Mindfulness, an introduction

Mindfulness, an introduction

We desperately need a new way of being. Our modern culture has given birth to a troubled world of alienated individuals, schools that fail to convey any inspiration that fail to relate to students: in short, societies lacking a moral compass to help us clarify how we can progress in our global community. What minduflness can do.

Mindfulness, an introduction

1. The disease of thinking

In Western cultures the verb to meditate denotes a reflection, a consideration of a problem or topic. In this type of meditation, interpreting , evaluative and relational thinking is used. We interpret events, evaluate situations and people (including ourselves) and have the ability to relate the most disparate objects (and by objects I refer both to something in the external environment, and to something in the internal environment, such as thoughts or emotions).

Each of us is very skilled at creating relationships between the most disparate objects and this ability has proved, in the course of our evolution, an unrivaled tool: by relating thoughts and objects we create symbols, that is, we give meaning to what surrounds us.

So this form of language-thought is highly functional from an evolutionary point of view; when it concerns the external environment it allows us to solve almost any type of problem.

But in terms of inner life, verbal rules can cage our freedoms significantly. [1] When, for example, we evaluate and judge ourselves, we can create thoughts such as: I am anxious, I am unpleasant, I am shy, and so on. And if these thoughts are frequent, we run the risk of identifying with them or, in other words, we become our thoughts.

And believing our thoughts, seeing them as the gospel, can have destructive effects. [2] An example could be that of a person who identifies with thoughts like: I’m worthless, I’m a failure, I feel guilty, I’m unhappy and so on. When these thoughts become real and we identify with them, we run the risk of falling into depression .

Certainly there are biological, psychological and contextual causes, but the cultural aspect should not be overlooked. Each society creates its own language which is used to express the meaning of existence. In these two millennia, Western societies have created a language that can describe and explain the things that happen around us, but they have neglected too much the language that explains what happens inside us.

In Buddhist cultures , in the same period, the internal environment was dealt with, developing a language capable of explaining, in a simple way, what consciousness, experience, knowledge and suffering are.

In short, our language is very useful in the problem-solving , but insufficient for the understanding of our interiority. Fortunately, in psychology, things are changing and, as Andrew Olendzki, authoritative scholar of Buddhism and Mindfulness argues, we are witnessing a return of psychology to its introspective roots, driven by an unexpected source: the contemplative practices of meditation. [3] This return is witnessed by the countless psychological programs (protocols) based on Mindfulness and by the birth of new psychotherapies (third generation), also based on Mindfulness and acceptance.

The effectiveness of these protocols, created to counteract stress-related disorders, relapses of depressive disorders and much more, have been evaluated and verified by thousands of rigorous scientific studies.

2. Meditation

Everything I wrote in the previous paragraph about meditating and thinking has nothing to do with the meditative practices on which Mindfulness is based. Samadhi is a Pali term (the language spoken by the Buddha) which translates to meditation; literally it means gathering the mind and bringing it to an object.

When we meditate, in fact, we no longer think about something, we do not judge, we do not interpret or build relationships between objects; instead we learn, slowly, to focus attention on a single object (which at the beginning is the breath and subsequently it will be anything: a thought, an emotion, a tree, an animal, a person, etc.).

We know the world through the five sensory doors and we cannot think of two or more things at the same time: our mind is not multitasking .

Hence, when the attention is focused on a meditative object, it is impossible to think of anything. Of course, a beginner will be flooded with wandering thoughts and inner conversations after only three or four seconds; when he realizes it he will bring his attention back to the chosen meditative object and, with the passage of time, those few seconds will become minutes.

