Perils and Promise in Deﬁning and Measuring
Mindfulness: Observations From Experience
Kirk Warren Brown and Richard M. Ryan,
University of Rochester
As mindfulness research advances on a variety of fronts,
it has become increasingly important to carefully define
and measure the construct. In this commentary, we draw
from our recent research experience on these topics
in addressing four issues of primary concern to Bishop
et al: The nature of mindfulness, the role of acceptance
in the phenomenon, the relation between mindfulness
and meditation, and the measurement of mindfulness
in meditative and other contexts.
attention, awareness, acceptance, mind-
[Clin Psychol Sci Prac 11: 242–248, 2004]
Mindfulness is increasingly recognized as a phenom-
enon with functional import for outcomes as diverse as
physical health, psychological well-being, work and
sport performance, and relationships. Paralleling this
recognition is an increased interest in naturally occurring
variations in mindfulness and how interventions and
practices that facilitate mindfulness actually work. As
this research advances, the need for exacting theoretical
and operational deﬁnitions of mindfulness becomes
more salient. However, mindfulness is a deceptively
simple concept that is diﬃcult to characterize accurately.
Intrepid scholars seeking to do so must enter the
shadowy realm of consciousness, the domain from
which mindfulness arises. As old as the study of con-
sciousness is within the ﬁeld of psychology, it nonethe-
less remains largely uncharted and mysterious territory
(Chalmers, 1995). Thus, Bishop, Lau, Shapiro, Carlson,
and Anderson (this issue) are to be commended for
taking on the bold task of proposing a deﬁnition of
mindfulness, both conceptually and operationally.
In this commentary, we share our perspectives on
Bishop et al.’s theory of, and proposed measurement
approach to, mindfulness, drawing upon our own recent
research experiences (e.g., Brown & Ryan, 2003, in
press). Speciﬁcally, we address four topics of central
concern to Bishop et al.: the nature of mindfulness, the
relation of acceptance to present-centered attention and
awareness, the link between mindfulness and meditative
practice, and the measurement of mindfulness in
meditative contexts and beyond.
Bishop et al. propose a two-component model of
mindfulness, incorporating (a) attention and awareness
and (b) acceptance. We will discuss each of these in turn.
First, in highlighting attention and awareness as central
to mindfulness, Bishop et al. are consistent with most
scholarly and popular writings on the topic. However,
they do not deﬁne these terms and often use them
interchangeably. Although these terms are commonly
used, clarity on their meaning is important, as this bears
directly on an understanding of the meaning of mind-
fulness, its practice, and its measurement.
refers to the subjective experience of
internal and external phenomena; it is the pure
Address correspondence to Kirk Warren Brown, CSP,
Meliora Hall, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY
14627–0266. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, V11 N3, ÓAmerican Psychological Association D12 2004; all rights reserved. 242
apperception and perception of the ﬁeld of events that
encompass our reality at any given moment.
a focusing of awareness to highlight selected aspects of
that reality. In everyday awake states, awareness and
attention are intertwined. Phrased in gestalt terms,
awareness is the ﬁeld or ground upon which perceived
phenomena are expressed, and attention continually
pulls ‘‘ﬁgures’’ out of that ground to hold them up for
Awareness and attention are, of course, the primary
features of consciousness, which several authors (e.g.,
Averill, 1992; Mayer, Chabot, & Carlsmith, 1997) have
distinguished from the other primary mental processing
modalities, namely cognition, motives, and emotions.
Consciousness serves at least two key functions: moni-
toring events and experiences as they unfold in real time
and directing or controlling the contents of conscious-
ness (Westen, 1999). Mindfulness speciﬁcally concerns
the monitoring, observing capacity of consciousness. As
Bishop et al. point out, mindfulness represents a height-
ened or sustained attention to and awareness of current
events and experience. However, the fact that mindful-
ness, as a quality of consciousness, can be brought to bear
on thought, emotions, and other contents of conscious-
ness means that it cannot be reduced to them. In this
sense, labeling mindfulness a ‘‘metacognitive skill’’ (p.
233) is, we believe, misleading.
