My research on the impact of mindfulness

February 3, 2023


For secular Buddhists, a vital aspect of our practice is developing an embodied awareness or mindfulness of our experiences. In developing mindfulness in meditation and in life, we’re paying attention not only to what is happening inside of us, but also to what is ‘external’ to us. Mindfulness should not be viewed as a mental technique leading to some nirvanic end-state but as a way to reduce reactivity and expand our capacity.

My interest in mindfulness meditation is both personal, as part of my secular Buddhist practice, and scientific as well. In 2002, I was introduced to Zen meditation. I was captivated by the simplicity and the practicality of Buddhist teachings. Around the same time, I studied psychology part-time while managing my real estate business in Auckland. Progressively I shifted from doing business to studying psychology. I investigated the relationship between mindfulness and subjective well-being in my honours degree. For the first time, I appreciated the crucial nature of mindfulness meditation in Buddhist practices and how it exploded into an accepted protocol for treating several mental disorders, including the modern human being’s scourge, stress.

I think stress was very close to the ‘suffering’ that the Buddha referred to. In fact, an eminent Buddhist monk, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, translates suffering as stress. So, I decided that scientifically investigating mindfulness and its practice was worthwhile and chose it as the subject of my PhD work. I conducted two studies to determine the nature of mindfulness, as defined by modern psychology, and its relationship to different variables. The results of these studies were published as four papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals. The following is a summary of these papers.

Research studies on mindfulness

When mindfulness traversed from Buddhism to modern psychology, it underwent a drastic transformation. I have to start by stating that modern psychology lacks a consensual definition of mindfulness. Kabat-Zinn (2011), who introduced mindfulness to the Western world through his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, defined it as ‘paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally’ cultivated through consistent practice. Most researchers accept this definition. However, some researchers suggest that mindfulness is a trait everyone possesses and paying attention to the present moment is its sole component. Many other researchers argue that in addition to attention, mindfulness comprises the qualities of acceptance and non-judgmentalism of the present moment experience as its components. Yet more researchers suggest that the four Brahma Viharas (loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity) are also part of mindfulness.

The title of my first paper was ‘Differences between meditators and non-meditators in mindfulness, its components and related qualities’ (Somaraju et al., 2021 a). I investigated 1) if meditators and non-meditators differ in their levels of mindfulness, attention, acceptance, loving-kindness, compassion, joy, equanimity, and empathy; and 2) whether and how mindfulness practice affected the above qualities. Two hundred and forty-one individuals from different parts of the world participated in the study, of which one hundred and twenty-two were meditators, and the rest were non-meditators. I found that meditators had higher levels of only attention and not other qualities. How frequently one practiced and for how long in each session, and the number of years one has been practicing had a statistically significant effect on the levels of attention and empathy. The study findings supported conceptualisations of mindfulness that focus on the centrality of mindful attention over acceptance and non-judging components. This finding was also consistent with several Buddhist mindfulness traditions. The study also demonstrated that although mindfulness may be a quality everyone possesses to some degree, practice is needed to increase its levels.

The title of my second paper was ‘Association of mindfulness with psychological distress and life satisfaction in Western and Eastern meditators’ (Somaraju et al., 2021 b). To alleviate the symptoms of disorders such as stress, depression, and anxiety, many people turn to mindfulness meditation (Sedlmeier et al., 2012). This study investigated if meditators living in the East, for example, India (Eastern Meditators: EMs), differed from those living in the West (WMs) in their mindfulness, depression, anxiety, stress, and life satisfaction. The study also investigated if there are any differences between EMs and WMs in the association between these variables. There were 229 participants (EMs = 118 and WMs = 111).

Several differences were found between the two groups, such as mean levels of depression, anxiety, and stress being significantly lower in WMs than in EMs. However, there was no significant difference between the groups in their levels of life satisfaction. Yet, similarities were also evident, including that higher levels of acceptance and non-judging were predictive of lower levels of psychological distress for both WMs and EMs. Therefore, we theorised that acceptance and non-judging may be associated with a reduction in rumination and increased emotion regulation, which may then act to prevent or mitigate symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress. Furthermore, non-reactivity to, or acceptance of, the present moment experience may result in enhanced emotion regulation, thereby mitigating symptoms associated with depression and anxiety. Surprisingly, higher levels of attention were associated with higher levels of psychological distress. It has been previously suggested that higher levels of attention might increase anxiety and psychological distress in some circumstances, such as when attention is focused on negative cognitions (Bergin & Pakenham, 2016; Desrosiers et al., 2019; Coffey et al., 2010). In conclusion, the study suggested that having an accepting and non-judgmental attitude is necessary to mitigate psychological distress and increase life satisfaction. Therefore, developing MM interventions that focus on increasing acceptance and non-judging may prove useful in general and clinical practice.

