Mindfulness is seeing increased interest and popularity. The upside is that “mindfulness” is no longer a fringe word or activity. The downside is that it has been acquired to mean a range of things, which can be confusing to people who are new to mindfulness. Even among respected professionals in the field, there are not accepted definitions around mindfulness. As a result, I have created a framework to describe what mindfulness is, how to develop it, and what the outcomes are.
The framework I have developed has four layers, and each layer enables the layer below it. The top layer is mindfulness, which is a skill that any of us can develop through practice, as demonstrated by numerous evidence-based studies. Mindfulness in turn enables the next layer down, the outcome of being more present and more aware. When we are present and aware, this in turn supports the development of certain mindfulness-based skills, the third layer in the framework. These skills include cognitive focus, attentive listening, self-awareness, and emotional regulation. Each of these mindfulness-based skills in turn facilitates other outcomes, the fourth layer in the framework. Cognitive focus leads to improved performance; attentive listening is central to developing empathy and connection; self-awareness is a necessary precursor to self-management; and emotional regulation is an important part of resilience, of dealing with challenging circumstances.
The top two layers of the framework – mindfulness, and being present and aware – are often seen as the same thing. This makes sense – if you look up “mindful” in the dictionary, the definition is “aware.” The two words are frequently used interchangeably. However, the distinction between these two layers is an important one. Many of us have moments and experiences of being present and aware. But if we develop the skill of mindfulness, we are deepening and extending our ability to be present and aware, as a more ongoing way of being. The terms used around this distinction are mindfulness as a “state” (the immediate, temporary experience) vs. as a “trait” (a dispositional or lasting quality).
When the top two layers of the framework are muddled, it creates confusion around how to develop the skill of mindfulness, and how to reap the demonstrated benefits of mindfulness. There are activities that we participate in that create moments of feeling present and aware, such as journaling or reflecting, going for a walk, or being out in nature. However, it is important to understand that these activities are different than dedicated mindfulness practices, that develop the skill of mindfulness. In order to cultivate mindfulness as a skill, you must establish and maintain a regular mindfulness practice.
“Practice” means engaging in specific, guided exercises that develop concentration capacities by focusing attention on your immediate experience. These exercises repeatedly bring attention to an object, such as your breath, then expand attention to your broader experience, such as noticing what you are thinking and feeling. Mindfulness exercises encourage you to maintain an open, non-judgmental attitude to your experience. So “practice” in this context is no different than practice to improve your ability to play a sport, play an instrument, or learn a new language – you engage in exercises designed to develop specific skills. The proven benefits of mindfulness, like cognitive focus and improved performance, correlate with the development of mindfulness as a skill, as a result of ongoing practice.
If you want to develop the skill of mindfulness, and the benefits that come with it, make sure that you distinguish relaxing and peaceful activities, during which you may feel present and aware, from a mindfulness practice that is specifically meant to develop the skill of mindfulness.