Mindfulness: Contemplative vs Psychological
"Arguably, Buddhist and Western conceptualizations of mindfulness differ in at least three levels: contextual, process, and content. At the contextual level, mindfulness in the Buddhist tradition is viewed as one factor of an interconnected system of practices that are necessary for attaining liberation from suffering, the ultimate state or end goal prescribed to spiritual practitioners in the tradition. Thus, it needs to be cultivated alongside with other spiritual practices, such as following an ethical lifestyle, in order for one to move toward the goal of liberation. Western conceptualization of mindfulness, on the other hand, is generally independent of any specific circumscribed philosophy, ethical code, or system of practices.
At the process level, mindfulness, in the context of Buddhism, is to be practiced against the psychological backdrop of reflecting on and contemplating key aspects of the Buddha's teachings, such as impermanence, non-self, and suffering. As an example, in the Satipatthana Sutta (The Foundation of Mindfulness Discourse), one of the key Buddhist discourses on mindfulness, the Buddha recommended that one maintains mindfulness of one's bodily functions, sensations and feelings, consciousness, and content of consciousness while observing clearly the impermanent nature of these objects. Western practice generally places less emphasis on non-self and impermanence than traditional Buddhist teachings.
Finally, at the content level and in relation to the above point, in early Buddhist teachings, mindfulness refers rather specifically to an introspective awareness with regard to one's physical and psychological processes and experiences. This is contrast to certain Western conceptualizations of mindfulness, which view mindfulness as a form of awareness that encompasses all forms of objects in one's internal and external experience, including features of external sensory objects like sights and smells.
This is not to say that external sensory objects do not ultimately form part of one's internal experience; rather, in Buddhist teachings, mindfulness more fundamentally has to do with observing one's perception of and reactions toward sensory objects than focusing on features of the sensory objects themselves.
Mindfulness has been shown to be related not only to self-report measures of psychological health, but also to differences in brain activity observed using functional neuroimaging methods. Creswell, Way, Eisenberger, and Lieberman (2007) found that trait mindfulness was associated with reduced bilateral amygdala activation and greater widespread prefrontal cortical activation during an affect labeling task.
There was also a strong inverse association between prefrontal cortex and right amygdala responses among those who scored high on mindfulness, but not among those who scored low on mindfulness, which suggests that individuals who are mindful may be better able to regulate emotional responses via prefrontal cortical inhibition of the amygdala.
Trait mindfulness also was negatively correlated with resting activity in the amygdala and in medial prefrontal and parietal brain areas that are associated with self-referential processing, whereas levels of depressive symptoms were positively correlated with resting activity in these areas (Way, Creswell, Eisenberger, & Lieberman, 2010). These findings are consistent with the association of mindfulness with greater self-reported ability to let go of negative thoughts about the self (e.g., Frewen et al., 2008)."