Be mindful about mindfulness

Michael Harold was giving a speech, his first ever, and the venue was packed. It was standing room only, and people were spilling out the door. After speaking for 30 minutes, he lost his place in his notes. What would he do next?

What would you do?

We've all heard the claim that people fear public speaking more than death.Of course, I'm going to throw some science in here. This study proves what I have always suspected: nobody is actually more afraid of public speaking than dying, but people are more likely to include public speaking on their fear list. Why is this? People probably don't give much thought to their chances of dying on a given day. Dwyer, K. K., & Davidson, M. M. (2012). Is Public Speaking Really More Feared Than Death? In Communication Research Reports (Vol. 29, Issue 2, pp. 99–107). Informa UK Limited. Just imagining being in Michael's shoes might make us sweat. More than a few inexperienced speakers have given up in panic and ducked for cover.

What did Michael do?  Instead of being overcome by an emotional reaction, he had a mindful thought:

This is what everyone is afraid of.

Mindfulness turned what could have been an embarrassing and upsetting experience into a moment of wonder, one he has cherished ever since. Later, I will share the ending of the story, but let us linger in this moment with Michael. As you learn about mindfulness, try to imagine what Michael would think and do next.Incidentally, Michael was not only being mindful here but self-compassionate. 1. He was being kind to himself, not judgmental. 2. He was focusing on what he had in common with the rest of humanity. 3. He was being mindful.

For a long time, I put off writing this article because mindfulness is like a sharp knife: It's very powerful, very useful, but it can be dangerous when misused. This article addresses the following questions:

  • What is mindfulness?
  • What mechanisms are at work?
  • What are the benefits of mindfulness?
  • What are the potential dangers and downsides?

What is mindfulness?

What is the word you most closely associate with mindfulness?

Meditation. Am I right? The two words are often used interchangeably today, but they are not the same. On the one hand, mindfulness is just one of many types of meditation, and on the other hand, it is not necessary to meditate in order to be mindful. In fact, science strongly indicates that combining the two may not be as useful. That's next, but in the meantime, let's set the record straight as to what mindfulness means:

  • Awareness is the primary function of mindfulness.
  • Self-regulation is also an aspect of mindfulness: a mindful person exerts control over their attention.
  • Mindfulness involves observing and paying attention, not judging.
  • Attention can be directed toward one's thoughts, feelings, or bodily sensations.
  • The objective is to observe and note, not to judge, and not to ignore, deny, or suppress.
  • Mindfulness means being conscious of, open to, and curious about what is happening right here and now.

The key takeaway should be: Mindfulness distances a person from self-judgments and knee-jerk reactions.

Journalist Dan Harris, the author of 10% Happier, says that mindfulness creates some "space in your head" so you can respond rather than react. In his words, mindfulness "is the ability to see what's happening in your mind without being yanked around by it."

How it works

"More research is needed on the general and specific mechanisms by which mindfulness reduces reactivity to threat," wrote the authors of a study on mindfulness.Heppner, W. L., & Kernis, M. H. (2007). “Quiet Ego” Functioning: The Complementary Roles of Mindfulness, Authenticity, and Secure High Self-Esteem. Psychological Inquiry, 18(4), 248–251. doi:10.1080/10478400701598330 

We may not understand everything, but some factors can be identified.

Those who have spent a lot of time around children know that our reactions to external stimuli are not automatic. When a child gets hurt, it often takes them some time to process what happened. Before they start crying, they may look at their parents. Whether they cry or not is often determined by the parent's reaction.

By the time we're adults, we've already internalized many of our parents' reactions. What happens when we get hurt? We might scream in pain, curse, or even shrug it off. A lot depends on our personalities and role models. We may also react automatically when we experience emotions, believing that the emotion directly caused the reaction: "I couldn't help it. I was angry."

Mindfulness puts us back in the same situation we were in as children, except now we have the opportunity, not just to observe the situation, but to process it intelligently.

