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

It’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 [1] 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 [2]. 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 [3]—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 [4], 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 [5] 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 [6] and visual overload that sinks us into tunnel-like detachment to constant distraction [7] and multitasking [8], 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 [9] (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 [10] 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 [11] 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 [12] 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 [13]) and see how you fare.) The questions reflect various forms of staying in the present moment (e.g. “I find myself preoccupied [4] 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 [14] 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 [15] 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 [16], Tai Chi, meditative dance [17], 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 [18] or slow living [19] might help (and definitely won’t hurt) any efforts here. For some people, honing a meditative mindset within exercise [20] 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 [21] now that helps gauge your breathing [22], 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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