What is mindfulness and why should we be paying attention to it in our individual and organizational work in health systems? As the calendars change and we begin to reflect on the year past and what is to come, it seemed like a good time to ask that question.
Shifts in the calendar are always strange and wonderful events for me. On one hand, it seems that the world has changed with new possibilities, (literally) new calendars and date stamps on everything, and what seems to be a wave of renewal and energy among friends and family. It is the time when people make resolutions and aspirations to make the world and their part of it a better place. As I’ve written before, this is not unproblematic and often leads to failure, but the act of reflection is one of the consistent benefits regardless of whether goals are achieved or not.
Mindfulness, an intentional act of paying active attention to the present moment in a non-judgemental manner, has been found to produce benefits for individuals and organizations alike. University of Toronto professor and psychoanalyst Scott Bishop and others have sought to take the idea of mindfulness further by looking at what this act of paying attention really is and how it could benefit human wellbeing. In their 2006 paper, Bishop and his colleagues reviewed the state of the literature on mindfulness-based approaches to health and wellbeing and convened meetings with those doing research in this are with an aim to come up with a more specific definition of mindfulness suitable for research.
To that end, they came up with the following:
We propose a two-component model of mindfulness. The first component involves the self-regulation of attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience, thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment. The second component involves adopting a particular orientation toward one’s experiences in the present moment, an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance.
This model has some critical features worth expanding upon, particularly for those of us working on issues of health.
1. Self-regulation of attention. Unlike a traditional marketing approaches that seek to capture our attention and dictate things to us, self-regulation implies some sense of resistance to the messages that come or are thrown up at us (think: Times Square for the most extreme example of this) and control. It is tied in with self-determination theory and many other health behaviour change theories that stress the importance of having self-directed influence over our cognitions and emotions rather than having them unduly, mindlessly, influencing us. It sounds simple, but it isn’t easy when you’re bombarded by media messages.
2. Maintaining focus on the immediate experience and the present moment. Here I turn to sage wisdom of Yoda in his conversation with Luke Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi about the problems Luke has with sustained attention on the present, rather than fantasizing about the future.
A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind. This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away… to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. What he was doing. Adventure. Excitement. A Jedi craves not these things. You are reckless.
Jon Kabat Zinn has written and spoken extensively on this problem of sustained attention on problems and how our attentive resources tend to focus on almost anything but the present moment. Just spend a moment paying attention to where your mind is right now and it is probably not fully in the present.
3. Encourage curiosity, openness, and acceptance. These three points, joined together, are ones that are near and dear to my heart because they are so poorly done within my world of public health research and practice, despite what it may appear. Curiosity means supporting innovation — translating knowledge into actionable products that have transformative value (that is, it changes the way you see, act and engage with things – including ideas) — is something spoken of widely, but rarely achieved. Funders, researchers, policy makers and politicians alike are all becoming more risk averse it seems and that is almost antithetical to curiosity, which necessarily means going into the unknown.
And acceptance builds on the other two, drawing us to consider the value in new ideas and perspectives that differ from ours. It means attention to diversity and a welcoming of difference. That kind of thinking however, steers us into the realm of complexity, where the idea of best practice (a concept that seeks to reduce difference) is inappropriate in favour of good or appropriate practice.
Becoming mindful enables us to attend to the complexity of human systems and can guide our thoughts and actions in a manner more aligned with our purpose for doing what we do in the first place. It is that re-alignment of purpose and the desire to understand what we’ve done in light of what we desire that prompts such attention to New Year’s resolutions this time of year. A more mindful take on this suggests that we may wish to consider doing this much more than just at the end of December and beginning of January. Imagine what we might do then?
Happy Mindful New Year!