Can cultivating a mode of non-doing do anything for you?
Reprinted from the Mindfulness issue of Visions Journal, 2016, 12 (2), p. 5
I was first introduced to mindfulness in 1995, when I joined a research team in Toronto to evaluate whether a new mindfulness-based group intervention, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), would be helpful to reduce the risk of depressive relapse. Up until that point in my career, I had seen the benefits for some of my clients in being more present, that is, being more aware of their present-moment experience. But I did not know a way to systematically teach my clients how to be more present, or mindful. I was also not aware of any research on whether mindfulness would be helpful in reducing the risk of depressive relapse.
Since the mid-nineties, there has been an explosion of popular and scientific interest in mindfulness and mindfulness meditation practice. Mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) were developed to assist individuals to systematically cultivate mindfulness. Importantly, MBIs have emerged as a promising way to improve well-being and reduce psychological symptoms associated with both physical and mental health problems, in a way that puts the individual in charge of his or her own self-care. The surge in interest in mindfulness has led policy makers in some countries to evaluate whether MBIs may be helpful in addressing challenges in a wide range of areas (such as health, mental health and education).
What is mindfulness?
“Mindfulness” refers both to a concept and to the practice of cultivating mindfulness. Mindfulness has been described by well-known mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn as a non-judgemental, present-centred awareness in which each thought, feeling and sensation that one notices in oneself is acknowledged and accepted as it is.1
To introduce you to mindfulness, let’s try a little exercise. Take a moment and check in where your mind is now. You may find that you are focusing your attention on reading this article. However, some of you may find that your mind has wandered somewhere else. Perhaps it drifted back to something that happened to you earlier in the day. Or perhaps it has jumped ahead to something that might be happening after you read this article. Perhaps your mind is making comments about this article. If you find that your mind has wandered, you are in good company. A study out of Harvard shows that people’s minds wandered about 47% of the time across a wide range of activities.2 In other words, a human mind is a wandering mind.
What we just did with this exercise was to practise mindfulness, which is simply to remember to check in on our present-moment experience. This can often prove to be a little more challenging in everyday life, but the principle of the exercise is the same. When we more systematically engage in mindfulness meditation, part of what we are doing is checking in on our present-moment experience, non-judgementally, more frequently and intentionally than we might otherwise do.
Why practise mindfulness?
Research from the same Harvard study suggests that when our mind wanders off to unpleasant, neutral or even pleasant topics, we are not as happy as we are when our mind hasn’t wandered—that is, when we are present with what we are doing in the moment. This suggests that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Where our minds go can affect our feelings, behaviours and physical sensations—even our other thoughts. Cultivating mindfulness may be one way to help us better deal with our wandering mind and improve our well-being. At the same time, there is a growing body of research showing that practising mindfulness can reduce stress and improve well-being.3
How can I cultivate mindfulness?
In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn developed mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) by extracting key mindfulness practices from Buddhist meditation practices while leaving out the religious aspects of these traditions. In this way, he made mindfulness techniques more accessible to the Western world by creating a secular version of mindfulness. MBSR was designed to help individuals with serious medical illnesses and/or untreatable chronic pain by aiding them to systematically cultivate mindfulness in order to improve the quality of their lives and reduce their suffering. MBSR is an eight-session group program, typically offered in weekly two- to three-hour sessions, along with an all-day retreat. The program focuses on training through guided mindfulness exercises.
MBSR has since given birth to several offspring, including mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT),4 intended to reduce the risk of depressive relapse. MBCT, which follows a format similar to that of MBSR, is recommended for the treatment of recurrent depression in Canada and internationally, including in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. Several other group mindfulness-based interventions have since been developed, including but not limited to programs to promote mindful eating awareness in order to help those with disordered eating patterns, relapse prevention training to prevent relapse of substance use disorders following rehabilitation, mental fitness training to reduce stress and trauma in military personnel, and programs to improve maternal well-being during and after pregnancy.
