The other day, I watched a very interesting Ted Talk by Lera Boroditsky about how language shapes the way we think. She talked about how differences in languages influence how we perceive various things (such as colours), determine our ability to experience phenomena (such as numbers), and even affect our memory, thoughts, and the reality that we create.
So I started thinking about mindfulness. Mindfulness has become so mainstream that we have gone from one extreme to another – first becoming obsessed with mindfulness and now being almost fed up with it. But what’s in a name? Is it mindfulness that we are repelling or just its label? And are our perceptions of mindfulness influenced by our understanding of it?
Before you read the following paragraph, consider what mindfulness means to you. How would you define it? Can you define it? Or do you consider it beyond definitions?
As many of you probably already know, the Buddhist term translated into English as “mindfulness” originates in the Pali term sati and in its Sanskrit counterpart smṛti. But mindfulness is not the direct (or only) translation of these terms. The terms sati/smṛti have been translated into mindfulness, attention, mindful attention, concentrated attention, inspection, awareness, mindful awareness, reflective awareness, self-recollection, memory, retention, circumspection, discernment, “to remember”, “to recollect”, “to bear in mind”, and many others.
Additionally, mindfulness itself has been defined in a variety of way, a universal and single definition of it still non-existent. Among the most popular definitions of mindfulness in the scientific literature is the one by Jon Kabat-Zinn, which defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgementally” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994). But many other definitions of mindfulness exist, including, but not limited to: 1) “an open and receptive attention to and awareness of what is occurring in the present moment” (Brown & Ryan, 2004); 2) “an awareness that arises through intentionally attending in an open, accepting, and discerning way to whatever is arising in the present moment” (Shapiro & Carlson, 2009); 3) “an attention that is receptive to the whole field of awareness and remains in an open state so that it can be directed to currently experienced sensations, thoughts, emotions, and memories” (Jha, Krompinger & Baime, 2007); and 4) “waking up from a life lived on automatic pilot and based in habitual responding” (Siegel, 2007).
On top of everything else, mindfulness has been explained as a trait (an inherent quality of human consciousness), a state (often experienced during meditation), and a practice (to induce a state of mindfulness and potentially lead to increases in trait mindfulness).
Finally, mindfulness has been discussed within Buddhism and meditation or as a standalone practice that can be accomplished without any of the former.
If you are not confused yet, I am utterly amazed.
But mindfulness is indeed all of these things and probably much, much more. So the question is not which definition is the right one. The question is not even how to come up with a unified definition of mindfulness (a task which may not be possible). The real questions are: How useful are these labels? If you go back to the start of this post, are you now better able to define mindfulness and explain what it means to you? Or are you simply back where you started?
Now let’s take a step back. As Lera Boroditsky discusses in her Ted Talk (linked above), our language may actually shape our reality. Our understanding of what mindfulness is will probably not only influence our perceptions of it, but also our engagement with it.
Ultimately, for any research to be conducted on mindfulness, the name must remain. But it is the implications of it that may need to reconsidered.
The definitions of mindfulness are even more important to the general population than they are for researchers. It is the individuals in the population who may benefit from this practice. It is the individuals who will either be attracted to it or repulsed by it. So perhaps we need to work on altering perceptions of mindfulness, rather than debate how to define a term that is often much greater than the sum of its parts.
I don’t know the best way to go about it. But there are several things that could be considered.
Firstly, for mindfulness to be taken seriously, and therefore potentially appear more attractive to the average population, mindfulness practices and programmes need to be kept pure. If we teach mindfulness, we need to be clear about what we are teaching. If we research mindfulness, we need to be clear about what we are researching. And above all, if we want to understand mindfulness in any real way, we have to practice it ourselves. Without personal practice, no teacher can truly embody mindfulness and everything that it involves.
Secondly, discussing mindfulness separate from its origins may directly limit our understanding of it, and therefore potentially have consequences on its benefits and effectiveness. I have previously discussed some possible dangers of teaching and practicing mindfulness without Buddhism. However, we must also consider that non-secular mindfulness may actually deter some people from engaging with it. The language we use in discussing and promoting mindfulness (e.g., Buddhism-based versus secular) will have a direct impact on whether different individuals choose to engage with it at all.
Finally, although a unified definition of mindfulness may be impossible, we should certainly strive to find a universal language to talk about it. Ultimately, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But the language we use to describe it will likely determine whether or not we will choose to smell the rose, or even our ability to perceive its existence at all.