“Only this moment is life.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
Many forms therapy and spiritual practice speak of mindfulness. Dispositional mindfulness (sometimes known as trait mindfulness) is a type of consciousness that has only recently been given serious research considerations. It is defined as a keen awareness and attention to our thoughts and feelings in the present moment, and the research shows that the ability to engage in this prime intention has many physical, psychological, and cognitive benefits.
Mindfulness meditation is different. It has taken the Buddhist practice of mindfulness and introduced it to the western world as a form of preparing and training. Those who practice mindfulness meditation are often encouraged to have a “sitting practice” where they have set aside time to meditate.
In the West, this practice is considered a means to an end. We will be calmer, have lower blood pressure, better relationships, and less stress if we use this practice. While all this is true, the mindfulness aspect of this practice — the essence of this style of meditation was not designed as a means to an end — it was designed to be a way of conscious living. Mindfulness, when viewed in this way, becomes a quality in our life — a trait, not a state we enter into during practice.
Don’t get me wrong — mindfulness meditation and the wide variety of training programs and opportunities are all valuable exercises. But the original intention of mindfulness and the science now surrounding dispositional mindfulness may be at the very root of how we maintain hope, perseverance, and mental health. Here is just a sample of the research outcomes from nearly 100 studies with dispositional mindfulness:
- Lower levels of perceived stress.
- Lower use of avoidance coping strategies.
- Fewer depressive symptoms.
- Greater perseverance.
- Less anxiety.
- More hope.
- Reduced post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.
- Improved adaptive coping strategies.
- Reduced rumination.
- Less catastrophizing about pain.
- Diminished neuroticism.
- Improved executive function.
- Decreased impulsivity.
- Increased emotional stability.
This is an impressive list as the intervention we are talking about is a non-judging awareness of our thoughts and actions. The non-judgment is an important aspect of this practice. Cultivating a witness, a self that views our own experience with a benevolent prospective, has importance and impact. This means that even before we attempt to change our thoughts, there is value — exceptional value — in simply noticing them.
This wobbly space between perception and response becomes clearer once we are given permission to examine the gap. Dispositional mindfulness is an invitation to widen that gap simply by noticing it exists. As we step back from our moment-to-moment experience we are cultivating our mindfulness, which then opens the way to responsiveness and the possibility and potential to shift our perception for the better.
As the Beat poet Alan Ginsberg suggested one way to enter this gap is to “notice what you notice.” The practice is simple enough. As you survey your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in a present moment try to do so without judgment. This pause for thought is, in itself, the very dispositional mindfulness that research is showing has so many benefits. In essence, the practice is strengthened when we catch ourselves thinking.