As noted above, consciousness and cognition are
distinct processing modalities. As a cognitive process,
metacognition operates within the realm of thought, to
monitor and control cognitive activities and to ensure
that cognitive goals have been met (Schwartz & Perfect,
2002). Speciﬁcally, these processes consist of planning
and monitoring cognitive activities and checking or
testing goal-related outcomes. Here is a common
example: After reading this article, a reader may
question herself about the ideas discussed, with the
cognitive goal of better understanding the text. Self-
testing in this way is a typical metacognitive strategy for
monitoring comprehension. If the reader concludes that
her comprehension is less than adequate, she can then
take further action (e.g., re-reading the article and self-
testing again) to ensure that she meets her goal of text
Mindfulness diﬀers from such metacognitive pro-
cesses in that its mode of operation is perceptual,
operating upon thought, as well as upon emotion and
other contents of consciousness, rather than within
them. Simply put, if mindfulness involves observing
thought, including thoughts about thoughts, it cannot
thought. The observing capacity that deﬁnes mindful-
ness is one reason why it has been associated with
‘‘psychological freedom’’ (Martin, 1997). Because it
provides a ‘‘bare display of what is taking place’’ (Shear
& Jevning, 1999, p. 204) it is not subject to the distortions
and biases inherent in cognition and, evidence suggests,
in metacognition as well (Glenberg, Wilkinson, &
Distinctions between attention and awareness may
also prove important to the study of mindfulness-
promoting practices. Bishop et al. present two views on
mindfulness practice, one highlighting focused attention,
the other emphasizing conscious awareness. Speciﬁcally,
they note that in meditation, ‘‘the client ... attempts
to maintain attention on a particular focus, most
commonly the somatic sensations of his or her own
breathing’’ (p. 232). Yet later they write that mind-
fulness ‘‘begins with making a commitment to maintain
an attitude of curiosity about where the mind wanders
whenever it inevitably drifts away from the breath. ...
All thoughts, feelings and sensations that arise are initially
seen as relevant and therefore subject to observation’’ (p.
233). Citing Hayes, Strosahl, and Willson, they write,
‘‘It involves a conscious decision to abandon one’s
agenda to have a diﬀerent experience and an active
process of ‘allowing’ current thoughts, feelings and
sensations’’ (p. 233).
Bishop et al. do not make clear how these two forms
of mindfulness meditation are related, and the forms
appear contradictory. How can one ‘‘maintain attention
on a particular focus’’ and at the same time be curious
about where the mind wanders? If one is encouraged to
‘‘abandon one’s agenda,’’ doesn’t this also include the
self-imposed agenda to maintain attentional focus on the
breath? The apparent contradiction here can be resolved
by understanding each form of mindfulness meditation
as distinct aspects of meditative practice that may play
diﬀerent roles in how mindfulness is realized.
A number of Buddhist scholars and teachers have
described two corresponding forms of meditative prac-
tice: concentration and awareness/insight (e.g., Kapleau,
1980; Kornﬁeld, 1993; Rahula, 1974). Concentration
COMMENTARIES ON BISHOP ET AL. 243
meditation involves focusing attention ﬁxedly on an
internal object such as the breath, a word, or a phrase
(mantra), or on an external object, such as a candle or
mandala. When attention strays from the object—into
thought, for example—it is gently but ﬁrmly brought
back to the object. Concentration can produce highly
positive experiences of peacefulness, tranquillity and
mental silence, and it can set the stage for awareness
meditation (e.g., Rahula, 1974), as will be described
shortly. In contrast, awareness or insight meditation
brings consciousness to bear on the moment-to-moment
ﬂow of our present experience—sense impressions,
thoughts, feelings and so on—and the need lessens for
an attentional object on which to focus. In this form,
attention gives way to a heightened awareness of the
ongoing stream of (ap)perceptual phenomena. While
concentration meditation tends to have a calming eﬀect
on the mind, awareness meditation is active and energy
gathering. Many scholars believe that both forms of
meditation are important: Concentration trains the
attentional capacity of the mind, while active observa-
tion of the ever-changing present encourages insight
into the nature of conscious experience through a clear
‘‘view’’ of what makes up our world of consciousness. It
can also facilitate access to experiences that normally lie
outside conscious awareness (Kornﬁeld, 1993; Wilber,
Some meditative traditions—Zen for example—use
a stage model of training that incorporates both forms
of meditation (e.g., Kapleau, 1980). Students are ﬁrst
encouraged to practice concentration (by counting the
breath or attending to its sensations) to strengthen the
capacity to sustain attention over time before turning to
awareness practice. Adherence to this sequential model
comes in recognition of the fact that, in awareness
meditation, the mind can become easily lost in thought,
mental images, or emotions without the power of
sustained attention to keep one attuned to present ex-
perience. Stage models sometimes imply a hierarchical
ordering of importance, but one form of meditation is
not necessarily ‘‘better’’ than the other; much depends on
the outcome of interest. In daily life, for example, the
insight gained through heightened awareness can only
be translated into concrete action by bringing focused
attention to bear on our behavior or on the task at hand
(cf. Martin, 1997).
