Mindfulness, Openness to Experience, and Transformational Learning
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter explains how mindfulness provides an avenue for fostering transformational learning by increasing an individual’s awareness of, and openness to, experience. In doing so, this position calls into question long-held assumptions regarding the roles that disruptive events and critical reflection play as necessary requisites to transformational learning. The chapter discusses those mechanisms through which mindfulness helps individuals overcome constraints to openness to experience, such as staying engaged within challenging life experiences, reducing defensiveness to new information about the self, maintaining greater emotional regulation during stressful events, and disidentifying with negative thoughts and emotions. Finally, attention is given to how the extended use of mindful practice can lead to long-term changes in human functioning, such as encouraging productive coping patterns and fostering changes in brain functionality, that are associated with sustained attention and reduced reactivity to long-term stressors, and which have important implications for the process of adult development.
Within this chapter we attempt to provide what we feel is a different perspective on transformational learning—one that we feel has significant implications for the study of adult development and learning. We take, as our starting point for our exploration of this topic, Kasl and Elias’ (2000) definition of transformational learning as an “expansion of consciousness in any human system” that “is characterized by new frames of reference, points of view, or habits of mind as well as by a new structure for engaging the system’s identity” (p. 233).
We begin by suggesting that there are many pathways to transformational learning. This position aligns with the views of Imel (1998), who, in performing a comparative evaluation of several researchers’ work in transformational learning (Boyd & Myers, 1988; Cranton, 1994; Mezirow, 1991; Taylor, 1998), concluded that transformational learning takes many forms based upon the interplay of educational practices, learners’ needs, and learning contexts. This chapter explores the pathway wherein transformation is facilitated by the practice of mindfulness.
What are the characteristics of mindfulness that position it as a unique pathway to transformational learning? How does mindfulness play a central role in supporting the reciprocal relationship between adult development and transformational learning? Within this discussion, we define transformational learning, openness, and mindfulness; describe mindful practice; and explain how mindfulness provides an avenue for fostering transformational learning through increased awareness of, and openness to, experience. Finally, we close this chapter by discussing how the extended use (p. 348) of mindful practice can lead to long-term changes in human functioning that have important implications for the process of adult development.
Much of what has been written on the process through which transformational learning takes place has been derived from the work of Jack Mezirow (2000). Mezirow views transformational learning as:
The process by which we transform our taken-for-granted frames of reference (meaning perspectives, habits of mind, and mind-sets) to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, emotionally capable of change, and reflective so that they may generate beliefs and opinions that will prove more true or justified to guide action. (pp. 7–8)
Implied in this definition is that transformational learning extends beyond a change in isolated beliefs or opinions to the establishment of a broader, more inclusive view of ourselves and our worlds. Mezirow (2000) outlines 10 steps that typically occur in transformational learning. Although he cautions that the order in which these steps occur may vary from person to person, Mezirow does contend that transformational learning is typically initiated by a disorienting dilemma—an “emotionally challenging or traumatic life experience” (Mezirow, 1995, p. 50).
Mezirow (1991) explores transformational learning through a telescopic lens—providing a temporal perspective in which transformation is portrayed as a journey that can, in the case of perspective transformation, take several years. Within this discussion, we employ a microscopic lens—examining what takes place at the starting point of an individual’s journey. Specifically, we intend to provide a detailed view of what occurs within one’s present moment-by-moment encounters with new life experiences that either support or impede one’s transformational learning.
Openness and Mindfulness—Keys to Activating Transformational Learning
Within this chapter, we will focus on those actions that are within an individual’s direct control that affect the ability to remain open and receptive during encounters with new and potentially transformative life events. In entering this discussion, we align with Hodgin’s (2008) definition of openness to experience as “a willingness or ability to experience what occurs in the current moment” (p. 122).
Mezirow (1991) contends that the test of what he terms a developmentally progressive perspective is “not only that it is more inclusive, discriminating, and integrative of experience but also that it is permeable (open) to alternative perspectives, so that inclusivity, discrimination, and integration continually increase” (p. 156). While we agree with Mezirow’s contention that openness to experience is a desired outcome of transformational learning, what is seldom considered is that openness also serves as a prerequisite to such learning. This area of attention is reflected by Hoare’s (2006) statement that:
Throughout the adult years those who are open tend to engage in new experiences and are willing to examine and challenge their personal convictions and beliefs. These endeavors foster continuity (or increases) in experiential openness; they lead as well to advances in postformal, reflective thinking. (p. 364)
At the core of personal transformation lies the ability to see with new eyes, to maintain a questioning attitude, and to hold only a tentative grasp on pet assumptions in the face of new life experiences. Although openness is a necessary starting point for the reflective process, achieving openness is not always easy. Within this discussion we will elaborate on common obstacles to openness, including the challenge of focusing our attention when we are faced with a variety of stimuli that compete for our attention (Fiddler & Marienau, 2008; Slagter et al., 2007); the tendency to prejudge or evaluate new experiences based on existing expectations, assumptions, and beliefs (Langer, 1989; Shapiro, Carlson, Astin, & Freedman, 2006); experiential avoidance (Bishop et al., 2004; Germer, 2005); self-interference with constructive change through excessive rumination (Shapiro & Carlson, 2009); and the difficulty that we have in clearly processing and learning from new experiences that run counter to our self-concept (Aronson, 1999; Brown, Ryan, & Creswell, 2007).