My third paper was titled ‘Brief mindfulness meditation: Can it make a real difference?’. As stated above, many people turn to mindfulness meditation (MM) to effectively manage psychological distress, particularly day-to-day stress. Many programmes, including short apps, have been developed to satisfy an ever-increasing number of people wanting to access MM. Some claim to produce positive results in just a few minutes of practice per day. Such brief programmes certainly appeal to people who struggle to take out time to do meditation. However, these brief programmes are the opposite of the fundamental principle of MM, which was traditionally conceptualised within Buddhist traditions as an ever-going training that helps one to increase the wholesome qualities and decrease unwholesome qualities, as well as understand the impermanent nature of all phenomena (Rapgay and Bystrisky 2009).

This study investigated if a brief induction of mindfulness meditation of 15 minutes is more effective than a comparable length of progressive muscle relaxation (active control) and doing nothing (passive control). Negative affect and mind-wandering were selected to measure the efficacy of the interventions as several studies had previously reported that MM reduces negative affect and mind-wandering, which, as the name indicates, is the tendency of the mind to drift away from the present moment. Fifty-five non-meditators participated in the study. Although the study found an increase in mindfulness and a decrease in mind-wandering and negative affect, the change was not statistically significant. In other words, any perceived change may be due to chance. More importantly, there was no difference between the three groups in terms of the change in mindfulness, mind-wandering and negative affect. Therefore, it was concluded that a 15-minute mindfulness meditation was insufficient to produce beneficial changes despite many apps and programmes promising the same. In Buddhist traditions, mindfulness meditation is a life-long process and expecting brief inductions to produce beneficial outcomes is setting oneself up for disappointment.      

My latest paper (Somaraju et al., 2023) dealt with mindfulness and its supposedly opposite construct, mind-wandering. A wandering mind has been linked to work-related injuries, accidents and, most importantly, poor mental health (Killingworth & Gilbert, 2010). If, in fact, they are opposite constructs, then cultivating mindfulness might be useful to reduce mind-wandering and its harmful consequences. Some studies did find that trait mindfulness is negatively correlated to mind-wandering, i.e., those who are high on trait mindfulness will have lower levels of mind-wandering. However, there were differences in how mindfulness was defined by various researchers, with some conceptualising mindfulness as consisting of only one component, attention, and others suggesting that acceptance also is a part of mindfulness. Therefore, we investigated the relationship between trait mindfulness and its components, attention, acceptance and non-judging, with trait mind-wandering and mind-wandering resulting from monotonous tasks. We found that trait mindfulness and trait mind-wandering were negatively correlated. However, the acceptance component is more important in reducing mind-wandering than attention. Therefore, mindfulness training that incorporates cultivating acceptance, not just attention, may be more effective in reducing mind-wandering, particularly for workers engaged in monotonous tasks.   

After investigating mindfulness for five years, I am not sure whether mindfulness can be investigated through a quantitative investigation. I believe mindfulness means different things to different people, and reducing it to a one-size-fits-all construct is a mistake. The lack of space in this article does not allow me to share fully my misgivings about how mindfulness is being treated by modern psychology. Maybe another time I will do it.   


Bergin, A. J., & Pakenham, K. I. (2016). The stress-buffering role of mindfulness in the relationship between perceived stress and psychological adjustment. Mindfulness, 7(4), 928-939.

Coffey, K. A., Hartman, M., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2010). Deconstructing mindfulness and constructing mental health: Understanding mindfulness and its mechanisms of action. Mindfulness, 1(4), 235-253.

Desrosiers, A., Vine, V., Klemanski, D. H., & Nolen‐Hoeksema, S. (2013). Mindfulness and emotion regulation in depression and anxiety: common and distinct mechanisms of action. Depression and Anxiety, 30(7), 654-661. http://doi:10.1002/da.22124

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2011). Some reflections on the origins of MBSR, skillful means, and the trouble with maps. Contemporary Buddhism, 12(1), 281-306.

Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science330, 932-932. http://doi:10.1126/science.1192439

Rapgay, L., & Bystrisky, A. (2009). Classical mindfulness. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences1172, 148-162. http://doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009. 04405.x

Sedlmeier, P., Eberth, J., Schwarz, M., Zimmermann, D., Haarig, F., Jaeger, S., & Kunze, S. (2012). The psychological effects of meditation: a meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin138(6), 1139-1171. https://doi: 10.1037/a0028168

Somaraju, L. H., Temple, E. C., Bizo, L. A., & Cocks, B., (2021 a). Differences between meditators and non-meditators in mindfulness, its components, and related qualities. Published in Current Psychology. February 2021. https://doi:10.1007/s12144-021-01530-z

Somaraju, L. H., Temple, E. C., Bizo, L. A., & Cocks, B., (2021 b). Association of mindfulness with psychological distress and life satisfaction in Western and Eastern meditators. Published in the Australian Journal of Psychology. October 2021. https://doi:10.1080/00049530.2021.1993085

Somaraju, L. H., Temple, E. C., Bizo, L. A., & Cocks, B., (2021). Brief mindfulness meditation: Can it make a real difference? Published in Current Psychology. May 2021. https://doi.10.1007/s12144-021-01897-z

Somaraju, L. H., Temple, E. C., Cocks, B., & Bizo, L. A. (2023). Are Mindfulness and Mind-Wandering Opposite Constructs? It Depends on How Mindfulness is Conceptualised. Psychological Reports. https://doi:10.1177/00332941231152391



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