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Operationalizing mindfulness

Prof Chris Goto-Jones discusses in this video how psychology has sought to limit or construct mindfulness so it is measurable and useful.
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So making sense of mindfulness in a scientific setting requires us to be as precise as possible about its boundaries and its parameters. And this is precisely so that we can get a reliable sense of how it might be used in a responsible way. So in this short session today, we’re going to take a look at some of the ways in which scientists have tried to delimit or construct a concept of mindfulness. That they can defend as measurable and useful. This will set us up nicely for the next session in which we’ll look into some of the ways that scientists seek to measure how mindful we are or, more likely perhaps, are not.
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Somewhere in the background to this idea of the operationalization of mindfulness. Is the fact that in modern societies we expect to be able to rely on scientific findings, as that closest to approximations to truth. And this is because in our extensively secular age, we no longer place so much faith in the proclamation of spiritual or religious authority. It’s scientists, not monks that tell us about truth, of course statements like that can sound quite alarming. So it might be worth taking a moment to think about whether this particular statement feels correct to us and what do you think? When you’re looking for truth, to whom do you turn?
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Whatever the case, the explosion of interest in mindfulness over the last few decades can be mapped rather closely to the development of the scientific evidentiary basis for its effectiveness. Intriguingly, there’s also probably a case to be made that the growing popularity of Buddhism in western societies today is tied to the impression that some of its insights are scientifically verifiable. That is in a special and slightly weird way Buddhism is actually a kind of science and there’s also a rather cynical case to be made that this representation of Buddhism. As unusually sympathetic to modern science, is a result of a deliberate ideological or political strategy.
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And you might like to think for yourselves about what political interests could be served by this. Rather than politics though, what is most interesting for us today is how scientists go about establishing the boundaries and parameters of mindfulness for empirical research and clinical practice. In reality, this process is far from simple. One approach, which might be on your mind already, might be to appeal to some form of original concept of mindfulness as a kind of benchmark for a scientific construct today. And in fact we do see signs of this approach in the field. However, at the very least, this approach generates some interesting historical, and some epistemological dilemmas.
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We’ll look at the historical issues in much more detail in the next module, when we look at the philosophical integrity of mindfulness. But for now, it’s important to be aware that it’s far from clear that there’s any consensus about the possibility. And even the possibility of an original meaning of mindfulness. Even if we’re willing to believe that mindfulness is essentially a Buddhist concept which is not as cut and dry as you may think. And that the word mindfulness is a translation of the Pali term Sati or smrti in Sanskrit. It’s not clear that mindfulness and Sati are identical in their meanings and associations. Indeed, it’s pretty clear that they’re not.
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The meaning of the English term is only meant as an approximation when it was first used as a translation in this context, probably in the 1880s. And arguably, it’s developed a life of its own since then. So just as we saw in the last session, in the introduction to this module. We need to be a little cautious about appeals to the authority of original or sometimes canonical mindfulness. Sometimes such language can serve to smuggle in an attitude of reverence that might not be inappropriate and might even undermine the credibility of scientific study. Remember scientific credibility rests, amongst other things, on the assumption of genuinely open and unbiased inquiry.
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In this context, even cleverly obscured emotional appeals to the Buddhist canon for original or pure concepts might be problematic. We turn now to the epistemological issues, that is issues in the theory of knowledge. Perhaps the most pressing dilemma is in terms of the nature of the knowledge with which mindfulness is supposed to be concerned. What does this mean? In brief, this means navigating the transformation of one type of knowledge into another. We might think of this as the problem of moving from subjective to objective knowledge. In more technical terms, we might see mindfulness as an introspective, heuristic or phenomenological tool.
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Which has been deployed as a means to gain subjective first person insight into the nature and behavior of one’s own mind or being. That is, mindfulness is a way for you to know about you. Then, we might recognize that it’s operationalization requires mindfulness to become instrumentally quantifiable. In terms constructed for objective third person calculations of the mental health of somebody other than you. And the work required to affect this transformation is non trivial, since it involves bridging between radically different methodologies, different worldviews, and different value systems. One of the most critical divides between these takes the form of the seemingly irresolvable confrontation between subjective and objective knowledge in modernity. So what does this mean?
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It means, amongst other things, that it’s very difficult perhaps even impossible to meet or observe from the outside what you experience is mindfulness. And it’s very difficult for me to take you seriously when you tell me about it unless I can verify it from the outside in some impartial way. We’ll look at these techniques, the measuring mindfulness in our next session. Of course while clinical psychologists or neuro scientists are very interested in constructing an operationalized concept of mindfulness. This does not mean in general, that they struggle with it at the level of its philosophical fundamentals. Indeed, with very few exceptions, they don’t get research grants for philosophical excavations, but for rigorous empirical results.
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This tends to mean that the science of mindfulness seeks to sidestep these issues of the origins of real mindfulness as a benchmark for their work. Instead, scientists attempt to construct the parameters of an operational version of mindfulness from the results of externally verifiable, experimental studies. In effect, this means that in the context of scientific inquiry rather than looking back to it’s alleged origins. The concept of mindfulness is being constructed and then reconstructed all of the time based on empirical evidence gleaned from successive experiments. That is the science of mindfulness is that these partially concerned with creating new conceptions of mindfulness that are useful and crisply defined in its own terms.
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Indeed this is why we often talk about this concept as construct mindfulness. Hence, rather than taking the form of elaborate philosophically sophisticated treaties on the nature and meaning on the nature of mindfulness. Which we’ll explore much more in the next module and various spiritual and philosophical traditions including in Buddhism. Definitions of construct mindfulness are usually reduced to a single sentence containing clear directions. Instead of intricate, textual, philological and philosophical cross-interrogations, comparisons of definitions then often simply involve drawing a table that lists salient factors. Interestingly, it’s the short operational definitions of mindfulness that have entered the public discourse most powerfully. So my guess is that you’re all already aware of this one by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
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Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally. We’ll return to this in the session on MBSR. One of the most intriguing consequences of this process of constructing mindfulness a scientific variable is that it’s characteristics are determined. By their utility in treatment protocols, and not by their conceptual coherence with bodies of spiritual or philosophical texts. In other words, the science of mindfulness cannot begin with the assumption that sati and construct mindfulness are identical. The scientist as a scientist cannot or should not have faith in this coincidence. In reality, of course, scientists are people too so these divides are not always perfectly maintained.
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Instead of revering a particular sense of original mindfulness, construct mindfulness should test various possibilities, in order to establish its parameters. And these may or may not ultimately converge around a form that resembles sati. It’s important to remember that from this standpoint, if construct mindfulness and sati diverge from each other profoundly. This does not necessarily mean that construct mindfulness isn’t real, or isn’t true or isn’t proper mindfulness. It just means that it is not sati. So I hope we’ve developed a bit of a sense of some of the challenges involved in formulating a scientifically usable. And useful conception of mindfulness today, which we’ve called construct mindfulness.
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We’ve seen for instance, that we need not confuse this for other conceptions of mindfulness that we might encounter in say, Buddhism. And given that the whole point of construct mindfulness is that we can measure it scientifically. We now need to take a look at how scientists do attempt to measure it in the next session.

In this video, I discuss the ways in which psychology has sought to limit and construct mindfulness in order to make sure that from an academic viewpoint, mindfulness is measurable and useful. We expect to rely on scientific findings, rather than spiritual or religious authorities, for the truth.

Do scientists provide truth, or do spiritual and religious leaders? Or perhaps it is possible for both science and religion to provide truth? When you’re looking for truth, who do you turn to? What are your thoughts on construct mindfulness?

Leiden University

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Demystifying Mindfulness

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