The Making of Mindfulness

Tyler S. Harris is a doctoral student at Michigan State University. He is studying sport psychology with an interest in exercise and physical activity motivation. He is a certified athletic trainer and has provided sports medicine coverage to teams at MSU as well as the Olympic Training Site at Northern Michigan University. When he’s not busy teaching or taking classes (which is not often) he enjoys playing basketball, swing dancing, and writing science fiction. His first novel, Immortal Peace, was published in 2015. He is expecting to finish and publish his second book, The Sex Amendments, in 2018. Find Tyler on his website, or follow him on Twitter @Tyler_S_Harris. In this contribution to the KineSophy Mindfulness Series, he delves into the history and science of mindfulness and discusses the application of mindfulness to athletic performance.

Throughout my doctoral studies on the psychosocial aspects of sport and physical activity at Michigan State University, I’ve come across a number of supposedly “new” concepts that sound interesting, but could also be traced back to the same idea with a different label. A perfect example of this is the widespread growth in the idea of “grit.” While this is a buzzword and is coveted by elite and recreational athletes alike, I challenge you to tell me how grit is different from other constructs like resilience or persistence. The words persistence and resilience have a long history in scientific literature, but grit seems to be more digestible and popular. I believe mindfulness is not quite as extreme a case of putting old wine in a new bottle, but diving into the making of mindfulness may help to explain how it can be implemented in the sports realm and beyond.

Powerful thoughts may be out of our control, but it important for us to realize they do not have to control us.

While mindfulness in its current iteration has only been around since 1985 (Kabat-Zinn, Beall, & Rippe, 1985), its origins go back to the teachings of Buddhism. Meditation, from which the concept of mindfulness grew, asks you to find a point of focus (often your own breath) and keep it in mind. This may be difficult at first, as distracting thoughts may arise and take over the point of focus. Skilled meditators have the ability to allow these thoughts in without trying to suppress them, then allowing the distracting thought to leave so the individual may focus back on the breath. This basic practice is the foundation of mindfulness. When one searches for the origins of mindfulness, one cannot help but recognize the parallels to how western cultures think about thoughts, and how it took so long just to come to the same conclusion of Buddhists thousands of years ago.

When writing about mindfulness, I am reminded of the podcast Invisibilia. In their first episode, they discuss the paradigm shifts in how we think about thoughts, starting with Freudian psychology. In the times of Freud, it was believed that we are at the will of our own minds. This is the idea behind the Freudian slip, in which our mind has a thought against what we are saying, and we accidentally speak what is on our mind rather than what we want to say (e.g., reading the word organism and saying it out loud as orgasm). In this sense, our thoughts control us, and we always must prepare to succumb to their power. This explains why some people might become obsessive over their negative thoughts; “I’m not good enough,” or “This isn’t going to work” are two broad examples.

Inception: when mindfulness goes wrong
Inception: when mindfulness goes wrong

Post-Freudian ideas on thoughts are still the most commonly used today in sport and exercise psychology. These ideas are essentially the opposite of Freud, and are based on the premise that we are not controlled by our thoughts…we are, in fact, in control of our thoughts. From this came a number of practices; thought suppression, positive self-talk, and thought replacement, to name a few. If you’ve tried these strategies, in all likelihood you grew frustrated and gave up. These strategies take persistence (or should I say…grit?) to be successful over time. No matter how much you try to suppress thoughts and ideas, they will always find their way back into your mind. Joseph Gordon-Levitt says it well in one of my all-time favorite movies, Inception: “If I say, ‘don’t think about elephants,’ what do you think about?” Human nature forces us all to think about elephants, regardless of if we wanted to or not. Trying not to think about elephants in this situation is as unlikely as holding a life-sized elephant back during a stampede.

But there is hope after all. As told by Bishop and his colleagues (2004): “Mindfulness is not a practice of thought suppression; all thoughts or events are considered an object of observation, not a distraction.” This harkens back to the Invisibilia podcast, which in the end discusses how both of the previously mentioned attitudes toward thoughts may be wrong. Instead of seeing our thoughts as a powerful enemy, or as insubordinate menaces, maybe we are better off seeing them as symbiotic with our bodies. Since we know thoughts are fast and fleeting, maybe it is in our best interest to allow the negative thoughts to be as fast and fleeting as the positive ones. After all, trying to hold back an elephant during a stampede is not nearly as easy as letting the elephant continue running until it is gone. These powerful thoughts may be out of our control, but it important for us to realize they do not have to control us.

This mindful mindset can have benefits beyond sport and exercise. In his book Buddha’s Brain, Dr. Rick Hanson states being mindful has to do with “having good control over your attention: [when mindful] you can place your attention wherever you want it and it stays there; when you want to shift it to something else, you can.” This fits with my personal research interests of multitasking. Some researchers argue you can train yourself to become a better multitasker over time. Maybe mindfulness is a possible mechanism to do this.

I wish anyone and everyone willing to attempt to implement mindfulness in their lives the best of luck. Before I finish, I have one last reference to media. Obviously, I have made movies, books, and podcasts an integral part of my life, and I have come across one in particular that is perfect for this topic. I would like to direct readers to the podcast Moving Mindfully. Dr. Anne Cox is a sport psychologist who researches this topic and her podcast is dedicated to the topic in the real-world setting. I feel this is a great resource for understanding mindfulness from the perspective of an academic researcher, without dealing with all the jargon. For anyone interested in learning more about mindfulness in athletic endeavors, this would be a solid starting point.

References:

  • Bishop, S. R. (2004). Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11(3), 230–241. doi:10.1093/clipsy/bph077.
  • Kabat-Zinn, J., Lipworth, L., & Burney, R. (1985). The clinical use of mindfulness meditation for the self-regulation of chronic pain. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 8(2), 163–190. doi:10.1007/bf00845519.

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