Mindfulness meditation originally derives from a practice introduced in Buddhism. In two fundamental speeches transcribed in the Pali language from teachings handed down orally, the Anapanasati Sutta (Ajahn Sucitto 2000; Ajahn Sucitto 2001; Thich Nhat Hanh, 1988) and the Satipatthana Sutta (Bhikkhu Analayo 2004; Goldstein 2013; Thich Nhat Hanh, 1990), Buddha describes a meditative practice that consists in mindfully orienting the attention towards what we can perceive in the present moment as the natural breath and the sensations of our body (heat, pain, vibration, …), towards the kind of sensations (pleasant, unpleasant and neutral) generated by the perceptions observed in the body, towards the states of consciousness that detect the states of the mind (mental dullness, clarity, agitation …), and towards the “mental objects” (discursive thoughts, concepts, images …).
The word used in the Pali language to describe the awareness of the present moment is sati. It was the orientalist Thomas W. Rhys Davids who first used the term “mindfulness” to translate the Pali word, sati. Actually, mindfulness means remembering rather than being aware, for the latter concept we can use the word awareness more appropriately. However, the remembering aspect of the word mindfulness can properly describe the attitude of sati that is to remind us to be aware of what is in the present moment with an accepting and non-judgmental attitude, letting go of everything that our mind evokes from the past and foresees of the future. Mindfulness is the awareness that is activated through bringing attention to psycho-body experiences as they happen moment by moment.
In literature, many definitions of mindfulness have been given. Here are some: mindfulness is “keeping one’s consciousness alive on the present reality” (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1987, p.11), “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment” (Kabat-Zinn, 2003), or “a receptive attention to and awareness of present moment events and experiences”, (Brown, & Ryan, 2007, p.212), and finally, “(1) a greater sensitivity to one’s
environment, (2) more openness to new information, (3) the creation of new categories for structuring perception, and (4) enhanced awareness of multiple perspectives in problem solving” (Langer, 2000, p.2).
The fact that mindfulness meditation is often called simply mindfulness emphasizes the fact that this word is intended to indicate both a meditative practice and, more generally, a mindful attitude in the conduct of the activities we do daily. This attitude develops from the ability to be present in every moment, observing with awareness without judging. Therefore, an equanimous observation of life that moves outside and within us. We can also say that mindfulness is a faculty of the mind that can be cultivated and developed through meditation along with other factors, such as concentration and understanding what is healthy and what is not healthy for us. We talk about a mindfulness approach to living that, over time, characterizes the person who acquires a mindfulness trait of personality. This lifestyle, but also this personality trait, can be trained with meditative practices.
Many scholars have investigated the benefits of using mindfulness meditation and, more generally, a mindfulness lifestyle (Brown, Ryan, & Creswell, 2007, Sedlmeier, Eberth, Schwarz, Zimmermann, Haarig, Jaeger, & Kunze, 2012). Several experiments have also been carried out in the neurological scientific field, aimed at measuring how mindfulness acts on cognition, emotions, behavior and physiology. The results showed that mindfulness improves attentional skills and develops the ability to address present experiences with awareness, openness and acceptance (Lutz, Slagter, Dunne, & Davidson, 2008; Tang, Hölzel, & Posner, 2015; Calati, & Serretti, 2011). It was also shown that the following benefits derive from these skills (Good et al., 2016):
– increase of emotional self-regulation and ability to manage stress,
– increase of self-awareness and the perception of self-efficacy,
– increase of cognitive capacity and flexibility, development of metacognitive skills,
– increase in self-regulation in behaviors and reduction of responsiveness automatism,
– increase in neuroplasticity and slowing of brain aging.
The practice of mindfulness meditation arises in a spiritual context, such as Buddhism, in which it is considered a means to reach Enlightenment, , a term used to describe the condition where one has liberated oneself from suffering and has reached a state of wise and compassionate bliss. However, thanks to its benefits briefly described above, mindfulness has also spread to the West, in areas not only concerned with spiritual research: in general that of wellness (e.g. Brown, & Ryan, 2003; Shapiro, Oman, Thoresen, Plante, & Flinders, 2008), that of employment by increasing performance and improving interpersonal relationships (e.g. Dane, 2011; Hyland, Lee, & Mills, 2015; Pinck, & Sonnentag, 2017; Sutcliffe, Vogus, & Dane, 2016); that of education increasing learning capacity and academic performance (e.g. Hassed, & Chambers, 2014; Shapiro, Brown, & Astin, 2011).