That’s all? Does meditation result in paying attention to an object? Of course not: this is the beginning and without a beginning there is obviously no path. But why is it so important to develop and enhance attentional capacity ? In psychology, attention is the process ” which allows people to be selectively aware of a part or aspect of the sensory environment and to respond selectively to a class of stimuli. A disturbance in attention can manifest itself with an easy distractibility, difficulty in completing one’s tasks or concentrating on a job “. [4]  

Therefore , poor attentional capacity can compromise executive functions ,  those cognitive abilities necessary to perform complex behaviors directed at a purpose and to adapt to a range of changes required by the environment. These functions include the ability to plan and anticipate the outcome of actions, the ability to direct attentional resources and the ability to self-monitor and self-awareness that are necessary to perform appropriate and flexible behaviors. [5]

By learning to focus attention on one object at a time, we will avoid being overwhelmed by our obsessive inner conversations. As William James wrote: at this moment reality is what we pay attention to ; this means knowing how to grasp and perceive, in everyday life, aspects that previously escaped us and this process of enhancing attention will allow us to expand, quantitatively and qualitatively, our personal universe.

When we converse with someone, when we carry out a work or leisure task, we will pay attention to everything, without getting distracted. And this aspect is not insignificant: we will avoid misunderstandings, errors and small (or large) accidents. The contemplative practice of meditation, most used in Mindfulness paths, which is limited to the development of attention, concentration and awareness is Tibetan and is called Samatha and belongs to those meditations called calm abodes .

With it we come to what is called mindfulness , the first important step that leads us to the path of awareness (Mindfulness).

Like all meditations, Samatha is also divided into formal practices (those that are learned in meetings with an Instructor) and informal practices (which are the transposition of meditative practices into everyday life). If you want to know your mind there is only one way: to observe and recognize everything about it.

This must be done on every occasion, during the day no less than during the half hour of meditation. [6] Samatha meditation, when practiced with commitment and perseverance, produces great benefits: the ability to recognize and manage our thoughts implies that of emotional management and, consequently, a considerable decrease in symptoms and disorders related to stress. 

3. Mindfulness, a definition

Mindfulness is an extraordinarily effective practice, not only to alleviate or extinguish various symptoms and ailments, but also to transform psychological and existential distress into a state of profound well-being.

However, before continuing, for the benefit of those who are not informed about what Mindfulness is and what is not, it seems fair to give it a short definition. In the mid-1970s, young biologist Jon Kabat-Zinn began to develop a program based on Buddhist practices for the reduction of stress and chronic pain .

For years he had been practicing Tibetan meditation Shinè [7] (which in Sanskrit is translated with Samatha). As Daniel Goleman recalls, this work was received with skepticism, also because it referred to practices considered, at the time, not very scientific and not verifiable. In 1979, Kabat-Zinn released its Mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) protocol for reducing stress-related disorders.

He did not use or refer to terms reminiscent of Buddhism; he feared, rightly at that time, that they would not be greeted with great enthusiasm. The term Mindfulness already existed and appeared in 1921, in a dictionary, to translate Sati which, in the Pali language means ‘awareness’ and ‘having memory of’ .

Mindfulness is certainly a much more attractive term than Buddhist meditation – or practice – and as Kabat-Zinn himself states: it is neither necessary nor wise to put people, in such an explicit and theatrical way, before the Buddhist roots of Mindfulness. [8]

In his opinion, someone could have rejected a system of beliefs extraneous to their own culture. In any case, it should be noted that the psychological and philosophical system to which Mindfulness refers is Buddhism. On the other hand, for us Westerners, it is very difficult to define Buddhism as a religion, since the Buddha is not a God, but an acute philosopher who has mainly dealt with how to alleviate and extinguish the suffering that accompanies us from birth to death. .

In the last forty years, Mindfulness has spread exponentially throughout almost the entire planet and being able to give it a univocal and shared definition is an impossible undertaking. In a recent publication of the Association for Psychological Science (APS) this topic was addressed. [9] Scientific publications on meditation and Mindfulness in 2005 were about 5,000; in 2015 over 33,000 (see fig. 1)    

In short, considering also popular publications, about 180 articles are published daily on the subject and, according to the APS, this has led to misinformation and misunderstandings. Despite this, a definition shared by the world’s leading exponents of Mindfulness (I refer to Kabat-Zinn, A. Olendzki, A. Wallace, C. Saron, D. Goleman and others) exists and we find it in the words of Kabat-Zinn:  The Mindfulness term, includes all dimensions of Dharma (traditional Buddhist teachings) and the Four Immeasurables as well as Samatha and Vipassana. [10]

And in this definition we find everything that is present in a serious Mindfulness journey. By Dharma, Kabat-Zinn refers to the Buddhadharma, that is, the Buddhist teachings encoded in a universal and secular language.

