A recently published study suggests that increasing the ability to be mindful in daily life through mindfulness practice depends on how mindful participants experience to be during their practice.
A neat study carried out at the University of North Carolina investigated a hypothesis that is part and parcel of mindfulness-based interventions:
When people engage in a mindfulness-based training programme it is assumed that their immediate experience of being mindful – so-called state mindfulness – increases. Furthermore, it is assumed that the results of such training translate into something more lasting, of generally being more mindful in their lives – often referred to as dispositional or trait mindfulness.
In this study participants in an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programme were asked to complete questionnaires that assess state mindfulness (the Toronto Mindfulness Scale) and trait mindfulness (the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire). Whereas the trait mindfulness questionnaire was completed before and after participation in the programme, the state mindfulness questionnaire was completed once per week, after participants engaged in a 10-minute mindfulness practice on their own (at home). In the latter questionnaire participants were asked to rate their mindfulness during that 10-minute practice.
The researchers observed large variations in the levels of self-reported state mindfulness during meditation. Employing combined latent growth and path model statistics (don’t worry if you don’t know what this is) they furthermore concluded that individual trajectories of state mindfulness predicted the changes in trait mindfulness resulting from the MBSR programme: participants with higher increase in state mindfulness during their meditation practice were found to also show the largest increase in trait mindfulness from before to after the MBSR programme.
This study appears to confirm the assumption that practicing state mindfulness leads to higher trait mindfulness. It also indicates that not every individual appears to benefit in the same way from MBSR – when there was little change in state mindfulness also trait mindfulness did not improve much.
Some caution is, however, required when considering the results. Most importantly, the conclusions are based on self-report questionnaire data. They are thus limited due to the inherent limitations of this approach and the particular problems of using questionnaires when investigating mindfulness. While it is generally difficult to quantify internal mental states – as is the aim of using such questionnaires – this is even more so the case when considering mindfulness:
It is obvious that a certain degree of awareness of one’s own mental states is required to answer questions about one’s own mental states. However, as mindfulness is inherently intertwined with awareness of one’s own mental states, when probing mindfulness, we are asking participants to apply this ‘inner’ awareness to their own awareness of internal states – being mindful of their own mindfulness, a circular, self-referential process. One of the problems here is that as we develop our mindfulness we may start noticing how mindless we are. While becoming more mindful of this, our questionnaire responses may indicate a reduction in mindfulness! In more general terms engaging in mindfulness practice may lead to a qualitative shift, with the effect that the same questions of a questionnaire may be answered in a different way. With other words a mindfulness questionnaire may measure something else each time it is applied in such a mindfulness intervention study.