What role does acceptance play in mindfulness?
Bishop et al. argue for a second component of mind-
fulness beyond attention and awareness of the present,
When we began our own work on
developing a self-report measure of dispositional mind-
fulness, we started from the theoretical position, as do
Bishop et al., that acceptance is a primary component
of mindfulness. We also hypothesized that attention/
awareness and acceptance are related, as Bishop et al.’s
proposed deﬁnition suggests. The ﬁrst self-report scale
that we developed had two factors. One was labeled
‘‘presence’’ and contained items assessing present-
centered attention and awareness. The other factor was
labeled ‘‘acceptance’’ and included items such as ‘‘When
unpleasant thoughts arise, I don’t feel I have to put my
attention somewhere else’’ and ‘‘I don’t like feelings like
fear or anger, so I don’t allow myself to experience
them’’ (reverse scored). These two factors, each with
satisfactory psychometric properties, were correlated (in
the .20 to .35 range across diﬀerent samples), and
conﬁrmatory factor analyses found that a second-order
factor model, in which the two factors were nested
under an overarching ‘‘mindfulness’’ factor, provided
a satisfactory ﬁt. However, our convergent, discrimi-
nant, and criterion validity research showed, across
several large samples, that the acceptance factor pro-
vided no explanatory advantage over that shown by the
presence factor alone (Brown & Ryan, 2001).
To illustrate, Table 1 provides zero-order correlations
between the two factors and a number of indicators of
well-being in two samples. Visual inspection suggests
that the presence factor was more highly correlated with
many of these indicators than was the acceptance factor.
This was veriﬁed using
-tests to compare the sizes of
values (Cohen & Cohen, 1983). For most of the
well-being indicators, the presence factor correlated
more strongly than the acceptance factor at
For pleasant aﬀect and physical symptoms, the
diﬀerences were signiﬁcant at
,.05; the correlations of
presence and acceptance with PANAS positive aﬀect
and PWB autonomy did not diﬀer signiﬁcantly from
The presence factor alone also generally showed
correlations with well-being equal in magnitude to those
of the combined presence and acceptance factors, as
represented by the total mindfulness scale score,
CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGY: SCIENCE AND PRACTICE V11 N3, FALL 2004 244
(see Table 1). The correlations of presence with SVS
vitality and PWB relatedness were in fact higher than
those of the total scale score,
s,.05. These and other
ﬁndings suggested to us that
as a distinct construct
acceptance is functionally redundant in mindfulness.
We then focused our eﬀorts on the presence construct,
and items from this factor were incorporated into
a second-generation measure: the Mindful Attention
Awareness Scale (MAAS; Brown & Ryan, 2003).
We continued to believe, however, that acceptance is
important to mindfulness, but not in the way we ﬁrst
thought. We have operationally deﬁned mindfulness
attention to and awareness of
ongoing events and experience (e.g., Brown & Ryan,
2003), and the MAAS measures this by asking
respondents to rate the frequency with which their
day-to-day consciousness reﬂects this quality. The
redundancy of the acceptance factor that we found in
our preliminary work may be because mindfulness, as
we deﬁne it here, subsumes an acceptance of what
Speciﬁcally, embedded within the capacity to sustain
attention to and awareness of what is occurring is an
openness to and acceptance of it. Such presence means
‘‘taking each moment as it comes.’’ When an individual
does not accept what is occurring at a given moment,
a natural reaction is to limit awareness and redirect
attention, to seek to avoid or escape from the event
or experience—mentally, behaviorally, or in some
other way. To turn away is to become (intentionally)
inattentive and unaware—that is, to cease to be present,
or to be mindless. Kornﬁeld noted that, ‘‘
to pay attention
is ... a surrender to what is actually happening
in each moment without trying to alter or change or put
a conceptual framework around it. ... This cultivates
a state of mind which allows us to be open, to observe
and experience fully the entire range of mental and
physical reality without either suppressing it or acting
it out’’ (1993, pp. 56–57, emphasis added). Likewise,
Tolle (1999) asserts that in giving ‘‘fullest attention to
whatever the moment presents ... implies that you
also completely accept what is, because you cannot give
your full attention to something and at the same time
resist it’’ (p. 56). Without regular or consistent, open,
and non-judgmental observation, mindful states, as
simply deﬁned by frequent attention to and awareness
to what is occurring, would be uncommon, resulting in
low scores on a mindfulness scale that assesses attention
and awareness, as the MAAS does.
