Mindfulness, by K. Witkiewitz, C.R. Ross, D.H. Colgan and S. Bowen, introduces the occidental public to the "theories, understandings, and practices" of an ancient concept from the Buddhist tradition. Mindfulness has recently become widely popular because of its use in a variety of psychological interventions, with significant positive results.
The book is very well structured and has helpful side notes, which summarize the text (e.g., "Curiosity and acceptance are core skills in mindfulness training"). It is didactical, handbook-like and clearly written, and hence accessible to a broad audience. It can be a road opener both for the psychotherapist who wants to complement her therapeutic techniques, and for the regular person who is curious to understand what is actually behind the trendy word that is so often present in cutting edge discussions about psychological welfare.
Mindfulness starts from explaining the title concept. As it usually happens with notions borrowed from a different culture, translation in a language that we can make sense of isn't exactly straightforward. No attempt to a dictionary definition is made, rather the authors focus on delineating the crucial aspects of mindfulness, the assumptions and preconditions that underlie it, as well as related concepts that it should not be mistaken for (e.g., concentration, meditation). All these serve as a working definition, in the sense of helping the reader better understand what is talked about.
The language of mindfulness might appear confusing to the novice because the term has three denotations: a state of mind, a character trait and a practice. In all cases, however, it is characterized by three foundational attributes: direct awareness of experience, sustained attention to the present moment, and a non-judgmental attitude. It is important that it is not taken to be synonymous with concentration-based meditation. The latter may provide only the infrastructure for the more complex practice of mindfulness.
The authors track the history of the concept, from the ancient Buddhist teachings to its 20th century use in Western science and medicine. Both the transhistorical aspects and the peculiarities of the contemporary understanding are presented.
After the introductory historical presentation, the crucial aspects of mindfulness as it is understood today are emphasized. The reader is introduced to different theories and models of mindfulness as a psychotherapeutic approach to various mental conditions. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Theory, etc. are just a few examples of therapeutic interventions that include mindfulness practice.
To the end of productive research, the concept is operationalized in terms of biomarkers and behavioral measures. Numerous scales exist for the assessment of the three modes of mindfulness (state, trait or practice). By discussing objective measures such as biomarkers (e.g., heart rate variability, brain activity) or scales (e.g., the Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory), the authors manage to further the reader from an incorrect yet tempting (due to its religious, Buddhist origins) understanding as a mystical, esoteric, somewhat elusive technique. More, all the interventions are well supported by empirical data. The authors mention at all points the research that grounds claims about its therapeutic efficacy.
Mindfulness is presented as a transdiagnostic approach to mental illness, applicable across a wide range of symptoms, from depression, to anxiety, to eating disorders, chronic pain or substance abuse. The book's final chapter, titled Treatment, introduces the reader to the basics of the therapeutic methodology. Despite the differences between particular interventions like those mentioned above, the common core is sustained personal practice. According to the authors, "Training in mindfulness practice is the central component, instructing participants to continually return their focus to the direct experience of the present moment" (p. 34). Specific guidelines regarding needed personal skills are provided for those interested in becoming 'mindfulness facilitators'.
The book ends after uncovering the tip of the massive iceberg called mindfulness. The reader is left with a clear understanding of its main features and its envisaged therapeutic role. For sure some will feel ready to delve into the depth of the topic and to start practicing. The extensive bibliographical list can be very helpful in directing future readings.
© 2018 Alexandra Varga
Alexandra Varga, Romania