What is Mindfulness?

 The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. No one is compos sui if he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. But it is easier to define this ideal, than to give practical directions to bring it about. (James, 1980)

 Mindfulness has its roots in contemplative Eastern spiritual traditions, especially Buddhism, in which individuals actively cultivate consciousness. Mindfulness is a “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-judgmentally, and as open heartedly as possible” (Kabat-Zinn, 2015, p. 1481). Nyanaponika (1972) described mindfulness as “the clear and single-minded awareness of what actually happens to us and around us in the successive moments of perception” (p. 5). Mindfulness is an innate quality of mind and a mental skill that people can refine through contemplative practice, such as in meditation (Kabat-Zinn, 2015). Kabat-Zinn (1994) suggested that mindfulness meditation is synonymous with the practice of non-doing, an effortless effort that is similar to flow.

Mindfulness begins with consciousness, which often entails both awareness and attention (Brown & Ryan, 2003). Brown and Ryan (2003) described awareness as “the background ‘radar’ of consciousness, continually monitoring the inner and outer environment” (p. 822). An individual may be aware of stimuli, but the mechanism of attention focuses “conscious awareness, providing heightened sensitivity to a limited range of experience” (Brown & Ryan, 2003, p. 822). Buddhist Dharma asserts that mindfulness is a path that can lead to the cessation of personal suffering (Bishop, Lau, Shapiro, Carlson, Anderson, Carmody, Devins, 2004). Mindfulness has been considered “the heart of Buddhist meditation” (Kabat-Zinn, 2015, p. 1482). Mindfulness is central to all Buddhist teachings and traditions around the world but is not inherently religious and spreads in a non-secular form.

The initial inspiration to investigate mindfulness as a tool to harness the power of flow was Murphy and White’s book, In the Zone: Transcendent Experiences in Sport (1995), which explained that athletes “have trouble recapturing peak moments in sport because they have difficulty incorporating them into the rest of their lives” (p. 118). Murphy and White (1995) stated,

Many athletes have trouble recapturing peak moments in sport because they have difficulty incorporating them into the rest of their lives. Former quarterback John Brodie described this problem: “Football players and athletes generally get into this kind of being or beingness – call it what you will – more often than is generally recognized. They often don’t have a workable philosophy or understanding to support the kind of thing they get into while they are playing [italics my own]. They don’t have the words for it. So, after a game you see some of them coming down, making fools of themselves sometimes, coming way down in their tone level. But during the game they come way up. A missing ingredient for many people, I guess, is that they don’t have a supporting philosophy or discipline for a better life. (p. 118)

 For athletes to incorporate flow in their lives, athletes “must live in tune with their truth by practicing some kind of spiritual discipline” (Murphy & White, 1995, p. 118). The current study suggests mindfulness may help athletes live in harmony with self-transcendent experiences of flow.

A growing body of literature indicates that mindfulness can enhance flow and performance in sport setting (Cathcart, McGregor, & Groundwater, 2014). Indeed, a number of studies (Kabat-Zinn, Beall, & Rippe, 1985; Wolanin, 2005; Gardner, & Moore 2004, 2006; Bernier et al. 2009; Schwanhausser, 2009; Aherne et al. 2011) found mindfulness training increased flow and sport performance following mindfulness training.  

 Mindful Self-Regulation. Mindfulness is a method to achieve emotional balance and enhance goal attainment through improved perception and judgment (Hayes & Feldman, 2004). Bishop et al. (2004) suggested a two-component definition of mindfulness that provides a clear framework for the mechanism of mindfulness and how it optimizes emotion regulation. The first component of mindfulness is the self-regulation of attention on the present moment (Bishop et al., 2004). The second component is openness and acceptance of all experiences, regardless of desirability (Bishop et al., 2004). These two components enable individuals to develop a “decentered” relationship with their internal and external experiences, which decreases emotional reactivity and promotes greater emotional stability (Hayes & Feldman, 2004; Segal, William, & Teasdale, 2013). Mindfulness results in emotional engagement that is the opposite of under-, and over-, and mis-regulation (i.e., maladaptive emotion regulation) (Bishop et al., 2004; Hayes & Feldman, 2004).