The Four Immeasurables are the four virtues that are learned both in the Samatha courses and in the Mindfulness paths (loving kindness, compassion, empathic joy and equanimity). We have already talked about Samatha meditation and Vipassana meditation will be mentioned in the following pages.

Finally, even when it comes to Mindfulness based protocols: If we say that something is mindfulness based, then it must really be mindfulness based. Which means to be based on the Dharma. Mindfulness is not another cognitive-behavioral technique thought up by the Western psychological tradition. [….] The founders of the MBSR and MBCT believe that these programs are 90-95% identical.

The format and essence of the procedure are the same, and virtually so are the meditation practices. The most important thing is always that it is always entirely rooted in the Dharma, even if this word is never used in the MBSR and MBCT. Everything is anchored in the ongoing practice and understanding of the Dharma by the Instructor. [11]


4. Mindfulness, the practice

We desperately need a new way of being. Our modern culture has given birth in recent times to a tormented world of alienated individuals, schools that fail to convey any inspiration that fail to relate to students, in short, societies lacking a moral compass to help us clarify how we can progress in our global community.

I have seen my children grow up in a world where humans are increasingly distant from human interactions that the evolution of the species has sanctioned as necessary for our brains – but which are no longer part of our educational and social systems. The human relationships that help us shape the relationships between our neurons have become dramatically few. Not only are we missing the opportunity to tune into one another, but the busy lives of many of us leave little time to tune into ourselves as well. As a physician, psychiatrist, psychotherapist and educator, I felt sadness and dismay when I discovered that our clinical work is not based on a scientifically sound understanding of healthy mental functioning. So what have we been doing all this time? Isn’t it time to become aware of the mind itself, rather than always and only pointing out the symptoms of its various pathologies?[12] These words by Daniel Siegel are enough to give a comprehensive definition of how we live in this society (Daniel Siegel is one of the best-known neuropsychiatrists on the planet and is director of the Mindsight Institute; he is also known for his best-seller The relational mind ).

The practice of Mindfulness is a new way to approach and live the experience; he is able to transform this world with no more values, with few positive emotions and with very rare healthy human relationships. But, again for the benefit of those who want to approach this practice, I will briefly list some points in which it is specified what Mindfulness is :

> it is not a psychological technique, as you can, however, read on Wikipedia. The techniques solve the immediate problem (the symptom or disorder), but they do not address the person as a whole.

> Mindfulness is a philosophical and psychological practice – not a technique – that aims to extinguish human suffering and, consequently, to achieve a remarkable state of psychological well-being. – it is not a religion. While referring to the Buddhist philosophical and psychological tradition, as already specified, in Mindfulness there is nothing religious or mystical.

Mindfulness Buddhist thinking is secular, secular and scientific thinking : studied and adapted for the Western population.

> It is not having an empty mind. While it is true that there are many advanced meditation practices of concentration (Samatha) aimed at clearing the mind of thoughts, the practice of Mindfulness does not aim at this, nor at making us stupid or losing our analytical skills. Rather than eliminating thoughts, it gives a certain perspective, an ability to notice that our thoughts are just thoughts, instead of believing that they necessarily reflect an external reality. [13]

> It is not withdrawing from life. Meditative practices were originally developed by monks who often experience years of solitary and silent retreat. But we are not monks, we do not live in a forest or in a monastery. We work, we have a family, friends and acquaintances; we also live in a stressful environment and we cannot afford to meditate for hours and hours without thinking about how to earn the money necessary to live. 

> It is not synonymous with meditation. Meditative practices are indispensable, but they are only part of Mindfulness. To live a life aware and free from suffering, it offers us values, an ethical aspect without which it is impossible to reach a state of profound well-being. The ethical and spiritual aspect is extensively studied and practiced also by modern Positive Psychology. Values ​​like altruism, compassion, forgiveness and tolerance have a tremendous impact on people’s Quality of Life. 

