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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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October 29, 2015

The What, Why, and How of “Dispositional Mindfulness”

By Mark Sisson
32 Comments

MindfulnessIt’s okay to do the double take—dispositional mindfulness. How’s that?

By now most people have heard of mindfulness meditation. I’ve written a bit about it for the blog, also noting that other forms of deep relaxation practice tend to work better for me. As quiet blocks of time devoted to emptying the mind and bringing awareness to your breath as well as other body sensations, meditation can clear away conscious thought and let us rest in a deep calm, triggering the feel-good, health-promoting hormonal effects of the body’s potent relaxation response. Research has shown regular practice for even just a couple months literally changes the brain’s structure and confers a whole host of health advantages. But what about the application of a mindful approach to everyday life rather than a particular “practice”?

What is “dispositional mindfulness”?

Dispositional mindfulness, as researchers define it, is simply a keen awareness and attention to our thoughts and feelings in the present moment. Although different people would describe it in their own terms, it can feel like a thoughtful attunement with what is going on inside the parameters of your mind and body—a conscious, registering layer between yourself and your experience. For some people it might feel like a sense of centeredness, of keeping one’s energy inside, fully in the present moment, with slow, self-aware, deliberate consideration. The mindful processing of emotional and physical sensations in this way can steer—sometimes purposefully, sometimes imperceptibly—responses and choices.

It isn’t hard to see how being dispositionally mindful would’ve enhanced Grok’s ability to survive. Being attuned to one’s thoughts and feelings would’ve likely resulted in more successful social interactions, more intuitive hunting or warfare decisions, keener perception of the effects of many influential cues (e.g. weather shifts, food reactions, etc.).

And, yet, the modern world we live in does about everything it can to dissuade us from this mindful approach. From the noise and visual overload that sinks us into tunnel-like detachment to constant distraction and multitasking, our lives run too often on automatic pilot. Just what are we missing?

The Health Benefits of Dispositional Mindfulness

Although it’s a relatively new branch of meditation/mindfulness research, studies are already suggesting some significant associations for both physical and mental health.

Study participants who scored high on the self-report Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS) were healthier on four of the American Heart Association’s seven cardiovascular indicators (smoking avoidance, physical activity, body mass index—and belly fat, and fasting glucose) and on the overall cardiovascular health composite score.

Interestingly, because the experiment was part of the ongoing New England Family Study (NEFS), researchers had documentation of which participants had been overweight in their childhoods. Participants who had been normal weight as children but became obese as adults scored low on the MAAS. Researchers speculate that dispositional mindfulness as a consistent temperament influences the decision making processes related to health related choices—for example, the response to cravings or the decision to exercise.

In terms of mental health, research suggests that dispositional mindfulness can ameliorate the physiological effects of psychological stress. And particularly for those people who are at risk for depression, it might be a hinge point. Subjects who had been tested for neuroticism six years prior underwent assessment for both depressive symptoms and dispositional mindfulness traits. In those who tested low or moderate for dispositional mindfulness, the correlation of neuroticism and depression was significantly higher. According to researchers, this kind of mindfulness can moderate the development of depression associated with neuroticism through the ability to describe and process inner experience. 

How to Develop Dispositional Mindfulness

Although some people are naturally wired toward this type of keen self-awareness and present-focus, experts suggest it can be cultivated by anyone.

The Mindful Attention Awareness Scale is in the public domain. (You can access it here (PDF) and see how you fare.) The questions reflect various forms of staying in the present moment (e.g. “I find myself preoccupied with the future or the past.”), doing one thing at a time (e.g. “I find myself listening to someone with one ear, doing something else at the same time.”) and being in touch with your immediate feelings (e.g. “I could be experiencing some emotion and not be conscious of it until some time later.”).

Take each and practice one of these behaviors for a week to two weeks. Once you feel you’ve made significant progress, take on the next one for the same amount of time (longer or shorter as need be). Establish check-in times at set intervals each day (using a phone or computer alarm perhaps) during which you write about how you’ve been practicing that week’s mindful characteristic that day.

Additionally, you can take up a meditative/relaxation practice (whether sitting or active, like walking meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, meditative dance, etc.) that helps you intensively practice “flow” focus with the present moment. I’d argue that any activity which cultivates keen awareness of physical sensation or explores subtle emotional differentiation could potentially cultivate dispositional mindfulness if practiced regularly. The idea here isn’t any particular skill but subtle attunement. Since most of us in the modern culture are used to running on automatic, even making a regular commitment to deep self-care or slow living might help (and definitely won’t hurt) any efforts here. For some people, honing a meditative mindset within exercise might be a possibility.