Underlying all of these processes is a disengagement from self-concern—the perceptions, thoughts, beliefs, evaluations, and related feelings people have about themselves that tend to channel and filter contact with reality in self-serving ways.

Further, when no longer ego-involved, a more fundamental “I” that is grounded in awareness has room to emerge and guide experience and behavior.Brown, K. W., Ryan, R. M., & Creswell, J. D. (2007). Mindfulness: Theoretical Foundations and Evidence for its Salutary Effects. Psychological Inquiry, 18(4), 211–237. doi:10.1080/10478400701598298

Emotions cease to be imperatives when we stop seeing them as such. We begin to stop viewing our self-judgments as reality. We recognize that they are transient. They are part of us, but only to the degree that we allow them to be.

Mindfulness is not the only way that we can accomplish this. The authors of a self-distancing study compared that intervention to mindfulness:

Placing negative events into a broader temporal perspective may heighten awareness of their impermanence in a manner similar to adopting a mindful, present-oriented focus.Bruehlman-Senecal, E., & Ayduk, O. (2015). This too shall pass: Temporal distance and the regulation of emotional distress. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(2), 356–375.

It would be remiss of me not to mention at least the basics of mindfulness. When eating mindfully, for instance, we focus on the experience: Look at the food on the plate. Observe the colors. Take in the smells. Savor the taste. Stay present and avoid being distracted. Researchers have used this method to "induce" mindfulness in studies involving it. 

Another strategy for fostering mindfulness is to instruct participants to describe their feelings about an event objectively and unemotionally.

Mindfulness training can be as simple as reminding someone to take a step back in a physically or emotionally painful situation. At some point in my life, someone taught me how to be mindful when I experience physical pain. It's unlikely they realized they were teaching me mindfulness, but it was effective. They said, "That'll feel better when it stops hurting." Even to this day, when I hit my thumb with a hammer or slam my hand in a door, I allow the pain to wash over me. I focus on exploring aspects of the pain rather than how much it hurts or how badly I want it to go away. In other words, I focus on the "cool" properties of the pain rather than the "hot."


My usual approach is to start with the benefits, but here I made an exception. Scientific studies show:

  • Individuals with high levels of mindfulness have higher self-esteem that is secure rather than fragile.
  • Mindful people display less aggressive behavior.
  • They are less likely to think others are intent on hurting them.
  • Those who are mindful value people in general, and not just those in their own social circles.
  • Mindfulness and authenticity go hand in hand.The foregoing conclusions are based on the Heppner & Kernis (2007) study mentioned above.
  • Mindfulness plays a crucial role in self-compassion.
  • We get a chance to address what is causing us pain rather than ignore it.
  • Mindfulness counteracts the tendency to avoid painful feelings and thoughts.The next three conclusions are based on Neff, K., & Germer, C.K. (2017). Self-Compassion and Psychological Well-being.
  • It incurs protective benefits against distress when facing exclusion by a group.
  • Mindfulness practice can help decrease emotional and cognitive disturbances.
  • Mindfulness enhances executive function, self-regulation, autonomy, and interpersonal relations.
  • It becomes less important to achieve goals or change your circumstances to feel happy.
  • A person with higher mindfulness experiences less stress and feels more alive.
  • Our "more fundamental "I", that is, our sense of agency rather than our ego, has more control over our experience and behavior.The latter findings are all based on the Brown, Ryan, & Creswell (2007) study referenced above.

Downsides and dangers

With such an impressive list of science-backed benefits, what could go wrong?  Apparently, quite a bit.

Let's start with a quote from the Brown, Ryan, & Creswell (2007) study: 

Little is known about the longer-term consequences of either positive illusions or mindfulness, and investigations are needed to examine these processes and their outcomes side-by-side.