Mindfulness is a tool for self-regulation that enables individuals to disengage from automatic thoughts, habits, and behavior patterns (Deci & Ryan, 1980). Deci and Ryan (1980) suggested that the open awareness of mindfulness may be necessary to choose behaviors that are consistent with personal goals, needs, values, and interests. Individuals must regain the capacity for an open attention to see things “as they are” and reestablish the appropriate regulatory communication for self-control (Brown & Ryan, 2003, p. 824). Mindfulness may play a key role in fostering self-endorsed behavioral regulation (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Carver and Scheier (1981) argued that the TOTE model shows attention is vital to self-regulation and a lack of attention via substance abuse (and perhaps transient hypo-frontality) may impair self-regulation. Brown and Ryan (2003) suggested “mindfulness is also compromised when individuals behave compulsively or automatically, without awareness of or attention to one’s behavior” (p. 823). Self-regulation failure can also occur if a person pays too much attention to information that enters awareness and it becomes cognitively exaggerated (Brown & Ryan, 2003; Clark, 1986).

Mindfulness as a Therapeutic Intervention. In the health professions, including psychology and medicine, mindfulness is gaining popularity for its ability to help people respond more skillfully to internal experiences that contribute to emotional distress and maladaptive behavior (Bishop, 2002; Bishop et al., 2004). Siegal (2007) suggested, “the general clinical benefits of mindfulness is that the acceptance of one’s situation may alleviate the internal conflict[s] that may emerge when expectations of how life should be fail to match how life actually is” (Kaufman, Glass, Arnkoff, 2009 p. 336). As in the TOTE model, the comparator more easily accepts discrepancies and decreases emotional responses, thus improving self-regulation of goal-directed behaviors. Anderson, Lau, Segal, and Bishop (2007) suggested that mindfulness-based interventions are clinically effective for a wide range of conditions (See Bishop, 2002; Bishop et al., 2004).

Kabat-Zinn (1982) introduced mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a manualized treatment program. MBSR was originally for the management of chronic pain (Kabat-Zinn, Lipworth, & Burney, 1985; Kabat-Zinn, Lipworth, Burney, & Sellers, 1986). MBSR facilitates the reduction of many affective symptoms associated with various medical illnesses, stress and anxiety in healthy individuals, and depressive relapse (Anderson et al., 2007; Kabat-Zinn, 1998). MBSR also eases stress and improves emotional well-being in nonclinical samples (Anderson et al., 2007).

Mindfulness is also popular as a therapeutic intervention in multiple theoretical orientations (e.g., dialectical behavior therapy).  Mindfulness reduces self-harm and suicidal behavior in individuals with borderline personality disorder (Bishop et al., 2004; Linehan, Armstrong, Saurez, Allmon, & Heard, 1991). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy reduces the rate of relapse in patients with recurrent major depression (Bishop et al., 2004; Teasdale, Segal, Williams, Ridgeway, Soulsby, Lau, 2000). Mindfulness may help treat generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress, substance abuse, and eating disorders (Roemer & Orsillo, 2002; Wells, 1999).

Mindfulness and Flow

Living in the present. Flow depends on the ability of performers to remain focused on the present moment. Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi (1990) suggested, “concentration on the task at hand is the most obvious feature of being in the flow” (p. 110). Being in the present enhances performance and improves the quality of experiences (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Present-centeredness is a state in which things appear to happen effortlessly because the strategies and assessments that typically occupy the mind are silent (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Flow requires the capacity to live in the moment and focus (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999; Jackson & Delehanty, 1995; Orlick, 1990; Ravissa, 2002). Aherne et al. (2011) asserted that “concentration, or the ability to focus on the task at hand while ignoring distractions, is a crucial prerequisite of successful performance in sport” (p. 177). Jackson (1995) found that flow requires a present, non-self-conscious concentration on a task. Jackson (1995) reported that the main barriers to athletes achieving flow were cognitive factors (e.g., thinking too much, focusing on the self).

There is some empirical research supporting that people with a high disposition for flow are more mindful and vice versa (Bernier, Thienot, Codron, & Fournier, 2009; Kee & John Wang, 2008; Moore, 2013). Indeed, to many researchers, mindfulness and flow appear to be similar psychological states. Previous researchers have highlighted a clear theoretical relationship between the concepts, mainly there emphasis on present-moment focus (see Gardner & Moore, 2004; Kaufman et al., 2009; Kee & Wang, 2008; Salmon et al., 2010; McGregor, & Groundwater, 2014). Wright et al. (2006) suggested that flow and mindfulness may be on an experiential continuum. Sheldon, Prentice, and Halusic (2015) proposed that increasing the ability to be mindful might also increase the ability to experience flow. Flow and mindfulness both emphasize the importance of the present moment, but few researchers assessed athletes’ mindfulness and experiences of flow (Aherne et al., 2011). Kee and Wang (2008) asserted, “there was a lack of research addressing the relationship between flow and mindfulness” (p. 396).