IS MINDFULNESS SPECIFIC TO
Bishop et al. emphasize the role of meditation in
cultivating mindfulness. They note, for example, the
role of attentional focus on the breath as a means to
Table 1. Correlations of presence, acceptance, and total mindfulness with
psychological well-being indicators
Scale Presence Acceptance Total
Traits and attributes
.53**** .25**** .52****
.46**** .24**** .45****
.47**** .22**** .45****
MSEI Self esteem
.38**** .21**** .37****
TMMS Emotional intelligence
.50**** .18*** .47****
.42**** .26**** .43****
.45**** .29**** .46****
.32**** .19*** .32****
.38**** .20*** .37****
PANAS Positive affect
.30**** .23**** .33****
PANAS Negative affect
.46**** .25**** .45****
TSWLS Life satisfaction
.30**** .14** .29****
.44**** .09 .38****
MAP Self actualization
.43**** .24**** .43****
.37**** .29**** .40****
.44**** .24**** .43****
.31**** .09 .26****
Reported physical symptoms
.26**** .13** .26****
.40**** .23**** .41****
Note. Superscripts aand brefer to samples with N5313 and N5327,
CES-D Depression 5Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale
(Radloff, 1977); HSCL Somatization 5Hopkins Symptom Checklist
(Derogatis, Lipman, Rickels, Uhlenhuth, & Covi, 1974); MAP Self
actualization 5Measure of Actualization of Potential (Lefranc¸ ois, Leclerc,
´bert, & Gaulin, 1997); MSEI Self esteem 5Multidimensional Self-
Esteem Inventory (O’Brien & Epstein, 1988); NEO-PI Neuroticism 5NEO
Personality Inventory (Costa & McCrae, 1992); NEO-FFI Neuroticism 5
NEO Five Factor Inventory (Costa & McCrae, 1992); PANAS Positive affect,
Negative affect 5Positive and Negative Affect Scales (Watson, Clark, &
Tellegen, 1988); Pleasant affect 5Pleasant hedonic valence (Diener &
Emmons, 1984); PWB Autonomy, Competence, Relatedness 5Personal
Well-Being Scales (Ryff, 1989); Reported physical symptoms 5(Larsen &
Kasimatis, 1991); RRQ Rumination 5Rumination-Reﬂection Questionnaire
(Trapnell & Campbell, 1999); STAI Anxiety 5State Trait Anxiety Inventory
(Spielberger, 1983); SVS Vitality 5Subjective Vitality Scale (Ryan &
Frederick, 1997); TSWLS Life satisfaction 5Temporal Satisfaction With Life
Scale (Pavot, Diener, & Suh, 1998); TMMS Emotional intelligence 5Trait
Meta-Mood Scale (Salovey, Mayer, Goldman, Turvey & Palfai, 1995);
Unpleasant affect 5Unpleasant hedonic valence (Diener & Emmons, 1984).
** p,.01, *** p,.001, **** p,.0001.
COMMENTARIES ON BISHOP ET AL. 245
experiencing internal events. In fact, in distinguishing
their conceptualization of mindfulness from that of
Langer (e.g., 1989), they de-emphasize mindfulness of
external stimuli, stating instead that ‘‘our own deﬁnition
emphasizes ... attention to primarily
(thoughts, feelings and sensations)’’ (p. 235, emphasis in
original). We have both conceptual and empirical
concerns in binding mindfulness to meditation and to
the consciousness of primarily internal phenomena that
meditation typically involves.
