When we’re thinking about when someone’s involved in interpreting his or her own actions on the basis of intentional mental states (such as physical sensation, desires, needs, feelings and the like), the related concept of ‘mindfulness’ is particularly helpful.
In the late 1980s, after a decade or so of research, Ellen Langer wrote her book ‘Mindfulness’ as a way of translating the technical jargon of psychological research for a wider readership.
For her, the benefits of becoming more mindful seemed ‘too valuable to remain hidden in the archives of social psychology’.
She concluded that ‘mindfulness and mindlessness are so common that few of us appreciate their importance or make use of their power to change our lives’ .
In a co-authored paper Langer later defined mindfulness as ‘the process of drawing novel distinctions. It does not matter whether what is noticed is important or trivial, as long as it is new to the viewer’.
She says that actively drawing these distinctions is what keeps us situated in the present.
This can lead to a greater sensitivity to one’s environment, more openness to new information, the creation of new categories for structuring perception, and enhanced awareness of multiple perspectives in problem solving .
Interestingly, in the same paper, she noted that perceived control had been shown to have very positive effects on stress reduction and health, and that when a person behaves mindlessly, the perception of control is not possible.
This correlates exactly with the experience of people subjected to interrogation or torture, and indeed, Andrew’s own experience of feeling out of control.
Studies in the 1980s also showed that increases in mindfulness were associated with increased creativity and productivity, and decreased psychological burnout .
Jon Kabat-Zinn, writing in the 1990s and later, explored the origins of mindfulness in ancient Buddhist practices.
His research and popularisation of the topic has had a considerable influence on way the development and spread of the concept of mindfulness and the practice of mindful meditation worldwide.
Research in this field has informed the relatively recent adoption by the NHS in the UK of mindfulness-based talking therapies.
The practice of mindfulness has been shown to be effective in enhancing mental health and has been applied in treating mood disorders (anxiety, depression), intrusive thinking (ruminations, hallucinations, memories), behaviours (bingeing, addiction, self-harm, violence), problems of relating (attitudes, empathy) and problems related to oneself (self-consciousness, self-hatred) .
The practice of mindfulness meditation has been shown to increase personal resilience.
It has also been demonstrated that those participating in studies have reported to feeling happier, more energised and less stressed, and felt that they had far more control over their lives.
Some also found that their lives had more meaning and that challenges could be seen as opportunities rather than threats .
Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as ‘awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally’ .
The late Chris Mace, two years before his death, published a review of mindfulness and mental health, a thorough examination of the history, origins and practical medical applications of mindfulness.
In this he suggested some simple definitions of mindfulness:
‘a way of being aware.
Mindful awareness is receptive and not exclusive.
Sensations, thoughts, or feelings are simply experienced for what they are’.
It is ‘to pay attention in a particular way’ .
It is the ‘antithesis of mental habits in which the mind is on ‘automatic pilot’. In this usual state, most experiences pass by completely unrecognised, and awareness is dominated by a stream of internal comment whose insensitivity to what is immediately present can seem mindless’ .
Andrew’s breathing exercises on the train on his way to work helped him, in part, to press the pause button and to create some space where he could learn to calm himself sufficiently to regain a sense of perspective and control over his working life.
So far we’ve looked at the significance of a mindful approach which helps us to mentalise, to be more aware of what is going on within ourselves.
We’ll now look at what happens between us and others …
 Langer, E. J. (1989). Mindfulness. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
 Langer, E. J. & Moldoveanu, M. (2000). The Construct of Mindfulness, Journal of Social Issues, 56, 1-9.
 Mace, C. (2007) Mindfulness in psychotherapy: an introduction. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 13, 147-154.
 Williams M. & Penman, D. (2011) Mindfulness: a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world. London: Piatkus (p.54).
 Kabat-Zinn, J. (2012) Mindfulness for beginners: reclaiming the present moment and your life. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.
 Mace, C. (2008) Mindfulness and mental health: Therapy, theory and science. Hove: Routledge.
(This is an edited excerpt from my book A Lawyer’s Guide to Wellbeing and Managing Stress published by ARK Group in 2015.)