July 22, 2010

Eastern vs. Western conceptions of "mindfulness"

As a student on the Antioch Education Abroad Buddhist Studies program in India, in 2005, I recall the director of the program, Robert Pryor, telling me during an afternoon tea break that he believed that scientists would one day be able to measure a person’s “presence.” In the five years that have passed since that conversation there have been an increasing number of studies seeking to do just that. This morning I came across an article at the Oregonian’s website that announced that Michael Christopher, an assistant professor at the Pacific University School of Professional Psychology, was awarded a $179,600 grant by the National Institutes of Health to find a better way to measure mindfulness.

Read the article here.

In an email exchange earlier today, Christopher informed me that though psychologists have been trying to measure mindfulness for the last 10 years through “paper-and-pencil surveys,” he isn’t convinced that mindfulness is what they have been measuring. Following in the footsteps of Eleanor Rosch and Alan Wallace, Christopher has worked on studies in the US and Thailand to examine the validity of those previous measurements.

Here is the abstract from a paper that resulted from one of those studies entitled “Assessing 'Western’ Mindfulness Among Thai Theravada Buddhist Monks”:

Mindfulness has its roots in Eastern contemplative traditions and is rapidly gaining popularity in Western psychology. However, questions remain regarding the validity of Western operationalizations of mindfulness. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to assess the applicability of several Western mindfulness measures among a sample of Thai Theravada Buddhist monks. Twenty-four monks recruited from Buddhist temples in Thailand participated in the study. The monks evinced similar associations between mindfulness and related variables as American validation study samples did, and on two facets of mindfulness the monks’ mean scores were greater than an American college student sample. However, the American sample endorsed significantly higher scores on three other facets of mindfulness. These results raise concerns about whether these scales are measuring mindfulness as it is conceptualized in a Buddhist context. Future research with larger samples is needed to further assess the cultural validity and measurement equivalence of Western mindfulness measures across cultural groups.

These studies suggest that there might be some important differences between Eastern and Western conceptions of what mindfulness is. Christopher will use the NIH funds to continue to work with Thai monks in the hopes of developing a culturally valid—and scientifically rigorous—method of assessing mindfulness.

We're looking forward to following Christopher's research.

Image: from FriskoDude's Flikr photostream.

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jaya graves's picture

I stumbled on this and I'm wondering what on earth the purpose of this research could be... Doesn't the title itself suggest a completely different approach (understanding)? Eastern VS Western approaches? It's embedded in the materialistic practices of the Western approach (now, of course, global). It's dualistic - dependent on breaking down, separating, analysing - all important in Buddhism but to a different final aim - synthesis, wholeness, wisdom.

If the aim is just to make it useful in our mundane lives - that may be useful but its not a spiritual application. It becomes like Yoga - a 'better health', strategy.

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alexander pacho's picture

Don't we need to add Tibetan, Zen, etc., etc.?

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[...] Tricycle » Eastern vs. Western conceptions of “mindfulness” tricycle.com/blog/?p=2088 – view page – cached As a student on the Antioch Education Abroad Buddhist Studies program in India, in 2005, I recall the director of the program, Robert Pryor, telling me during an afternoon tea break that he believed that scientists would one day be able to measure a person’s “presence.” In the five years that have passed since that conversation there have been an increasing number of studies seeking to do... Read moreAs a student on the Antioch Education Abroad Buddhist Studies program in India, in 2005, I recall the director of the program, Robert Pryor, telling me during an afternoon tea break that he believed that scientists would one day be able to measure a person’s “presence.” In the five years that have passed since that conversation there have been an increasing number of studies seeking to do just that. This morning I came across an article at the Oregonian’s website that announced that Michael Christopher, an assistant professor at the Pacific University School of Professional Psychology, was awarded a $179,600 grant by the National Institutes of Health to find a better way to measure mindfulness. View page Tweets about this link [...]