Mindfulness spread to the West in the early 80s, in the clinical context with the MBSR protocol (Mindful Based Stress Reduction) proposed by Kabat Zinn (2003) for the reduction of stress in terminally ill patients. This protocol, structured in eight meetings of about two hours, instructs the participants in the meditative practice and the development of a mindful attitude in daily activities, such as in the consumption of meals. The fact that this training has been codified in a protocol has contributed to the dissemination of the MBSR, as well as in hospitals, and in other institutional areas such as business and university, where it was convenient to use standardized procedures. Unlike the organizational-institutional contexts, the private sphere of personal growth and development finds a myriad of different approaches to meditative practices. The approaches differ in duration, course structure and inspiration, where the latter can be more or less oriented to Buddhist philosophy. The aims of individuals are mostly related to improving the quality of one’s life, thus reducing stress and anxiety, increasing cognitive skills and achieving a positive and pacified state of mind.
How to practice
The meditative mindfulness practice consists in dedicating a pre-established period of time to the assumption of a comfortable, stable and motionless position, during which the eyes will be closed, turning one’s attention to the natural breath and the sensations that this generates in the body (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, Thich Nhat Hanh, 1987, 1988). When thoughts, images, memories, and in general any mental formation arise, and this is inevitable, it is necessary to bring back attention to the breath in a gentle way, trying not to judge oneself for getting distracted. Even when distraction comes from emotions that arise unexpectedly or are already present from the beginning of the practice, the instruction is to become a witness that observes their birth, development and cessation, to capture the nuances, the changes and their incarnation in the form of body sensations. One therefore tries to accept them in an equanimous way, observing them, and when possible comes back to focus on the sensations connected to the breath.
The mental formations that arise during the meditative practice, distract the mind from focusing on the meditative object, for example the breath. To regain concentration it is necessary to perform three steps: the first is to realize that you have been distracted, the second is to “let go” what has distracted you, the third is to return to the experience of observing the meditative object as it is in the present moment. The numerous repetitions of this cyclical process experienced during the meditative practice, “train” the attentive capacity of focusing on a definite object and the ability to monitor the external events and mental formations that occur in the present moment, in a non-judgmental manner and therefore with equanimity acceptance (Lutz, Slagter, Dunne, & Davidson, 2008). The meditative practice, we can say, consists precisely in repeating this return to the breath and to the physical sensations or, in general, to the object of meditation innumerable times. With it, immediate benefits related to the ability to mindfully wrap the meditative object are developed and this can lead to states of absorption that generate a feeling of peace and calm, harbingers of immediate physical and psychological well-being.
There is a version of the formal practice that consists of the so-called “mindful walking”, Cankama in the Pali language. During this practice, considered very powerful in the Buddhist meditative traditions, attention is drawn to the sensations generated by the movement of the feet and by their contact with the earth while walking. In this case, we will try to give equal importance to the movement of the feet, focusing on it in a similar manner as we did on the breath in the “sitting practice. The benefits of this practice are related to the fact that in this case we turn our attention to an ordinary activity such as walking and this trains us to bring mindfulness into the activities of daily living.
We have already underlined that mindfulness can be referred to the practice but also to a type of attitude towards the activities of life. This double meaning is highlighted by the use of terms: states of mindfulness and personality mindfulness traits (Cahn, & Polich, 2013). When people engage in mindfulness training, it is assumed that their ability to be aware during meditative practice increases, i.e. the state of mindfulness increases. Furthermore, it is assumed that the results of this practice repeated over time translate into something more enduring that concerns the predisposition to be aware in everyday life and in developing a personality mindfulness trait. In other words, when individuals generate deeper states of mindfulness during meditation, they develop a greater tendency to show mindful mental attitudes and behaviors even outside of meditation, in the context of daily life. And, as we have repeatedly pointed out, this has shown to be beneficial to psychological health.
Mindfulness in university
Many theoretical and experimental contributions have emphasized the benefits gained from using the practice of mindfulness meditation in the university (Hassed, & Chambers, 2014; Shapiro, Brown, & Astin, 2011). In particular it has been highlighted that benefits from the meditative practice can be relevant for effective learning and academic achievements (Hassed et al., 2014; Shapiro et al., 2011). Benefits consist in emotional self-regulation (Chambers, Gullone, & Allen, 2009, Tang et al., 2015), attention regulation (Lutz et al., 2008), increased awareness (Tang et al., 2015), and cognitive and metacognitive processes (Hussain, 2015; Jankowski et al., 2014; Fabio et al., 2017; Zeidan et al., 2010). We also quote the mindfulness non-meditative approach by Ellen Langer (1997, 2000), named socio-cognitive langerian mindfulness, which, in educational contexts, claims that mindfulness develops flexible thinking that generates greater sensitivity to the context in which we act by creating new conceptual categories (Khoury, Knäuper, Pagnini, Trent, Chiesa, & Carrière, 2017).