> It is not psychotherapy. While not proposing itself as a therapy but as a psychological and philosophical practice, Mindfulness produces great therapeutic effects. However, not everyone can practice it. From what emerges in the aforementioned APS article, people suffering from Major Depressive Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder could make their situation worse, due to the introspective peculiarity of Mindfulness. It is instead indicated, as a prevention, in those who have overcome the depressive disorder.

It seems clear, therefore, that the Mindfulness Instructor is a professional capable of recognizing these pathologies and qualified to perform (when necessary) tests to verify their presence or not. In a Mindfulness path it is not a question of learning conceptual notions but of practicing meditation and transposing it into everyday life.

Anyone can rebuild their world and transform discomfort into well-being, the condition to succeed is called commitment. In conclusion, practicing Mindfulness does not mean sitting cross-legged for 30/40 minutes a day to contemplate the breath , nor to develop attention, acceptance and awareness; these are fundamental but preparatory aspects.

Practicing Mindfulness also means becoming aware of one’s awareness, but above all developing an ethical life and a rare introspective capacity that is obtained with open monitoring (Vipassana meditation) with which we notice the mental contents as they appear to the mind; and we learn to distinguish the wholesome from the unwholesome (greed, hatred and delusion). What is harmful or unhealthy is recognized by meditating, but is extinguished in our daily actions.     Claudio Bacchetti, Person-centered Counselor, Mindfulness Instructor (AISCON N ° 125) ENROLLED IN THE ORDER OF PSYCHOLOGISTS OF EMILIA ROMAGNA Maranello, 20 November 2017 



AAVV, Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual, Raffaello Cortina Editore, Milan 2008
Alan Wallace, The Four Incommensurables, Ubaldini Editore, Rome 2000
Alan Wallace, The Revolution of Attention, Ubaldini Editore, Rome 2008
Andrew Olendzki, The Non-Limiting Mind, Ubaldini Editore, Rome 2014  
Castiglioni-Corradini, Epistemological models in psychology, Carocci Editore, Rome 2011
Dalai Lama-Kabat-Zinn-R. Davidson, Meditation as medicine, Mondadori Libri, Milan 2015 Daniel J. Siegel, Mindfulness and the brain, Raffaello Cortina Editore, Milan 2009 George Kelly, The Psychology of Personal Constructs, Raffaello Cortina Editore, Milan 2004
Fabrizio Didonna (edited by), Clinical Manual of Mindfulness, Franco Angeli publisher, Milan 2012 John R. Searle The Mind, Raffaello Cortina Editore, Milan 2005
Kabat-Zinn-S . Rinpoche- C. Saron et Al., Healing with Meditation, AMRITA Editions, Turin 2014 Paul Watzlawick (edited by) The Invented Reality, Feltrinelli Editore, Milan 1988
Pollak-Pedulla-Siegel Daniel, Mindfulness in Psychotherapy, EDRA Editions, Milan 2015
Ronald Siegel, Here and Now, Erickson Editions, Trento 2012
Steven Hayes, Stop suffering,Franco Angeli, Milan 2010
Winston King, Theravada meditation, Ubaldini Editore, Rome 1987  


[1] Steven Hayes, Stop suffering, Franco Angeli, Milan 2010, p. 35
[2] Ibid p. 89
[3] Andrew Olendzki, The Non-Limiting Mind, Ubaldini Editore, Rome 2014, p. 8  
[4] AAVV, Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual, Raffaello Cortina Editore, Milan 2008, p. 214
[5] Ibid, p. 217
[6] Thich Nhat Hanh, The miracle of mindfulness, Ubaldini Editore, Rome 1992, p. 38
[7] Daniel Goleman in: Kabat-Zinn-S. Rinpoche- C. Saron et Al., Healing with Meditation, AMRITA Editions, Turin 2014, preface
[8] Ibid p. 119
[9] http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1745691617709589
[10] Kabat-Zinn-S. Rinpoche- C. Saron et Al. Cit. p, 129
[11] Ibid. pp. 136-139
[12] Daniel J. Siegel, Mindfulness and the brain, Raffaello Cortina Editore, Milan 2009, p. 3
[13] Ronald Siegel, Here and Now, Erickson Editions, Trento 2012, p. 72

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