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

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.

Prefer listening to reading? Get an audio recording of this blog post, and subscribe to the Primal Blueprint Podcast on iTunes for instant access to all past, present and future episodes here.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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33 thoughts on “The What, Why, and How of “Dispositional Mindfulness””

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  1. I’ve been participating in this month’s “Mindfulness Summit” ( 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 (

    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.

  2. 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 had a term for it, but I think Dispositional Mindfulness will work quite well.

    Thanks again!

      1. Thanks, Mark. Touched by the personal reply. Have a great day… I am. 😀

  3. 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”

    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 day with good or at least neutral intentions. Somewhere between the first sip of coffee in the morning and the last yawn before bed we lose our way. Why or how does this happen? What can we do to stay on track?

    We all live on autopilot. Go through our days letting this low level portion of our brain make decisions for us. It’s easy. It helps us -get through the day-. But don’t you want more than just getting through the day? We have only so many here to take advantage of. The trick to living consciously is vigilance. Every moment, every step, every interaction has within it the power to further a goal, stagnate it, or lead you further away. Being on autopilot strips you of your decision making power and also makes you oblivious to the world (and people) around you.

    Sure, some decisions are more minor than others. Should I read this interesting blog at work or complete that task? Should I go out of my way to hold the door open for someone? Should I spend 10 minutes on Twitter or reach out to a friend that might be in need of a sympathetic ear? Taken alone these tiny individual decisions seem meaningless. But they compound over time. Take the easy way, the path of least resistance long enough and it becomes ingrained in you. You may wake up and say “I’m going to do some good today.” but your mind and body don’t know how. We are creatures of habit. We must develop new beneficial ones to replace the habits that have only been acting as anchors.

    1. 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.

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

        Thank you

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

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

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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 way of being. I do a lot of walking in nature as well, which has its own joys – but it’s not the same as sitting in stillness and observing the breath. It’s deeply satisfying, learning and teaching people how to relax, and how to create distance between consciousness and the thought-stream.

  12. 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. An easy, effortless letting go. thoughts slow and peter out. The mind becomes still. There is just the whole being in the experience of stillness. Afterward you know you have experienced. it . Dr Meares (deceased) wrote several books on his method. He had a primal take on things and his work is worth digging into. If you live in Australia there are still practitioners of his method teaching it. OB

    1. 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.

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

  14. 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, always been in mastery of the epigenetics of volition for expression of innate capabilities ranging from wellness to peak performance. Frank Zane and I trained with this for years, calling it BodhiBuilding at one time. It’s my sole work today – kind of paleo and kind of Next Evolution.

    Karmana cetana iti. That says karma is dispositional tendencies. Short hand statement. Karma is not payback or rewards – it comes from the same verb as create does, and it means action. In fact, there’s no word ‘meditation’ in Sanskrit or Chinese, instead a lot of action words. Like carya, another kissing cousin of karma from the same root verb.

    Karma is deemed healthy, unhealthy, or flat neutral in terms of outcomes. If we deepen and strengthen amygdala hijackings, our brain does not remodel reflecting growing into emotionally intelligent maturity – it remains habit bound, living a life of knee jerk reactions on a wild roller coaster ride of unstable emotions. Disposition disposed to upsets and stress.

    Where action comes in is sometimes stated as the 8fold path starting with ‘right views’ Samyak drsti or ?? actually means getting a fuller, more complete perspective as the outcome of mindfulness. There’s no moral ‘right’ about that – just bad translation. Disposing you to move on to more favorable, fulfilling actions. Buddhism is not about getting enlightened, its about restoring a naturally blissful grace like state of a lot less neurotic effort in living. So dispositional is also disposing of actions of consciousness that weigh you down, bore you, are an enervating pain.

    What’s the disposition the sages of India and China are after? In two words: lila and ananda. Lili means play. As you likely don’t know, the Buddha – the guy this all starts with – was drop dead handsome, virile, a well developed muscular physique, debater and athlete. The best known bio of him is Lalitavistara – Awake Boundless Play. Ananda? A University of Texas Austin Sanskrit scholar locked that one down, and those of us in consciousness studies love it – the word means orgasm. The playful disposition that’s all of us unencumbered, unburdened is orgasmic like – and as the enlightened art of Asia bears vivid testimony, irrepressibly erotic.

    There’s more to it. Watch for forthcoming articles on my nonlinear blog. We deal with Dao, Buddhism, Brahmanic yogas as gnosis, as advanced forms of consciousness development unknown in the West where religion suppressed them.

