Mindfulness with and without meditation

Last Saturday I attended Dr Francesco Pagnini Mindfulness talk at the Hong Kong University where he distinguished two types of Mindfulness.

Bright pink flower opening to summer.
When viewed closely the white pollen on the bright pink stamen glistens strongly.

Firstly, inspired by Theravada Buddhism, is the Mindfulness championed by Jon Kabat-Zinn who Westernised Buddhist practices for a contemporary audience. He focused on strategies for managing people’s relationship with their pain. With these techniques we are encouraged to pay attention in a certain way – deliberately to the present moment without judgment. His Mindfulness Based Interventions have proven to be powerful in general and clinical applications and most studies are on this. The main intervention is Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) which trains people based on meditation practices to accept feelings, sensations and emotions. A difficulty is that it is demanding in terms of time and is psychologically demanding for the non-meditator. For studies and clinical applications the time commitment to meditate results in a low uptake and a high drop out, also whilst the technique is effective as it is being learn and some time after if there is no ongoing support many people get out of the habit of meditating and the benefits are lost. That said Dr Pagnini discussed successful applications for people with cancer, heart disease, psychological problems, ALS and MS.


Langerian on the other hand came to mindfulness from social sciences background and looks at a cognitive approach for personal/social change rather than a meditators approach.  She focuses on reframing a situation and by seeing it with new insight reality is changed, just as when you see a visual problem solved you cannot ‘unsee’ it. Anything that questions paradigms can be an exercise for this, for example, finding more solutions to a problem, reframing tragedies as opportunity, using an objects which is no longer needed in a new way.  This approach takes the ingredients of MBSR but does not insist that the length of time needed to meditate cannot be reduced, so more people can enter the programme and sustain it than is possible in programmes which insist on meditation for people who do not come to the programme eager to do so.

Langer is not promoting a Buddhist view but her focus on paradigm change relates well to having a Zen awareness of change or a beginners mind. In psychological terms it is akin to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) in which cognitive reframing exercises are used in clinical applications e.g. thinking of other strategies, thinking of a judgement which isn’t useful such as ‘I’m a failure’ and analysing it or ‘the waste I produce doesn’t matter because there is so much’ to reframe.

As most mindfulness studies do not have active control group, so they are not so good at comparing the mindfulness group with  people who have good group settings and sufficient free time. A 2014 meta analysis study showed that meditation helps but not as much as we thought and the amount of time meditation weakens motivation puts people off rest of mindfulness training. So while consistent meditators know the benefits of meditating for themselves it seems it is not necessary to insist on this for people who want to use mindfulness purely as a vehicle for stress and pain reduction.


For both types of mindfulness the following are useful guides in applying mindfulness to enjoying our immediate experience of life;

  • Create new categories for structuring perspectives
  • Present multiple perspectives in solving problems
  • Be open to novelty
  • Understand that events can be viewed as both negative and positive.
  • Accepting and playing with unpredictability.
  • Add humour

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