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Self-Awareness, Self-Regulation, & Self-Transcendence (S-ART): A Framework for Understanding the Neurobiological Mechanisms of Mindfulness
I wanted to take this space-time to introduce you to an integrative systems-based neurobiological model and theoretical framework for understanding the mechanisms by which mindfulness functions to reduce attention-specific and affective biases related to self processing and creates a sustainable healthy mind. The model attempts to integrate findings from the extant empirical literature related to mindfulness with our growing understanding of the mechanisms for neurocognition and with traditional Buddhist systems from which contemporary practices of mindfulness originate. The paper in which this framework and model are discussed at length was recently published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. [Link]
Our method for understanding mindfulness has been to focus broadly on the goals of mindfulness as it is described in the early Buddhist suttas and in the Western medical model: To decrease mental suffering and create a sustainable healthy mind. In this context, we operationalize mindfulness in two ways: 1) As a broadly defined method for developing self-awareness, self-regulation and self-transcendence (S-ART); 2) As a continuous discriminative attentional capacity.
Our second formulation is one critical skill in a multidimentional skillset that is developed and strengthened through specific meditation practices. Other skills are described to function along with mindfulness to support S-ART.
To be clear, this is in no way a new definition that is meant to disparage Jon Kabat-Zinn‘s widely disseminated description: “Paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally” – but more so an attempt to dismantle the concept into component parts so that we can better study it in the laboratory.
I discuss the framework in a recent talk given at the 23rd annual Trauma Conference in Boston, MA
The lay press for this theoretical framework can be found at:
Psych Central [Link]
Science Daily [Link]
Boston Globe [Link]
Medical Express [Link]
This paper is one of the first to begin deconstructing the concept into component processes for investigation both at the clinical and basic science level. Previous attempts at operationalizing the concept have relied on the most widely cited:
moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a specific way, that is, in the present moment, and as non-reactively, as non-, and openheartedly as possible. When it is cultivated intentionally, it is sometimes referred to as deliberate . When it spontaneously arises, as it tends to do more and more the more it is cultivated intentionally, it is sometimes referred to as effortless mindfulness.
Other attempts at operationalizing the concept have relied on this definition for a framework. See table below
Here, we unpack the definition by illustrating very specific core neurocognitive processes that appear to be targeted in cultivating mindfulness as a state and trait. These processes are supported by the extant literature with specific neuroanatomical targets as well
I elaborate a bit more on dismantling mindfulness here [Link]
- Dreyfus, G. (2011). “Is mindfulness present-centred and non-judgmental? A discussion of the cognitive dimensions of mindfulness.” Contemporary Buddhism: An Journal 12(1): 41 – 54.
- Dunne, J. (2011). “Toward an understanding of non-dual mindfulness.” Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12(1): 71 – 88.
- Williams, J. M. G. and J. Kabat-Zinn (2011). “Mindfulness: diverse perspectives on its meaning, origins, and multiple applications at the intersection of science and dharma.” Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12(1): 1 -
- Gethin, R. (2011). “On some definitions of mindfulness.” Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12(1): 263 – 279.
Many researchers now agree that mindfulness can be thought of as multi-dimensional set of skills that can be developed through the practice of specific types of meditation; however, we need to be careful not to confuse the concept of mindfulness with the common every-day usage of the term and contextualize the concept as a state, trait, type of practice, and intervention.
Media coverage for this paper:
Psych Central: “Meditation improves quality of life” [Link]
Huffington Post: “Why Mindfulness Meditation makes us healthier” [Link]
The Secular Buddhist interviews Dr. Holzel concerning this paper here [Link]