Mindfulness Theory


         Mindfulness theory addresses awareness of context in the present moment. It stems from comparing experiences that stretch the understanding of a situation by keeping an open mind to alternative perspectives and categories (Carson & Langer, 2006). For instance, mindlessness, habitual or automatic behavior, and operating from a singular perspective could make it difficult to see the whole situation and therefore impact performance and relationships (Burgoon, Berger, & Waldron, 2000). Mindfulness, however, allows people to be sensitive to an environment, supporting clearer thoughts and behaviors (Demick, 2000) as well as better performance, decision-making, and reduction of stress (Ritchhart & Perkins, 2000; Sternberg, 2000). Furthermore, there is a bigger connection to how awareness, mindfulness, and context can affect decision-making (Langer & Moldoveanu, 2000).

Mindfulness Versus Mindlessness

More formally and specifically, mindfulness theory “refers to an individual’s sensitivity to context” through gathering an awareness of characteristics, freshness, and differences, “challenging the limits of strict categories, and considering alternative perspectives” (Langer, 2004, p. 2). Mindfulness theory grew out of a contrast to the concept of mindlessness, which is a habitual and automatic behavior that generates closed mindsets and singular perspectives (Langer, 2004). For instance, automatic behavior and operating from a singular perspective “could prevent one from actively making decisions about whether an automatic perception or behavior actually fits the current context, just because it might have fit a similar context in the past” (Langer, 2004, p. 2). Mindfulness allows people to be sensitive to an environment that supports clearer thoughts and behaviors (Langer, 2004), thus supporting better decision-making and reducing stress. Similarly, the practice of Vipassana Meditation also cultivates nonjudgmental awareness of the environment to more clearly understand context and the ever-changing psychical world.

The basic framework of mindfulness theory is based on how “mindlessness is pervasive, mindlessness can be counterproductive, mindlessness can result from repetition as well as from exposures to information, and mindlessness can be overcome using appropriate interventions” (Langer, 2004, p. 2). Furthermore, the automatic behavior of mindlessness discourages an individual from responding with an open mind and could impact the decision process (Langer, 2004). Mindlessness also closes the mind off to subtle information that could make a big difference in making decisions by expanding the context (Langer, 2004). On the other hand, mindfulness, will allow people to uncover new opportunities that could help them reevaluate old issues to support better decisions (Langer, 2004). Langer (2004) explained “When we make even small efforts to be more mindful, drawing new distinctions in our daily experiences, we become more interested in what we are doing and our performance improves,” and could affect our daily decisions (p. 3). Equally, Vipassana Meditation also supports the practice of being open to experiences, accepting alternative perspectives, and piquing interest to increase performance through the awareness of the present moment.

Mindfulness State and Trait

Alternative perspectives allows for a clearer picture of a situation, which adds context and helps to better understand that things are not always concrete (Langer, 2004). This open mindset would assist in making decisions and working within resolving cognitive dissonance. In contrast, a mindless person, with a single description or mindset stifles creativity and hinders the exchange of possible alternatives that could impinge on the ability to see solutions to decisions (Langer, 2004). Furthermore, in the psychological world “mindfulness can be considered both a state and a trait” (Langer, 2004, p. 4). Mindfulness the state, describes the “behavior in a particular situation” (Langer, 2004, p. 4), while mindfulness, the trait, is a tendency “to think and behave mindfully” (Langer, 2004, p. 4). These classifications are so closely related that a combination of both could be used to relate to decision-making and cognitive dissonance, as one side is to behave in a situation while the other relates to the analytical personality of weighing options. As a result, mindfulness the state and more specifically the trait could aid in the generation of alternate perspectives or open mindsets to encourage better decisions, and reduce cognitive dissonance that generate stress and burnout.   

Shifting into a mindful state occurs when certain conditions are present, such as when consequences differ from expected outcomes; one is likely to shift into a mindful state in order to process the new information because old, automatic behavior is no longer effective. When situational factors interrupt automatic behavior, the mindful individual creates a novel solution or begins a new set of behaviors that fit an otherwise mindless routine. In situations that require more effort to analyze and respond, one is more likely to attend to circumstances with attention to detail a concern for contextual cues. (Langer, 2004, p. 2)

Context and Mindfulness

Therefore, mindfulness has an impact on contextual awareness and social comparisons, which are tied to performance (Langer, Pirson, & Delizonna, 2010), self-acceptance (Carson & Langer, 2006), and stress (Demick, 2000). In general, when one is being more mindful about self and performance, that also reduces the impact of comparisons (Langer et al., 2010). Furthermore, Langer et al. (2010) found those who “did not make social comparisons” were also more positive about their performance then those who did make comparisons (p. 72). Thus, demonstrating that mindfulness can buffer the affects of social comparisons about performance (Langer et al., 2010), and give a clearer picture about self (Carson & Langer, 2006), thus also possibly reducing stress. Comparably, the practice of Vipassana Meditation as the observation of mind and matter and the reactions of what is happening inside and out (Goenka, 2002), which is similar to the buffering affects of mindfulness on comparisons to impact performance. In addition, these observations of reactions take place through the practice of concentration and attention.  

