A controversial article published this week in Psychological Inquiry by Eric Garland, Barbara Fredrickson, Philippe Goldin and Norman Farb claims to be offering a solution to what the authors maintain is a vacuum in the study of mindfulness. Their contribution, the “Mindfulness-to-Meaning Theory” (MMT) professes to cast the net wider to redress this gap.
The authors criticize what they see as a deliberately narrow and pragmatic neglect of the historically ethical context of mindfulness in order to gain “traction in clinics and communities worldwide.”
This has been successful but at the expense of the exploration of the adaptive behaviors and positive states of mind that traditional contexts of mindfulness embrace.
They suggest that the research is imbalanced towards the extinction of maladaptive habits, in much the same way as the field of psychology was before Martin Seligman famously challenged us to develop the psychology of flourishing – now popularly referred to as Positive Psychology.
The authors are going further than merely suggesting such a link exists. They are detailing the actual mechanism by which mindfulness improves our mental states by allowing us to:
“de-center from stress appraisals into a metacognitive state of awareness, resulting in broadened attention to novel information that accommodates a reappraisal of life circumstances.
This reappraisal is then enriched when one savors positive features of the socio-environmental context, subsequently motivating values-driven behavior and ultimately engendering eudaimonic meaning in life.” (p377) (see more in the article itself or Garland’s website)
When I interviewed the author, Eric Garland he said:
“What excites me most about this theory is that it helps to clarify the effects of mindfulness when one gets ‘off the cushion’ and returns to everyday life. The theory helps explain how the acute state of mindfulness produced by meditation can have positive downstream influences on the sense of meaning in life and can shape an individual’s life story”
Barbara Fredrickson, Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill told me:
“I’m excited to test the different pathways by which different meditation practices, say mindfulness and loving-kindness, yield good outcomes in people’s lives. Mindfulness might be especially linked to the ability to savor what’s good “
So What’s Really New Here?
Both adding in the “meaning” part of things and the model of “how mindfulness might promote this meaning in the face of adversity” (p377). And really all the authors are claiming is that contemporary theories of mindfulness are silent on both aspects — that instead the focus has been on the therapeutic benefits of mindfulness in reducing psychological distress across multiple populations and that no clear model of the causal relationship between mindfulness and well-being exists.
They encourage us to let go of our preconceived notions and deconstruct the concept of “mindfulness” even further to gain clarity about the sequence of processes at play.
Why is This Controversial?
I sought out scholars who had been invited to comment in this issue of Psychological Inquiry to find out.
The authors maintain it “deviates significantly from the prevailing scholarly focus on mindfulness as a form of strictly non conceptual attention and nonjudgmental awareness” (p.294).
Others, like Linda Carlson , also in this issue, maintain that this is exactly what Buddhist scholars, clinicians and teachers (e.g. Jon Kabat-Zinn and every MBSR teacher) “have been hypothesizing and demonstrating for years” (p.322)
Certainly there has been an explosion of studies linking mindfulness with a host of physical, psychological and social benefits (ref) and it is becoming more widely recognized as a key component of psychological change in therapy.
I have completed the Cultivating Compassion Training developed by Stanford University CCARE , devoured the research and practices of Self Compassion developed by Kristen Neff , Paul Germer , Paul Gilbert and others.
But has this work largely been in the service of reducing negative states?
Ellen Langer, professor of psychology at Harvard University explained it to me this way:
“Mindfulness and meditation are not the same thing. Meditation is a tool to achieve post-meditative mindfulness. Since the early 70’s, we’ve been studying mindfulness without meditation. Mindfulness is not a practice; it is not something that people “do.” Mindfulness is both a trait and a state construct, which refers to a specific “quality” of being in the moment.
The relationship between mindfulness and reappraisal becomes clearer when mindfulness is conceptualized as a psychological construct, rather than a practice.
Mindfulness does not “promote positive reappraisal.” Reappraisal is a form of mindfulness where one understands that things may be different from how they were originally conceived. That is, when mindful, we realize that there are different points of view on the same event (Langer, 1989).
A mindful appraisal in the first place does not require subsequent reappraisal. Mindfulness is not reappraisal although reappraisal represents a form of mindfulness.
Therefore, the concept of reappraisal cannot be used to explain why mindfulness promotes positive emotions, otherwise, it would be tautological and self-referred.
Other commentators on the mindfulness to meaning theory — like Chambers and Hassed — welcome the expansion to more positive mental states but also question that the proposed mechanism is the only pathway from mindfulness to meaning. The authors acknowledge that this may be just one manifestation of the link between the two and encourage systematic investigation to find out.
Why The Reaction?
Why does Craig Hassed, who has spearheaded a world-first university-wide approach to mindfulness, think this theory is getting such a reaction from the field?
“I think to some extent, people have seen mindfulness in a narrow way for example to reduce stress, anxiety and depression rather than opening it up as something that expands your life and meaning – as the wisdom traditions have taught for millennia. So this opens up a very useful dialogue. The secondary issue is if mindfulness open up the possibilities of greater meaning in life, is it because its an active cognitive process or is it because it clears the mind and brings us to a point of stillness in itself?”
Eric’s view though is that “… some scholars do not believe that mindfulness promotes semantic meaning and evaluative processing. They see mindfulness as purely non-evaluative and non-conceptual. In contrast, Garland and colleagues believe that the non-evaluative, non-conceptual state of mindfulness developed “on the cushion” can foster positive evaluations and meaningful conceptualizations of one’s life “off the cushion” during everyday experience.”
So what’s Garland’s top tip for people wanting to make the most of the Mindfulness-to-Meaning Theory in their own lives?
“During a mindfulness mediation practice session, once the mind becomes more settled, clear, and open after an extended period of focusing on breathing, take a few minutes to actively reflect on what is good, life affirming, or meaningful. If you are facing a serious stressor, ask yourself “How is facing this situation teaching me something important or making me a stronger person?” Use the clear, open state of mindfulness generated from your meditation practice to consciously contemplate insights and realizations that have great personal relevance and meaning for you. When the mind wanders, use mindfulness to re-stabilize your focus on these important thought processes, and the positive emotions that flow from them”
So, a radical new perspective on mindfulness or simply an appropriate expansion of current scholarship to embrace our sense of meaning? You decide. I for one am thrilled to see the vigorous discussion continue and will watch this space with interest.
Mindfulness concept image available from Shutterstock