For those of you who imagine you would still have issues coming down from your normal stressful, distracted frame of mind —guess what? There’s even a gadget now that helps gauge your breathing, a key indicator of stress level, and offers feedback to your phone or other device to help you ameliorate the effects with suggestions like “Take a breath.” It might be the momentary mindfulness coach you need. While I haven’t yet tried this tool, I’d be interested in hearing from any of you who have.

Thanks for reading today. Did you take the MAAS inventory? What elements of mindful or “present” living challenge you the most? Share your thoughts on dispositional mindfulness, meditative practices or anything else under the Primal sun. Have a good end to the week.

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32 Comments on "The What, Why, and How of “Dispositional Mindfulness”"

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DarkSideRunner
10 months 29 days ago

I’ve been participating in this month’s “Mindfulness Summit” (www.mindfulnesssummit.com) in order to add mindfulness practice to my daily life – I feel like maybe that’s the right first step to developing dispositional mindfulness. I have a few go to tools (http://runtothedarkside.blogspot.com/2015/10/consistency.html)

One area I think I’d like to focus on in the next week is mindful eating. I need to stop multitasking when I eat.

Groktimus Primal
10 months 29 days ago

Namaste

Derek P
Derek P
10 months 29 days ago
One of the best effects of going Paleo/Primal for me has been a dramatic reduction in depression – especially in ketosis. It’s made a monumental difference in my emotional health. One thing I’ve added to my health arsenal is meditation. It’s been very effective in helping me to be more aware of, and turn off, my disruptive inner-dialogue. I don’t meditate as much as I like, but I intuitively have been doing what you you’re writing about here; throughout my day I pay attention to clearing my thoughts, and interrupting the negative spiral of my destructive self-talk. I never really… Read more »
Steve
Steve
10 months 29 days ago
Hey Mark! Wow. Stole the words right out of my head. I was actually writing a blog post about this topic, not yet to be finished. But I’ll post what I have so far below. Thanks for sharing some of the research around “Dispositional Mindfulness” I had myself sort of tagged it as “Living Consciously” Post: Do you wake up in the morning and say to yourself, “I’m going to be a terrible person today.”? What about, “You know what, today I’m going to be sabotage myself from reaching my goals.” Probably not huh? Most of us start out each… Read more »
Frank
Frank
10 months 28 days ago

Thanks for sharing these thoughts!

Anita
Anita
10 months 27 days ago

Thanks for sharing this. I’ve been trying to be mindful of my tendency to hold pity parties for myself. I’ve invited others to join me but so far no one has taken me up on the offer. So, in the past 3 days, I’ve abandoned my party for one and am feeling much better.

Kelda
10 months 24 days ago

Pity parties, what a brilliant observation… I’ve almost certainly been indulging in this without even being consciously aware.

Thank you

Tom B-D
Tom B-D
10 months 29 days ago

Thanks for the post and the test link–I scored 4.1 on the MAAS inventory. For the last 4 months I’ve been practicing meditation for 20 minutes daily, and definitely feel the results. As DarkSide Runner implies above, I would never have been able to practice dispositional mindfulness without the meditation practice!

Dr. Dana Leigh Lyons
10 months 29 days ago

Thanks for this, Mark! Mindfulness (dispositional or otherwise) is such an important part of seeing, understanding and shifting eating and lifestyle patterns.

At clinic, we help patients strengthen their “mindfulness muscle” rather than just handing them a set of “food rules.” The reason is the powerful impact this has on treatment outcomes–not *just* in helping people reach health and eating goals–but also in sustaining results and changes over the long term.

Jack Lea Mason
Jack Lea Mason
10 months 28 days ago

One of the drawbacks of becoming more mindful is dealing with the mindless. I need help with this.

isenriver
isenriver
10 months 28 days ago

haha

Wenchypoo
Wenchypoo
10 months 28 days ago

Don’t we all?

Monikat
Monikat
10 months 28 days ago

To add to this, before my husband and I married, we heard a talk on successful marriages and one of the big takeaways for us was a catchy little phrase:

Be Present to your Partner.

We still use it as shorthand to remind each other to get in the moment and make a real connection, rather than just drown in a sea of scheduling and shuttling.

Rick
Rick
10 months 28 days ago

I’d just like to point out that repeating (which I’ve seen here) “I can’t meditate” or “meditation doesn’t work for me” are a form of meditation.