Other interventions include SMART in Education/Mindfulness-Based Emotional Balance, Cool Minds™ (for adolescents), A Still Quiet Place (for children of all ages), mindfulness-based elder care, mindfulness-based art therapy for cancer patients, Mindful Leadership™, Mindful Schools, MindUP™, Mindfulness without Borders, and trauma-sensitive MBSR for women with post-traumatic stress disorder. While these various interventions differ with respect to their target populations and the problems being addressed, they all have at their core systematic training in mindfulness meditation.
Psychological treatments have also been developed based on the principles of mindfulness. These include, for example, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT). These interventions differ from those mentioned above in that cultivating mindfulness through guided meditations represents only a small part. These interventions also include, for example, behaviour-change and acceptance strategies in addition to mindfulness strategies to improve emotional regulation and increase psychological flexibility. Finally, Mindfulness- and Acceptance-based Group Therapy (MAGT) represents an integration of group-based mindfulness interventions and ACT for social anxiety disorder.5
Do mindfulness-based interventions help?
Over the past 30 years, research has shown that MBIs have proved versatile in treating a wide range of physical illnesses and psychological disorders, reducing stress and improving psychological well-being. For example, there is good evidence for mindfulness-based interventions in the treatment of anxiety and depression.6 MBIs have also been shown to be helpful for a wide range of other issues, including substance abuse, eating disorders and binge eating, insomnia, chronic pain, psoriasis, type 2 diabetes, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, HIV, cancer and heart disease.7
Mindfulness-based interventions have several other benefits in addition to their versatility. First, they have lower dropout rates than other psychological interventions, attesting to their broader acceptability. Also, reports of side effects are uncommon. For example, in a recent review of the efficacy of MBCT in preventing depressive relapse, there was no difference in side effects reported by those using MBCT and those in the control groups.8 Finally, group mindfulness-based interventions are cost-effective, with MBCT, for example, requiring five facilitator hours per group participant.9
If you find that you are rushing through life without really noticing what is happening in the moment, or even if you would just like to improve your sense of well-being, practising mindfulness may be useful for you. If you would simply like to find out more about what mindfulness is, I hope you find what you are looking for in this comprehensive issue on mindfulness.
About the author
Mark is a Registered Psychologist at the Vancouver CBT Centre and a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Lau has over 20 years of experience providing clinical services and professional training in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). He is an Associate Editor of the journal Mindfulness. For more information on Dr. Lau, visit www.vancouvercbt.ca/dr_lau.html
Kabat-Zinn, Jon. (1990). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. New York, NY: Delta.
Killingsworth, M.A. & Gilbert, D.T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330(6006), 932.
Keng, S.L., Smoski, M.J. & Robins, C.J. (2011). Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: A review of empirical studies. Clinical Psychology Review, 31(6), 1041-1056.
Segal, Z.V., Williams, J.M.G. & Teasdale, J.D. (2002). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression: A new approach to preventing relapse. New York, NY: Guilford.
Fleming, J.E. & Kocovski, N.L. (2013). Mindfulness and acceptance-based group therapy for social anxiety disorder: A treatment manual. 2nd ed. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
Hofmann, S.G., Sawyer, A.T., Witt, A.A. & Oh, D. (2010). The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting Clinical Psychology, 78(2), 169-183.
Khoury, B., Lecomte, T., Fortin, G., Masse, M., Therien, P., Bouchard, V., Chapleau, M.A., Paquin, K. & Hofmann, S.G. (2013). Mindfulness-based therapy: A comprehensive meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 33(6):763-771.
Kuyken, W., Warren, F.C., Taylor, R.S., Whalley, B., Crane, C., Bondolfi, G., Hayes, R., Huijbers, M., Ma, H., Schweizer, S., Segal, Z., Speckens, A., Teasdale, J.D., Van Heeringen, K., Williams, M., Byford, S., Byng, R. & Dalgleish, T. (2016). Efficacy of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy in prevention of depressive relapse: An individual patient data meta-analysis from randomized trials. JAMA Psychiatry, 73(6), 565-574.
Teasdale, J.D., Segal, Z.V., Williams, J.M., Ridgeway, V.A., Soulsby, J.M. & Lau, M.A. (2000). Prevention of relapse/recurrence in major depression by mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. Journal of Consulting Clinical Psychology, 68(4), 615-623.