  15. 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 far more than overcoming handicapping normal neurosis – and includes areas of consciousness still considered ‘alternative’ by our rigid, unimaginative orthodoxy which would reduce all consciousness to biochemistry. Consider for example roughly a third of persons diagnosed with terminal illnesses undergo ‘spontaneous remission’ – the disease just goes away. That cannot be explained by current science and is dismissed after being trivialized while discussion of it is cause for being shamed. Same with placebo and nocebo effect. While not politically correct, in my experience hypnosis and ‘meditation’ are part of a spectrum of consciousness, kissing cousins – and seemingly odd as merely a reflection of how under developed if not shallow our pretenses of science regarding consciousness is!
    For fitness and wellness we do Bodhi-Building. Bodhi is Sanskrit for wisdom. So training becomes a theatre or arena of conscious development of Next Evolution. Like X-Men, we’re mutants – but volitionally, on purpose. And with the freedom of ‘portable practice’ – strengthening consciousness as it’s own support, basis, ground. In Sanskrit and Chinese (and Tibetan) the crucial turning point is becoming irreversible or not falling off the waking up wagon. It’s got to be in you. If it’s conditional, on the outside, then it’s weak – the strength hasn’t been developed yet. That’s not putting down apps, just calling attention to what is at best a provisional, temporary benefit for beginners – once you’ve got rudimentary power, you’re in business for and by yourself.

  16. 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:

    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 a great opportunity to momentarily tap into that fully-mindful state.

    For example, I sometimes practice it when I am cooking. When preparing 2 or more dishes, the mini-logistical requirements of ingredients and human handling induce a naturally occurring state of being present and so when I remember to, I remind myself to consciously undertake cooking as a mindfulness practice.

    Would love to hear your thoughts on this, as well.


  17. 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 🙂

  18. 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 household, tending to my own chronic illness, and starting a business. One thing I’m experimenting with is not fighting my nature – setting aside blocks of time where I can focus on one activity. These ideas and suggestions expressed are truly helpful. Thank you, Mark, for such a timely post. And thank you to everyone for such enlightening comments.

  19. Why dispositional mindfulness is not enough: on mindfulness and affective neuroscience

    Presented here for your consideration is a new and quite radical explanation of mindfulness from the perspective of affective neuroscience, or more specifically, a neurologically grounded theory of incentive motivation. The explanation is simple, easily falsifiable, and its procedural entailment redefines the practice of mindfulness. Still, it may be wrong. Indeed, a bad theory must not overstay its welcome, and although I provide a granular explanation of my hypothesis in the treatise linked below, sometimes to see the light one must look at the sun.

    In 1984, the psychologist David Holmes published in the journal ‘The American Psychologist’ a review (linked below) of the cumulative research on meditation and concluded that meditative states were merely resting. The article was roundly criticized, as meditation was obviously much more than a simple state of rest. Well, the critics were half right, meditation is rest, but rest is NOT simple. Indeed, rest induces a pleasurable or affective state which can be modulated in turn by the moment to moment expectancies that tell you where you are and where you are going. Indeed, contrary to what mindfulness suggests, being in the moment is impossible, for we must always consciously or non-consciously decide upon the direction or meaning of our actions from moment to moment, and this translates into effective and affective outcomes. These concepts can easily be anchored to the facts of behavior and translated into simple validating procedure, as I argue below.

    In affective neuroscience, incentives embody affective states that reflect attentive arousal as mediated by dopamine systems, and pleasure, as mediated by opioid systems. The nerve cells or nuclei of both systems are proximally located in the mid-brain and can activate each other. For example, looking forward to a pleasure accentuates the pleasure, and a pleasurable experience perks up attentive arousal. In addition, opioid and dopamine release scales with the intensity or salience of the eliciting stimulus, as pleasure rises with tastier foods, and attentive arousal spikes when we view an unexpected vista or challenge.

    Dopamine release can occur as a phasic or intermittent response, as when our attention ebbs and flows as a function or our momentary fluctuating interest and boredom. It also occurs as a tonic or sustained response in order to maintain a baseline level of alertness that allows us to go about our lives. Similarly, opioid release occurs as a phasic response when we sample our daily pleasures, and it also may be a tonic response, but only when the covert musculature is in an inactive or relaxed state. When an individual is tense or anxious, tonic opioid activity is suppressed. This makes evolutionary sense, as resting conserves an animal’s caloric resources, and animals in the wild sustain their survivability through the dual incentive of alertness for predators while at a pleasurable state of rest. (as your lounging cat would attest, if it could speak)

    From these facts, certain predictions about behavior may be made that conform with empiric reality. For example, peak or flow experiences that reflect heightened attentive arousal and pleasure only occur when an individual is both relaxed and is aroused by behavior that entails highly positive moment to moment meaningful outcomes (e.g. creativity, sporting events). Dopamine in turn stimulates opioid activity, and the enhanced dopamine/opioid interaction results in an ecstatic or peak experience.

    This observation can also be practically confirmed (or falsified!). Simply elicit a resting state through a mindfulness procedure and continuously couple it with imminent behavior that has important or meaningful outcomes, and the more meaningful, the greater the affect. The underscores the fact that as a resting protocol, mindfulness will elicit a pleasurable state which will scale with the salience of momentary outcomes that in turn can be easily arranged. Mindfulness in other words is not a steady affective state, but a variable affective state, and can be a mystical or peak experience, or just a mildly pleasant way of chilling out. It all depends upon what you are looking forward to imminently do.

    For a more detailed explanation see pp.47-52, 82-86 on the linked treatise on the psychology of rest.

    Holmes Article

    Meditation and Rest
    from the International Journal of Stress Management, by this author

    The Psychology of Rest

    and at