The wellness world is swamped with information about mindfulness. We're told how we should be mindful and what we should be mindful of. Essentially it’s about how and where we place our attention.
Mindfulness practices emphasize paying attention to everything with a non-judgmental acceptance. In contrast, positive psychology approaches tend to emphasize focusing on, and enhancing, the positive.
So which is it?
As meditators, we're often told to pay attention to everything: the good, the bad and the mundane. We’re told to do so without judgment, and with acceptance toward what is. In fact, we train to recognize our internal dialogue (those judgments, evaluations and biases) and we train to see that dialogue for what it is (just impermanent mind-stuff).
As for painful and downright negative experiences ... we learn to accept them for what they are (just impermanent life-stuff). This is all apparent in modern definitions of mindfulness: a kind of present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is.
Focusing on the positive
From positive psychology, we learn a host of well-researched strategies and we’re often told to focus on the positive – to selectively attend to what’s good in our lives and hone in on that to prompt positive emotions (and the many bio-behavioral benefits that come with them).
We’re also encouraged to reappraise the negative. If we experience unwanted or negative memories, it’s suggested that we find meaning from it and, in doing so, focus on the positive ways in which we grew from the experience. We don’t have to accept pain – we can (and do) transform it. A conundrum?
It’s understandable that many of us have wondered about where (or if) these paths meet. We’re left wondering how we should be paying attention to the details of our lives. Should we do so without judgment – training to impartially observe the good and the bad? Or, should we seek out the good, immerse in it, and reappraise the bad stuff to focus on the positives?
To resolve this paradox we need to take a much broader perspective. We also need to refrain from seeing these approaches as opposed poles (ah, the Western need for linear systems!) and view them as complementary processes through which we cycle, again and again and again throughout our lives. In short – they’re complimentary.
Positive emotions foster mindfulness
Positive emotions helps us focus better (in academic speak, they “broaden cognition”) and, hence, enhance the likelihood that we can pay attention and be mindful at all.
Need the proof? Researchers have put people into positive emotional states by various means and then used a range of measures to assess their ability to stay focused on a task. Turns out, feeling positive improves our ability to focus and track an object with our eyes and to creatively problem solve.
Mindfulness fosters positive emotions
Mindfulness enhances the possibility of positive emotions by increasing our capacity to direct our attention and reorient our focus. William James nailed it in 1890 when he remarked: “My experience is what I agree to attend to.”
If we want to immerse in the positive aspects of an experience, we’re going to need to flex our muscles of attention and focus… the very muscles we build with mindfulness training.
Research also shows that mindfulness enhances our cognitive flexibility, meaning that we can think about things from multiple perspectives rather than being limited by our habitual worldview.
When we intentionally pay attention, direct our attention, and take a broader perspective, we disrupt the negatively focused default network that often operates in our mind. We open ourselves up to the possibility of positivity. We can see the complementary elements of mindfulness and focusing on/fostering the positive played out in traditional contexts of meditation practices.
In Buddhist literature, it's understood that the very pursuit of pleasure inevitably leads to suffering. However, it also encourages the cultivation of loving kindness, compassion and sympathetic joy (all pleasant emotion states).
Loving kindness meditation, by its nature, induces positive emotions. Not surprisingly, people who practice it tend to report improved mood and they tend to demonstrate their happiness and sense of love by actually acting in loving or compassionate ways.
So, it’s good for the meditator and good for others .... but what stops it from turning into a form a suffering?
For Buddhist practitioners, the pursuit of these positive emotions is kept in check by the application of equanimity – a powerful, overarching and level-headed state of mind capable of remaining balanced even in states of great pleasure (or great suffering).
Seen in this way, we really aren’t faced with a conundrum at all.
The approaches of nonjudgmental observation and positive psychology are (and have been since the time of the Buddha) complementary. They’re inter-dependent: a classic chicken/egg scenario in which the answer can only be found by stepping back and looking at the bigger picture. So, we can go ahead and journey on both paths.
We can reduce our reactivity – and thus enhance positive mindstates and behaviours like patience, perspective and love - through training in nonjudgmental observation and equanimity. We can also simultaneously take the direct path into positive mindstates, emotions and behaviours by immersing in what’s good. These paths meet at some point on a journey toward greater peace – peace for ourselves and peace for others. And that, essentially, is the heart of the path.