Cultivating the nature of mindfulness such as through concentration, being open to possibilities, and accepting ambiguity as part of not falling into old thought patterns can be helpful in supporting a lifetime of learning and enjoyment (Ritchhart & Perkins, 2000). In education, conditional instruction, or through mindful teaching, which expands regular presentation and extends exploration of ideas and possibilities, can aid “in constructing meaning and building understanding” (Ritchhart & Perkins, 2000, p. 45). Therefore, mindfulness expands narrow categorization, which cultivates the mindful decision of having more self-acceptance (Carson & Langer, 2006), clearer awareness of comparisons (Langer et al., 2010), that impacts well-being and stress (Demick, 2000). Identically, Vipassana Meditation also supports the expansion of categories by bringing attention to self-acceptance within the ever-changing world and environment.

Although, Carson, Shih, and Langer’s (2001) study about the use of creating multiple perspectives, while learning or looking at something for the first time of 55 traditional and nontraditional elementary students in the Boston area argued that the “sit still and pay attention” concept of traditional teaching is less effective then multiple perspective teaching, but the results were not statically significant to fully support their case (pp. 186-188). For example, the sample size is extremely small. Also, the results on the shuffle group, the walking across the room while looking at a map, “could not identify as many landmarks or locations as the students moving” back and forth, and sitting still (p. 187-188). On the other hand, it did bring up a few concepts and practices that need to be researched more, specifically the concept of attention in regards to sitting still. Interestingly, the concept of mindfulness theory and awareness are also similar to the eastern concept of mindfulness that is practiced during meditation, which is done normally while sitting still, and has shown to reduce stress through the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction technique (MBSR) (Gold et al., 2008). Similarly, mindfulness is practiced within Vipassana Meditation and is normally done through sitting, but Falkenstrom’s (2010) quasi-experimental study about the relation of mindfulness to the feeling of well-being of 76 experienced meditators included all movement and action through bringing awareness to subtle changes in the body while in different contexts, movements, and situations, which need to be investigated within education.

Mindfulness Theory’s Connection to Meditation

In general, all four categories of trait mindfulness, such as novelty producing, flexibility, novelty seeking, and engagement, which are connected to self-acceptance, social comparisons tied to performance, and well-being are all concepts practiced within Vipassana Meditation. Moreover, the sitting practice of concentration and attention addressed within (Carson et al., 2001) is similar to meditation, but is different from the practice of Samadhi, which is the concentration, achieved through anapana within Vipassana Meditation that cultivates panna, the wisdom and awareness of the present moment (Goenka, 2005). Overall, there are many parallels to draw between mindfulness as defined by Langer (1989; 2004) and the Eastern philosophies of mindfulness, which includes meditation, such as de-automatization, to see things as they really are with nonjudgment and being open to new categories to help break out of old thoughts, habitual patterns, and reduce stress.

The research on mindfulness such as Burgoon et al. (2000); Carson and Langer (2006); Demick (2000); Langer and Moldoveanu (2000); and Sternberg (2000) are all theoretical arguments that compared other empirical studies implemented by Langer, the founder of mindfulness theory. Nevertheless, Carson et al. (2001); Langer et al. (2010); and Ritchhart and Perkins (2000) do empirically measured mindfulness through the quantitative measurement tool LMS (Langer Mindfulness Scale) that assessed four categories of trait mindfulness such as novelty producing, flexibility, novelty seeking, and engagement (Langer, 2004). For example, Carson et al. (2001) uncovered that forcing students to use multiple physical perspectives and movement while learning new concepts enhanced cognitive perspectives to increase attention to memory. Langer et al.’s (2010) between-subjects experimental study about mindlessness and social comparisons used the LMS to compare mindfulness to performance and found that mindfulness training could lessen the negative effects of social comparisons. Ritchhart and Perkins (2000) used the LMS to compare an experimental study of conditional instruction about     cultivating mindfulness as a trait to a qualitative study about thoughtful classrooms, which both support and provide instructional examples to support the traits of mindfulness.

        Notwithstanding, more research is needed to uncover the process of how or why mindfulness, the trait, works and how the influence of the state of mindfulness works in the process, therefore uncovering the need for a qualitative method study with a grounded theory approach to discover the process of mindfulness. In addition, most mindfulness studies are also limited as they only used university undergraduate students in their populations. Therefore, demonstrating the need to expand the research population, and especially address the field of education and teachers, even though there is a whole book dedicated to mindful learning (Langer, 2000).