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Being Present: Some Observations about “Mindfulness”

Being Present: Some Observations about “Mindfulness”

The main title of this commentary was one among many New Year’s resolutions that our local coffee shop invited customers to post on its blackboard (yes, a real blackboard in this digital day and age). It seemed a laudatory aspiration for the coming year, and it got me to thinking about how we use the expression, which is to say, what it can mean. Obviously in this context we don’t mean it in the sense that school children are or are not in class.  Used in relation to lifestyle, it prescribes living in the present, dwelling in neither past nor the future. Another, related, sense of “being present” is discussed in contemporary psychology under the rubric of “mindfulness.”

Mindfulness is synonymous with “awareness,” “focus,” “paying attention,” or “being conscious of our actions.” Being mindful or present probably resonates with most everyone. When I am working intently on some project around the house, I often put a tool down without “paying attention” to what I am doing (something I often do not label as such until I start looking for the tool). When I later need the tool again, I cannot for the life of me find it! Putting down one’s glasses or smartphone while engaging in other activities are things we all do, only later to be unable to find those objects as well. “Inattentiveness” or “absentmindedness” are everyday expressions used to describe the antithesis of mindfulness. Importantly, mindfulness also applies to social relations, particularly a sensitivity to social cues.

When we speak of being mindful of something we mean that our behavior is determined by certain cues. Thus, being mindful of a friend or companion’s wishes suggests that when those wishes are expressed either by words or actions, I can, and do, make the appropriate response. Missing social or verbal cues often is the kiss of death for relationships, be they romantic, between friends, or business related.

I like the expression “being present” as a description better than “mindfulness” because being present suggests doing something—an action as opposed to the mental state implicit in the expression “mindfulness.” Attention, focus, awareness are for me all forms of stimulus control, ways behavior analysts have studied to make behavior more likely by arranging events that occur before (are antecedent to) the behavior in question.    

We’ve known for a long time that if we reinforce (see commentary on “Reward or Reinforce?”) responding in the presence of one stimulus but not in the presence of another, animals and people alike learn to respond in the presence of the one stimulus, but not in the presence of the other.  The response can be as simple as pressing a key (see “The (Pigeon) Key to Behavior”) or learning the correct pronunciation of words in another language. The behavior obviously is different, but the principle governing its occurrence is the same.

What has this to do with being present? Everything. We often force ourselves to “be present” by bringing our behavior under stimulus control by using appointment books (electronic or paper), or sticky notes (my students laugh at me for pasting sticky notes on my smart phone as reminders to myself) or even the proverbial string around the finger.  Sometimes we go to extremes.  Before leaving for work in the morning, for example, the night before I often put everything I will need the next day in a little pile next to the door. That way, I can exit the next morning with that pile without having to be quite so present at that bleary time.

Another tool we sometimes use is talking to ourselves, often out loud (hmmm, maybe I am being too self-disclosing here, but it is what I sometimes do). If I need to remember where something is I force my being present by telling myself, out loud, several times, something like “OK, you are putting the hammer on the left side of the table next to the vase.”  It seems to work (admittedly this is not hard scientific evidence, but this is a blog, not a journal article).

Much of what is called social skills similarly involves bringing a person’s interactions with other people under the appropriate social cues. In the simplest form, this involves reinforcing either appropriate behavior in the presence of the cues or approximations to appropriate behavior.  For example, if a child hits other children, doing something more socially appropriate with the other child (sharing a toy, playing together peacefully) would be targeted to be reinforced. People described as socially skilled often, but not necessarily, learn to not only behave in certain ways in social situations, but also to describe their own behavior in those situations and its effects on other people. This latter, verbal, behavior too is a matter of learning and stimulus control: one’s own actions come to function as discriminative stimuli that now determine their descriptions of the behavior in relation to the social cues present.      

Finally, it’s important to remember that our actions or failures to act are not caused by the absence of mindfulness or the “absence of a mind” any more than someone who knows where the tools are or what they were supposed to do at 2:30 on Thursday does so because they are mindful or attentive. It’s rather a question of arranging environments. We do describe people in these ways, but these are descriptions of their behavior, not explanations of why it occurs. The same is true of other concepts, like intelligence-it isn’t a thing lurking in some deep recess of the mind, intelligence is a description of behaving in certain ways. 

Posted by Andy Lattal

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.