Squeebie
Squeebie
10 months 28 days ago

Food. Movement. Focus. In that order, all have contributed to a late life transformation for which I am very grateful. However, as far as emotional growth, focus or mindfulness has made the biggest difference. It is available moment by moment. Does not have to be grass fed. No gym membership required. Yep.

Janknitz
Janknitz
10 months 28 days ago

Like everyone, I struggle with mindfulness. But it helps to remind myself that the struggle is what it is all about. When you recognize that your attention has wandered and bring it back to focus, THAT’s the act of being mindful. Knowing that has helped me so much.

Angie
10 months 28 days ago
I’ve been teaching yoga and meditation for six years now, both in my own studio, and at a Drug Rehabilitation Community for young men. It is extraordinary to witness the transformations that occur in people, often in a very short time. The practices are powerful, and the simple gesture of sitting still and focusing on the breath has immediate benefits. The breath is the language of the nervous system, so when we concentrate on the quality and the rhythm of the breath, we encourage the nervous system into a parasympathetic state, which is the opposite of our habitual stressed out… Read more »
ob
ob
10 months 28 days ago
Dr Ainslie Meares was the psychiatric equivalent of Weston Price. He began to develop a method of hypnosis and then autohypnosis which he continued to develop and was called various names- these days it is called stillness meditation. He traveled extensively in the 1950s-1960s seeking out all forms of mental practices in different cultures he felt could be learned from. He developed a theory of mental homeostasis and the method. With quick description to follow The physical aspect of strain (what stress actually is) is a tensing up. Physical relaxation is a letting go. So, it is with the mind.… Read more »
wildgrok
wildgrok
10 months 27 days ago

Headspace works for me

jj
jj
10 months 27 days ago

I love headspace too. I had tried other apps and I felt headspace was the best at explaining what meditation is and how to do it.

Todd
Todd
10 months 27 days ago

What apps have some of you found that are helpful for mindfulness/meditation? I use the Buddhify app most often.

Ken O'Neill
10 months 24 days ago
Dispositional mindfulness, eh? The corresponds to a statement in the 4th/5th century CE Abhidharmakosa of Vasubandhu: karmana cetana iti. Better give a hint how I know this – it’s not some wild stuff. Due to interest in dormant human potentials, the stuff of our genetic blue print, I opted for a Japanese Buddhist University for grad school. Our primary languages were Sanskrit and classic Chinese. Once completed, more hands on experiential training and testing of inner understanding result in being officially certified as a Kyoshi, same as a Zen master/Roshi, in Kyoto, Japan, 1972. My interests have never been religious,… Read more »
Kelda
10 months 24 days ago

What a fantastic comment, thank you.

Ken O'Neill
10 months 24 days ago
apps? ha ha. how the world has changed. mindfulness offers a basis for seeing through/rising above a dutiful, obligatory socialized life as a robot. That’s done by means of restoring primal consciousness. And that doesn’t mean retrogression to a fictional or speculative Paleo condition. Evolution is a dynamic active verb, not a past perfect tense implying something completed long, long ago. Our major evolution has been social and cultural, especially since modernity. The whole point of mindfulness is skill development for ‘voluntary control of autonomic functions.’ That phrase is right out of bio-feedback research of the 70s. Voluntary controls includes… Read more »
Ahmetbro
10 months 23 days ago
Hi Mark. Thank you for your knowledge and perspective. In order to gain some further insight into this subject and to procrastinate my daily hinge habit duty, I have been googling. I came across this article which claims a negative correlation between meditation practice and MAAS scores among adolescents: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3146710/ What is your hypothesis to explain this counterintuitive finding? PS: Also, since I started writing this anyway, I might add: I have a counter perspective to one of your assumptions, which you mentioned in passing. Multitasking, you wrote, is one of the barriers to mindfulness. I think “multitasking” can be… Read more »
Scott
Scott
10 months 22 days ago

Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a beautiful book on this “The Miracle of Mindfulness”. I read it probably 15 years ago and still find this practice useful today to refocus when I feel like I have too many things competing for my brainpower and attention 🙂

bellofpeace
bellofpeace
10 months 3 days ago

Use anything that happen as bell of mindfulness,that is meditation..gedeprama|bellofpeace.org

Laura
27 days 22 hours ago
I think our current culture makes it difficult to be mindful and survive economically. I’ve always felt out of step with the present. In order to buck the system, we must be mindful in regards to the type of work we choose. Really, maybe our work should choose us. I enjoy the idea of there being very little difference between our work and our play. This, I feel, allows mindfulness to be a more natural part of our day. I needed this post and look forward to considering many of these comments in more detail. I’m juggling homeschooling, running a… Read more »
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