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Mindful : December 2017
uate students at Harvard in the 1970s. But they had difficulty convincing the powers that be in the psychology department to take the study of medi- tation seriously, in large part because it didn’t fit the behaviorist paradigm that was in vogue at the time. In fact, when Davidson proposed doing his PhD dissertation on meditation, his advisor warned him that it would be “a career-ending move.” So they shifted focus. Davidson became an expert in affective neu- roscience and performed several groundbreaking studies on emotions and the brain, while Goleman became a celebrated columnist for the New York Times and wrote several influ- ential books, including his hallmark bestseller, Emotional Intelligence. Nev- ertheless, their interest in studying the effects of meditation persisted. A key turning point came in 2000, when Davidson and other scientists came together for a series of high-level discussions with the Dalai Lama on destructive emotions. At one point, the Dalai Lama turned to Davidson and challenged him to take some of the time-honored meditation prac- tices that focus on taming these kinds of emotions and test them rigorously in the lab, devoid of their religious trappings. “And if you find that they’re of benefit to people,” Goleman recalls the Dalai Lama saying, “then spread them as widely as you can.” The question that fascinated Goleman and Davidson was what were the lasting traits that meditation produces that go beyond the height- ened states one often experiences in the session itself. From their point of view, meditation’s impact on health and performance was important, but even more intriguing was the role the practice played in cultivating endur- ing qualities, such as selflessness, equanimity, and impartial compas- sion. Back in their grad school days, Goleman and Davidson came up with a clever hypothesis to explain this phenomenon for a journal article they were writing: The after is the before for the next during. In this case, the after related to the internal changes → Mindfulness now carries a broad, popular—and there- fore inevitably loose—defi- nition. It’s used to refer to generally paying attention in life, but it also carries more precise definitions, including a human capability of being aware of one’s own mind, body, and surroundings, as well as practices to cultivate that capability. Scientific research cannot rely on the broad defini- tions in common parlance. Researchers require an empirical definition, one that is not philosophical or spiri- tual and points to something as concrete and measurable as possible. One of the first elements of a definition of mindfulness is to distinguish mindfulness practice (the instruction given as a means to foster inherent mindfulness) from mindful- ness as a basic human quality or ability. A fur ther distinction exists in the literature between “state mindfulness” (the immediate experience of being mindful) and “trait mindfulness” or “disposi- tional mindfulness” (lasting habits that indicate one is being more mindful in daily life). One of the most common definitions of state mindfulness is from Jon Kabat-Zinn: “Mindfulness is the awareness that arises by paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” What Is Mindfulness? In the laboratory, another component of the definition of mindfulness concerns the instructions subjects are given when they are asked to “practice mindfulness.” Once you’ve defined “mindfulness,” the next big- gest challenge is measuring it, through either “self-report” questionnaires that usually focus on trait mindfulness (how mindful you are in daily life) or technologies such as EEGs and fMRIs that mea- sure brain activity to try to identify “states” of mindful- ness or long-term alterations in brain function. A very significant paper was published by four leading researchers in the October 2015 issue of American Psychologist (“Investigat- ing the Phenomenological Matrix of Mindfulness-related Practices from a Neuro- cognitive Perspective”) that approached defining mindful- ness not by trying to arrive at a single definition, but rather by mapping it as a “contin- uum of practices involving states and processes.” It delves into, for example, the differences between prac- tices that emphasize “focused attention” from those that emphasize “open monitor- ing.” While both of these are often called “mindfulness,” the first emphasizes focusing on a specific object while the second encourages general- ized awareness, and what is cultivated will likely differ. ● DEFINITIONS Everyone thinks they know what it means, and that’s part of the problem. December 2017 mindful 55