Moreover, numerous studies have been done to assess the effectiveness on well-being and academic performances of time-limited (typically 8 weeks) mindfulness-based training offered to university students (McConville, McAleer, &Hahne 2017; Todd, 2017). The results have shown that mindfulness improves self-regulation (Canby, Cameron, Calhoun, & Buchanan, 2015), increases self-efficacy (e.g. Fallah, 2017), enhances attentive skills (e.g. de Bruin, Meppelink, & Bögels, 2015), and cognitive performance (Ching, Koo, Tsai, & Chen, 2015). In a recent systematic review, McConville et al. (2017) analyzed 19 studies, selected from 5355 papers, carried out in medical and health Universities where mindfulness-based trainings have been provided and assessed, and they concluded that mindfulness-based interventions decrease stress, anxiety, and depression of university students while improving mindfulness, mood, self-efficacy and empathy. As a result, it is not surprising that mindfulness-based training has been introduced at various universities around the world through short or permanent courses. Regarding the second option, it should be noted that in many renowned universities, such as Harvard University (wellness.huhs.harvard.edu/Mindfulness) or the University of Oxford (oxfordmindfulness.org), permanent trainings in mindfulness are offered, often within wellness services centers, where students can learn how to deal with anxiety and stress.
There are also educational experiences in which mindfulness has been introduced in academic courses. In this regard, one can consult the article by Mirabai Bush (2011), one of the founders of the Center for Contemplative Mind (www.contemplativemind.org/), which describes several experiences of this kind distributed throughout the United States. Dobkin and Hutchinson (2013) examined and compared experiences in fourteen medical universities where courses of mindfulness were introduced, two of which integrated mindfulness into their curricula. Finally, we cite the significant contribution of Kuecher and Stedham (2017) which describes how mindfulness was incorporated into an MBA course in order to foster transformational learning (Taylor, 2007).
Mindfulness and metacognition
Self-regulated learning requires metacognition skills, in other words, the ability to observe the functioning of one’s own mind. The concept of metacognition, introduced by Flavell (1979), has been extensively studied in literature, highlighting aspects such as monitoring one’s own thought and attention levels, evaluating one’s own cognitive procedures, identifying possible errors and planning possible corrections. Metacognition is inevitably linked to the concept of awareness, and for this reason there are several studies that correlate metacognition and the effects of mindfulness on cognition (Hussain, 2015; Jankowski et al., 2014).
Mindfulness and attention regulation
Mindfulness meditation can be divided into methods that require focused attention (FA) and those that imply an open monitoring of the present moment (OM) experience (Lutz, Slagter., Dunne, & Davidson, 2008). During the meditative practice we typically move from a first initial phase of FA, in which the mind trains to address a “sustained” attention on a specific object, to one of OM, where the mind is allowed to perform non-reactive monitoring of the experiential content of the moment. Attention is said to be “focused” when there are no signs of a “wandering mind”, simply put, when the mind spans thoughts, images, emotions without having a specific goal. In general, regulating attention means adjusting its three basic components: alerting (readiness in preparation for an impending stimulus); orienting (the selection of specific information from multiple sensory stimuli); and conflict monitoring (monitoring and resolution of conflict between computations in different neural areas, also referred to as executive attention) (Tang, Hölzel & Posner, 2015). It has been shown by Tang, Hölzel and Posner (2015) that practicing meditation for long periods, positively affects all three components of attention regulation. In particular, Chiesa, Calati and Serretti (2011) have indicated the phases of FA associated with significant improvements in selective and executive attention, while the OM phases, characterized by open monitoring of internal and external stimuli, are associated with an improvement in capacity of non-focused attention. Thus they concluded that the early stages of meditation could be associated with improvements in orientation and conflict monitoring, while the later phases could be mainly associated with an improvement in alerting (Chiesa, Calati, & Serretti, 2011). Specifically, during the FA meditation phase the subsequent phases follow: (a) the development of conflict monitoring linked to the continuous detection of a wandering mind, (b) the changes in attention related to disengagement from distracting stimuli and reorientation of attention towards target objects, (c) selective attention linked to the inhibition of cognitive processes different from the focus of concentration and, finally, when the practice advances (d) increasing levels of sustained attention on a specific object.
How to measure
There are several instruments of measurement of mindfulness used in literature in various areas of employment. These are self-reported questionnaires that measure the mindfulness states achieved during meditative practice and personality mindfulness traits (Sauer, et al., 2013). Regarding the states of mindfulness, we mention the Toronto Mindfulness Scale (TMS) (Lau et al., 2006). Regarding the extent of personality traits, we mention the most important: the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ) (Baer, Smith, Hopkins, Krietemeyer & Toney, 2006) and the Mindfulness Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS) (Brown et al., 2003).