There are two main theoretical frameworks defining mindfulness. The first of these, developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, relies on paying attention to the present moment, non-judgmentally and therefore free of emotional and moral assessment. Meditation is an important tool for mindfulness in this approach.1 In contrast, Ellen Langer’s concept of mindfulness does not rely on nor promote meditation. Rather to be mindful is to actively notice novelty and the full context of a situation, guarding against repetitive thought patterns and habitual categorizations from the past (e.g., How does my spouse’s face look different across the breakfast table this morning as compared with yesterday morning?).
I find that more often when we talk about mindfulness, we implicitly refer to Kabat-Zinn’s concept, equating mindfulness with meditation.
This summer, TIME Magazine issued a Special Edition: Mindfulness: The New Science of Health and Happiness. In an article titled Can You Shed Pounds on a Mindfulness Diet?, Kathleen Mulpeter describes research investigating the effects of mindfulness on health outcomes and weight status. In one study, participants asked to answer a set of mindful questions while eating fared better at maintaining weight loss than those who practiced self-compassion meditation.2 These mindful questions included “How does this meal taste?” but also “How kind are you to yourself now that you ate this meal?” While participants in this group were instructed to record their answers in a food diary, benefits extended to those who chose not to write anything but simply kept the diary open while they ate. In short, the journal’s sheer presence was a reminder to approach the meal with a little more thoughtfulness, and a little more kindness.
To me, these findings suggest how truly accessible mindfulness can be. In the above study, mealtime mindfulness involved focusing the mind on what research refers to as concrete construals (e.g., How am I eating?) versus abstract construals (e.g., Why am I eating?). As much as mindfulness could be about counting the folds on the raisin or meditating for 40 minutes before picking up the fork, it doesn’t have to be. We need not feel guilty that our monkey minds jump around instead of settle as we sit down to eat. In fact, rather than judging our busy thoughts, could we use them in a mindful way? That is, can we keep asking questions especially when we think we know the answers?*
[*According to Ellen Langer, the reason we often don’t notice things is that we assume we already know them. And yet we’re more apt to enjoy an experience when we notice its newness!! Well, the thing is, it’s always new. Every time we sit down to eat. Even if we’ve warmed up the same leftovers for the past five nights -- or always order the same dish, cooked the same way, sitting with the same person, at the our favorite restaurant. When we think we know the taste already or how it will our make our body feel, we fail to really taste and really feel.]
1 Pagnini, F., & Philips, D. (2015). Being Mindful about Mindfulness. The Lancet, 2. Retrieved from www.thelancet.com/psychiatry
2 Mantzios, M., & Wilson, J. C. (2014). Making concrete construals mindful: A novel approach for developing mindfulness and self-compassion for assisting weight loss. Psychol Health, 29(4), 422-41.