Along with Bishop et al., we believe that meditative
practices can be an eﬀective route to the enhancement of
mindfulness. Yet, mindfulness is not merely a product of
meditation. As we have argued elsewhere (Brown &
Ryan, 2003), mindfulness is an inherent, natural capacity
of the human organism. Dzogchen teaching has called
this inherent capacity ‘‘unfabricated mindfulness’’ (see
Goldstein, 2002). Our research (e.g., Brown & Ryan,
2003; Carlson & Brown, 2003; Levesque & Brown,
2003) has shown that individuals in the general popu-
lation, most of whom have had no formal meditation
experience, reliably diﬀer in the propensity to be mind-
ful, measured using both a dispositional measure (the
MAAS) and on a day-to-day basis using a state measure
derived from the MAAS. Further, this research has
shown that these natural individual diﬀerences have
signiﬁcant self-regulatory and psychological well-being
In accord with our theorizing that mindfulness
involves a present-centered attention to and awareness
of all accessible events and experiences, our measure taps
mindfulness of both internal and external stimuli. By
tying mindfulness primarily to the consciousness of
internal stimuli, Bishop et al. imply that mindfulness
mainly has relevance to situations in which there are no
external demands to negotiate, such as in meditation. Yet
a primary beneﬁt of meditative practice is that it
can change how individuals behave ‘‘oﬀ the cushion’’ in
their day-to-day lives (e.g., Kabat-Zinn, 1993), bringing
mindful presence to bear not only on internal events,
but also on our daily social and physical worlds. In this
view, the concept of mindfulness is less restricted in
scope, and the practice of mindfulness can be broadly
Bishop et al. emphasize that meditation can be
a powerful vehicle to enhance mindfulness, and we
agree. Our research with Zen practitioners has shown
that meditation practice is associated with greater
mindfulness (Brown & Ryan, 2003). This research also
showed, however, that dispositional mindfulness is
related to the extent to which individuals carried their
practice over into their daily lives. In addition, we
believe, as Bishop et al. also appear to, that it is im-
portant to remain open to the possibility that mindful-
ness may be cultivated through practices other than
meditation. For example, some theorists (Epstein, 1990;
Martin, 1997; Wilber, 2000) have suggested that a
variety of forms of psychotherapy may facilitate open
or receptive attention and awareness to psychological
and/or behavioral events and experience. Personality
and therapeutic traditions discussing this point have
ranged from psychodynamic (Freud, 1912/963) to
Gestalt (Perls, 1973) to cognitive behavioral (Safran &
Segal, 1990) approaches. Research underway in our
laboratory is testing whether psychotherapy can enhance
clients’ levels of mindfulness.
Measurement in meditative contexts. Bishop et al.’s
development of a measure of mindfulness for use in
meditative contexts could potentially be very useful in
exploring the phenomenology and impact of mindful
states (cf., Forte, Brown, & Dysart, 1987/1988). Bishop
et al.’s other goals for such a measure, including the
investigation of meditational processes, are laudable. We
wish only to add a note of caution regarding their plan
for assessing mindfulness ‘‘in reference to an immedi-
ately preceding [mindfulness] session’’ (p. 237) or
immediately post-training in longitudinal programs. If,
as can be assumed in mindfulness-training contexts,
respondents are aware of the goal to enhance mindful-
ness, care will have to be taken to lessen the eﬀects of
social desirability and demand characteristics. Longitu-
dinal or experimental research will also be needed to
ensure that qualities assumed to follow
can be distinguished from measures
points, more generally, to the importance of showing
that a new measure has predictive value, particularly, we
believe, for outcomes such as mental health, equanimity,
compassion, generosity, wisdom, and other human
potentialities that have traditionally been associated
with mindfulness and meditation (Shapiro & Walsh,
2003; Walsh, 1996).
CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGY: SCIENCE AND PRACTICE V11 N3, FALL 2004 246
The ﬁeld of mindfulness studies is still in an early stage
of development. Much of the research to date has
concerned the eﬃcacy of mindfulness training to
enhance well-being in clinical contexts, and the results
have been quite positive (Baer, 2003). As researchers
begin to explore the applications of mindfulness in more
varied contexts and populations, scientiﬁc progress will
rest upon our deﬁnitions and measures of the phenom-
enon. In this regard we share Bishop et al.’s deep interest
in basic questions concerning mindfulness: What is it?
How is it expressed and how is it best measured? How
does mindfulness operate to produce salutary outcomes?
Given the depth and complexity of the phenomenon,
debate over such basic issues is to be expected and well-
conducted empirical research can help to reﬁne both
answers and questions. Equally importantly, the study
of basic questions will also help to more ﬁrmly place
mindfulness within a network of other, established ﬁelds
of study, and thereby enhance our understanding of
human nature as a whole.
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Received November 11, 2003; revised January 20, 2004;
accepted January 22, 2004.
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