That's just the beginning. Here are a bunch more:

  • There is a simplistic view of human mind and of our inner lives that is prevalent in mainstream mindfulness interventions.Farias, M., & Wikholm, C. (2016). Has the science of mindfulness lost its mind? In BJPsych Bulletin (Vol. 40, Issue 6, pp. 329–332). Royal College of Psychiatrists.
  • In terms of depression, anxiety, pain, and quality of life, mindfulness practice only led to moderate improvements.Goyal, M., Singh, S., Sibinga, E. M. S., Gould, N. F., Rowland-Seymour, A., Sharma, R., Berger, Z., Sleicher, D., Maron, D. D., Shihab, H. M., Ranasinghe, P. D., Linn, S., Saha, S., Bass, E. B., & Haythornthwaite, J. A. (2014). Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being. In JAMA Internal Medicine (Vol. 174, Issue 3, p. 357). American Medical Association (AMA).
  • Some participants experienced increased stress and depression.Dobkin, P. L., Irving, J. A., & Amar, S. (2011). For Whom May Participation in a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program be Contraindicated? In Mindfulness (Vol. 3, Issue 1, pp. 44–50). Springer Science and Business Media LLC.
  • The clinical outcomes of mindfulness-based interventions were no better than relaxation or psychoeducation in the medium- or long-term (3 weeks to 3 years after intervention).Khoury, B., Lecomte, T., Fortin, G., Masse, M., Therien, P., Bouchard, V., Chapleau, M.-A., Paquin, K., & Hofmann, S. G. (2013). Mindfulness-based therapy: A comprehensive meta-analysis. In Clinical Psychology Review (Vol. 33, Issue 6, pp. 763–771). Elsevier BV.
  • About 8 percent of people experience negative effects from these practices, such as increased anxiety, depression, stress, and hallucinations.Farias, M., Maraldi, E., Wallenkampf, K. C., & Lucchetti, G. (2020). Adverse events in meditation practices and meditation‐based therapies: a systematic review. In Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica (Vol. 142, Issue 5, pp. 374–393). Wiley.
  • For some people, the intensity of all their emotions becomes louder, as if someone turned up the volume. Eventually, becoming oversensitive to even slight changes might become a problem.Britton, W. B. (2019). Can mindfulness be too much of a good thing? The value of a middle way. In Current Opinion in Psychology (Vol. 28, pp. 159–165). Elsevier BV.
  • In the presence of excessive prefrontal control over the limbic system, all emotions, both positive and negative, become blunted, so people no longer feel extreme joy or happiness. The study found that around 8% of the meditators experienced this unsettling sense of "dissociation" from their lives.Cebolla, A., Demarzo, M., Martins, P., Soler, J., & Garcia-Campayo, J. (2017). Unwanted effects: Is there a negative side of meditation? A multicentre survey. In R. K. Hills (Ed.), PLOS ONE (Vol. 12, Issue 9, p. e0183137). Public Library of Science (PLoS).
  • "Mindfulness meditation appears to reduce reality-monitoring accuracy."Wilson, B. M., Mickes, L., Stolarz-Fantino, S., Evrard, M., & Fantino, E. (2015). Increased False-Memory Susceptibility After Mindfulness Meditation. In Psychological Science (Vol. 26, Issue 10, pp. 1567–1573). SAGE Publications.

Though I haven't thoroughly examined all of the references above, it appears that most of them refer to mindfulness meditation as opposed to simple mindfulness inductions of the types I mentioned above.

Back to Michael

Michael's moment of mindfulness turned his potentially ego-rattling experience into a cherished memory.

Here's the rest of Michael's story, in his own words:

And then I'm looking around, and it's like, this is kind of cool. This is kind of cool. And then it came back to me like what the next piece was. And I was thinking, well, let me sit in this moment just for one more second. And then I launched back into my talk.

His lack of self-focus led him to wrongly assume no one in the audience had noticed the pause.  One of his family members assured him that wasn't the case - it was obvious.

This was a classic example of a benefit and a drawback of mindfulness: Michael had complete control over his emotions but he failed to notice something that was obvious to everyone else. In Michael's case, both worked to his advantage.

I hope this article can help you use mindfulness in a balanced way to improve the quality of your life.