What does mindfulness mean to you? Is it about being aware of what comes your way without distraction? Or is it engaging with life's challenges without judgement, and responding as required?
A new meta-analysis of almost 150 studies has found that most of us understand that mindfulness is about both being aware and engaging with whatever comes our way. Unfortunately, we're much worse at putting this 'engaging' part into action.
"Scientific understanding of mindfulness goes beyond mere stress-relief and requires a willingness to engage with stressors," says University of Waterloo social psychologist Igor Grossmann.
"It is, in fact, the engagement with stressors that ultimately results in stress relief. More specifically, mindfulness includes two main dimensions: awareness and acceptance."
Mindfulness derives from Buddhist traditions, and has become used in Western settings since the 1970s as part of psychiatry and psychology. It has been shown to help reduce depression, stress, anxiety, and even drug addiction, and is regularly recommended as a coping mechanism as part of therapy.
In terms of regular people's understanding of mindfulness, we're really good at the 'awareness' part, the researchers say – where we take stock of what's around us, and any potential issues coming our way.
But the team found that we then tend to use mindfulness as a passive endorsement of the experience: the mindfulness equivalent of a shrug emoji.
What we should do to get the full benefits of mindfulness is engage with our experiences, finding solutions and responses to our environment – something that the researchers found that we're aware of, but we just don't do.
"These modern applications of mindfulness have recently faced substantial criticism. Scholars suggest that popular definitions cast mindfulness as a 'quick fix' for suffering rather than a longitudinal practice of re-orienting, re-framing, and engaging with daily experience," the team writes in their paper.
"Some critics go as far as characterizing aspects of the mindfulness movement in popular culture as 'McMindfulness' – a consumerist wellness-promoting brand emphasizing short-term relief of personal suffering at the expense of engaged exploration of the sources of distress that may lead to organizational or societal change."
The team looked at 145 datasets, in total covering 41,966 participants who did the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire. The five facets are observing, describing, acting with awareness, non-judging inner experience and non-reactivity to inner experience.
What the team found was that there was little 'convergence' across these facets across participants in non-clinical settings. Put simply, we're not embracing the whole package.
"While we found that people seem to conceptually understand that mindfulness involves engagement, the general public is not walking the talk," says lead author and Ryerson University organizational psychologist Ellen Choi.
"Our results suggest that laypeople may understand what awareness is, but the next step of acceptance may not be well understood – limiting potential for engaging with problems."
However, the team does stress that not all the critiques are completely right about the consumerism of mindfulness as a wellness product. Instead, we're understanding more than we might think, just not quite taking the next step yet.
Of course, this is unlikely to be the last word on the matter, and for the moment don't drop mindfulness from your repertoire of coping mechanisms. Just maybe, exercise a little less shrug emoji in your mindfulness, and try a little more engagement, if you can.
The research has been published in Clinical Psychology Review.