What is mindfulness?

David Rock is a world famous business coach who cooperates closely with neuroscience experts to utilise the latest scientific findings on the workings of the brain to improve organisational performance. He has recently published a book „Your Brain at Work”, and he regularly contributes to www.psychologytoday.com

In a recent contribution he wrote about the neuroscience of mindfulness, in which he referred to a 2007 scientific study published by Norman Farb of the University of Toronto. Farb, working with six other scientists, studied how people experience the present moment and discovered that we have two distinct ways of interacting with the world, utilising two distinct neurological networks.

The first network apparently involves a part of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex as well as memory regions of the brain such as an area known as the hippocampus. I´m not a neuroscientist myself so I can´t pretend that I understand the full technical details of how this network operates, but Farb calls it the default or narrative network.

It´s the network involved in planning, daydreaming and ruminating. It´s called default because it becomes active when not much else is happening. So when you are walking through snow in the park at Kadriorg on a beautiful cold and sunny winter´s day, your mind drifts and you might find yourself going over and over a recent frustrating meeting at work. This default network holds together a narrative, a story with characters interacting with each other. And also when you experience the world using this network, instead of just experiencing whatever you can observe with your eyes or feel with your sense of touch ( or hear with your ears), your mind might take in information from the outside world and immediately create a story or narrative of its own. So seeing the snow might remind you of the near accident you had when you lost control of your car on ice, and then you reflect on the high cost of car insurance, and then you remember the television advert promising cheaper car insurance…..and so on.

The Farb study showed, however, that there is a second, direct mode of experience. When this direct experience network is operating, then different regions of the brain become more active. This includes the insula, a region that is involved in perceiving body sensations, and the anterior cingulate cortex, a region of the brain involved in switching attention. So when this direct experience network is operating you are simply receiving the information coming in through your sense organs at that particular moment. Walking through snow in Kadriorg Park on a beautiful cold and sunny winter´s day your attention is focused on the snow, on the trees in the park, on the winter sun, and on the cold touch of the winter on the skin of your cheeks. This is the mode of experience Buddhists know as mindfulness.

Other scientific studies have shown that the narrative and direct experience circuits are inversely correlated. If one circuit is operating then the other tends not to be operating. So when you are walking through Kadriorg Park and your mind is preoccupied with your frustrating meeting at work then you are more likely not to notice the patch of ice on the path and to slip and fall. But if your direct experience network is operating then you are more likely to see the patch of ice and avoid the fall.

David Rock argues that the narrative circuitry of the brain is useful for such things as planning, goal setting, and strategizing. (Although he does not say this explicitly, it is implied that it is best to consciously decide to employ this mode of brain operation.) But experiencing the world more directly allows more sensory information to be perceived. When the direct experience network is operating then you are able to get closer to the reality of what is happening. Body and mind take in more accurate and immediate information and this allows you to be more flexible in determining a response. In this way, Rock argues, „you become less imprisoned by the past, your habits, expectations or assumptions, and more able to respond to events as they unfold.”

Moreover, the research done by Farb revealed that those who meditate regularly have a much stronger sense of which of the two brain circuits are operating at a particular time, and can switch more easily between them. From my own experience I know this to be true. For example, the mindfulness of breathing practice, taught at many buddhist meditation centres, teaches practitioners to notice when their narrative or default circuit distracts the mind and they lose direct experience of their breath. Each time the practitioner realises that they have lost focus on their breathing and their mind has wandered off on some story unrelated to the meditation, then they are urged to gently but firmly return their attention to their breathing. And each time this happens they are encouraged to see this as a victory. They are training the brain to use the direct experience circuit. And they are becoming more skilled at knowing whether their brain is operating in the narrative or the direct experience mode. Unfortunately, without practice, most of the time when the narrative circuit takes over the mind we are unaware that it has happened, and suddenly we are at the mercy of our habits and assumptions, and our decisions are likely to be less successful.

There are other advantages to practising mindfulness that Rock mentions. A study by Kirk Brown and Richard Ryan revealed that people who scored high on a mindfulness scale were more aware of their unconscious processes, had more cognitive control, and a greater ability to shape what they do and say, than people who scored lower on the mindfulness scale.

The unconscious mind is the source of hidden fears and attitudes that can interfere with everyday life. I have seen many times how practicing mindfulness meditation can help to bring these hidden difficulties into conscious awareness, so that we can examine them and choose how to deal with them. Deepening our awareness in this way can also free up creative impulses, allowing them to rise into conscious awareness, and giving us the opportunity to express ourselves in perhaps unexpected ways.

According to psychologists, having more cognitive control means that we are able to better apply conscious reasoning; we are more proficient at interpreting sensory input; and we can more reliably guide our physical actions. Interestingly, having more cognitive control means that we improve our ability to empathise with others. So mindfulness helps us to better appreciate and sympathise with the other person.

For me as a practitioner and teacher of meditation all of this scientific research speaks familiar truths. Perhaps the language meditation teachers use is not so scientific but sometimes the metaphors we use point to very much the same thing. Those who have travelled on the London Tube will be familiar with the announcement „ Mind the Gap” which you can hear at many tube stations. This reminds passengers leaving the train to look out for the gap between the train and the platform. Similarly when teaching meditation I sometimes use the phrase „Mind the Gap” to metaphorically describe the gap or spacethat appears to arise through regular practice of mindfulness. In this space or gap we can carefully process the direct experience our sense organs are conveying through the body to the mind, and then make better, more creative decisions about our actions of body and speech, and better direct our mind. This ability to create a gap is learned in meditation but it can be practiced in everyday life as well. Indeed that is the point. We practice mindfulness in meditation in order to be mindful in everyday life.

Which brings me to an important concluding issue. When David Rock and others use the term „the direct experience network” and equate it with mindfulness, they can limit the meaning of mindfulness to simply being aware of what is happening in the present moment. But in Buddhism this form of awareness is only one of three distinct elements that go to make up a full definition of mindfulness.

Simply being aware of what is happening in the present moment is known in the original Pali language of Buddhism as sati. Sati also has the sense of remembering to be mindful (very important!). Without sati mindfulness is not possible. The second element in mindfulness is mindfulness of purpose (sampajanna in Pali). This means being aware of a larger context, being aware of what our purpose is in life and how that applies to the particular situation we find ourselves in. The third, vital element in mindfulness is ethical vigilance (appamada in Pali), being aware of the ethical implications of the situation we find ourselves in, making sure we make a good ethical choice in the actions we take. In the Buddhist definition all three elements must be present for the true mindfulness network to be operating.

Dharmachari Vaddhaka
January 2010


  • David Rock. The neuroscience of mindfulness. http://www.psychologytoday.com
  • Norman Farb. Mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference. http://scan.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/short/2/4/313
  • Kirk Brown and Richard Ryan. The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. http://cat.inist.fr/?aModele=afficheN[[&]]cpsidt=15556264