomy. Subsequent studies have fleshed out the concept of mindfulness as a trait, with studies suggesting that it could reduce vulnerability to depression and enhance the capacity to deploy attention.
Why should we be interested in mindfulness as a trait? If some people are more inherently mindful than others, well that’s great for them, but who cares? There seems to be something a little undemocratic about the whole idea of mindfulness as a trait. Partly this is because, in a time of mindfulness’ ever increasing popularity, it has become a hot commodity, one which it seems unfair for some people to have more of than others. Partly it’s because mindfulness, with its heritage as a predominantly spiritual practice, is often seen as something of a modern virtue (and one to work for at that) as well as just something with a practical impact for our mental health.
However, beyond these facts about how we see its role in society, there may be clinical ramifications to the existence of individual differences in mindfulness. One 2011 study by Sauna Shapiro and colleagues found that the beneficial impact of a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program were enhanced among people who were more mindful before it began. Meanwhile, a 2013 study at Oxford found a similar result among those entering cognitive therapy aimed at enhancing emotion regulation. Those who score lower, the authors suggest, may need “longer or more intense forms of therapy in order to reach the same outcomes”.
These results, though preliminary (both studies had sample sizes of around 30, which is very small for investigating the impacts of therapy) suggest that we could offer more effective therapy if we knew how mindful people were at the start of treatment. They offer an alternative to the vague notion by which only those deemed “psychologically minded” are considered appropriate for therapy. Interestingly, they are also consistent with the proposal by Jeffery Martin that mindfulness might be a factor common to all psychotherapeutic approaches, not just those which explicitly mention it in their name.
In a time when mindfulness is widely lauded and commodified, it is inevitable that it has also suffered a backlash. Mindfulness has been critiqued for distancing us from some aspects our experience, and even described as a “smug middle class trend“. What you think about all this will depend in part on how sympathetic you are to the deployment of meditation as a psychosocial intervention. However, we should bear in mind that if we want to talk about mindfulness; the discussion of a specific practice as something people do is only part of the conversation.