Five Aspects of Mindfulness

Behavioral scientists are quite interested in mindfulness. A researcher named Baer derived five aspects, or dimensions, of mindfulness after a lot of quantitative analysis. Baer describes these five aspects as Observing, Describing, Acting with awareness/non-auto pilot, Nonjudging of experiences, and Nonreacting to inner experiences.

Here’s an easy to read layout. The five aspects of mindfulness are contrasted with somewhat opposite qualities.

Observing in the Now ——– vs ———-  Not noticing in the Now.

Describing Now ——– vs ———- Automatic thought like Evaluating, Predicting, Worrying, Rumination, Controlling

Acting with awareness ——– vs ———-  Acting on auto pilot

Nonjudging of experiences ——– vs ———- Judging experiences

Nonreacting to inner experiences ——– vs ———- Reacting to your inner experiences.

Here’s something very important: The five aspects of mindfulness are correlated with lower levels of symptoms of suffering.

What that means is that if you could assess someone’s mindfulness, those who most frequently abide in the five aspects of mindfulness would describe a life that had much less suffering when compared to the lives of other, much less frequently mindful people. That last sentence is a PC academically correct way of saying that mindful folks suffer less than non-mindful folks.

Now, an important distinction- Life’s routine pain, adversity, and hardship are not what is meant by suffering. Mindful people have plenty of pain, adversity and hardship in their lives- after all, they are humans, too, and to be human on this planet is to possibly experience the full range of all that life can bring us. Those who are more often mindful just aren’t bothered as much by what happens in their lives. That helps a lot.

Suffering is what Steve Hayes’s ACT crew (Get Out of Your Mind and Into your Life) calls ‘dirty pain’- it is pain with a lot of evaluative thinking added.

Let’s say Bill accidentally drops and breaks your favorite camera beyond repair.  If you really liked your camera and were counting on using it, it would be natural for you to feel at least a twinge of disappointment, sadness, or frustration.  That’s all natural, clean pain.

But then what? Will you mindlessly create suffering for yourself or for Bill? Will you add to the pain?

Remember: Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional. Suffering may or may not happen after your camera breaks. It depends on you. You have to do something special to suffer—you have to use evaluative or predictive language. Remember the table above? Go on autopilot, overreact, don’t be present, get into your head, quit noticing the moment, get swept away by judging the experience, and react dramatically—you will then most assuredly be suffering. And Bill might be suffering, too.

I was an idiot to let Bill handle my camera, I’m never going to find a camera that good again! Bill — You clumsy fool! You’ve betrayed our friendship Bill-You are so thoughtless. You have really hurt me and let me down! How could you be so cruel!! You idiot! Shame on you.

When the mind pops into a reactive space, suffering is probable. Without mindful awareness responses will be rigid and automatic.

On the other hand, dwelling in a mostly mindful state allows room for a compassionate, accepting , flexible, and adaptive response.

Bummer. I’m sad about my camera— I really liked it a lot. But, stuff happens, no camera is forever, things break. I’ll get through this. Hey, what’s up with you Bill? How are you handling this? Are you OK?

All of the aspects of mindfulness can be trained. So, practice, practice, practice. Observe, Describe, Act, Let go of your judgments, don’t react to your inner experiences… And work with this over and over and over.  The rest will follow- with practice.

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