For these reasons, mindfulness and mindful practice take on special significance in the transformational learning process. Shapiro (2009) defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises out of intentionally attending in an open and discerning way to whatever is arising in the present moment” (p. 555), and describes mindful practice as “the systematic practice of intentionally attending in an open, caring, and discerning way, which involves both knowing and shaping the mind” (p. 556). Openness to experience figures significantly in mindful practice and has been identified by Kabat-Zinn (1990) as an important quality of mindfulness. Bishop et al. (2004) regard mindfulness as an (p. 349) important vehicle for enacting openness to experience, contending that the mindful practitioner “chooses to take what is offered with an attitude of openness and receptivity to whatever happens to occur in the field of awareness. Thus, mindfulness can be conceptualized as a process of relating openly with experience” (p. 233).
Creating Openness with Mindful Practice
A substantial body of research indicates that a mindful state includes increased openness to experience and can be accentuated through the use of mindful practice. The approaches that have been used to develop mindfulness include mindful meditation, yoga, breathing concentration, visualization, mindfulness-based stress reduction, and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (Germer, Siegel, & Fulton, 2005; Kabat-Zinn, 1990; Shapiro & Carlson, 2009). Mindful practice supports transformational learning through a number of mechanisms including attending to the present moment, assuming a nonjudgmental attitude when presented with new and potentially challenging information, becoming fully aware of our embedded experience, staying engaged with challenging life events, and discovering how to disidentify with our thoughts. Let us consider the role that each of these mechanisms plays in transformational learning.
Paying Attention in the Present Moment
Jarvis (2006) notes that we learn as we recognize disjuncture, or changes, in our life experiences that signal the opportunity for learning, and suggests that the disjuncture occurs “when the flow of time is interrupted and we are not able to do what we would do in an unthinking manner—the external world has changed or we have changed internally” (p. 180). The concept of having “the flow of time interrupted” is very significant in that it alludes to the idea that learning occurs when time “stops”—that is, when the present moment expands to occupy our full, uninterrupted attention.
Our ability to attend to and recognize new information is limited in part by the variety of incoming information, including internal self-talk, that competes for our attention. In this regard, Leary and Tate (2007) hold that mindfulness supports attention control by enabling us to fully attend to and then disregard the “internal chatter” in which we engage. They suggest that additional benefits associated with the reduction of irrelevant self-talk include emotional self-regulation and the reduction of ego-defensiveness—changes that enable us to respond “more spontaneously and with less intrusion from the self-centered concerns of the ego” (p. 253). Slagter et al.’s (2007) study evaluated the impact of an intense, three-month mindfulness meditation program on “attentional blink.” They describe attentional blink as an effect whereby two stimuli are presented in close succession and an individual fails to attend to the second stimulus due to attentional focus on the first stimulus. Slagter et al. (2007) found that individuals who participated in the mindfulness meditation program were far less likely to experience attentional interference as a result of the attentional blink response.
Our awareness of experience is continually subjected to, and filtered through, our existing beliefs, expectations, and biases. This filtering process impedes our ability to clearly attend to—and learn from—what we are experiencing (Borkovec, 2002; Brown, Ryan, Creswell, & Niemiec, 2008; Brown & Cordon, 2009). Brown, Ryan, and Creswell (2007) posit that attending to experience without extensive cognitive filtering allows the experience to be viewed in a fresh and clear way, an experiential shift that leads to behavioral responses that are more flexible and consciously derived.
Mindful practice enables us to disengage from this automated filtering and develop our ability to regulate attention (Bishop et al., 2004; Fiddler & Marienau, 2008). To be mindful, attending fully in the present moment, involves being aware of changes or differences in our self and environment that signal the opportunity for learning. Bishop et al. (2004) indicate that through mindful practice we “introduce a ‘space’ between one’s perception and response” that reduces the degree to which we respond habitually and automatically to our life experiences (p. 232).
Research results indicate that participation in mindfulness meditation increased participants’ attention skills (Chambers, Lo, & Allen, 2008; Jha, Krompinger, & Baime, 2007; Valentine & Sweet, 1999). One of these studies (Valentine & Sweet, 1999) compared improvements in attention across two groups of participants practicing either concentrative or mindfulness meditation. Their results indicated that stronger attention skills were developed in the mindfulness meditation group, while both groups experienced a direct relationship between the length of practitioners’ time spent practicing and their increase in attention skills. Other research indicates that the strengthening of attention may be related to anatomical and physiological changes in brain function. For example, Lazar et al. (p. 350) (2005) have found that over time, engaging in mindful meditation produces a thickening of the cortical areas that have been found to be associated with increased attention.
Assuming a Nonjudgmental Attitude
As with openness to experience, nonjudgmental awareness is often viewed as an important outcome of transformational learning (Mezirow, 1991). We would contend that while this is true, our willingness to assume a nonjudgmental attitude at the onset of learning serves as an important prerequisite to transformational learning. Engaging in mindful thought, the opposite of mindless acceptance, results in “loosening the grip that our cognitive commitments have on our minds” (Langer, 2002, p. 217).
Our willingness to assume a nonjudgmental attitude is emphasized by several researchers in the field of mindfulness as being an essential aspect of correct mindful practice (Baer, 2003; Dunn, Hartigan, & Mikulas, 1999; Germer, 2005). Assuming a nonjudgmental attitude involves a willingness to observe whatever enters into one’s field of awareness, be these external events or one’s thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations, without immediately subjecting these aspects of experience to evaluation or internal censorship (Kabat-Zinn, 2003). With mindful practice, we decrease automatically accepting and defending our thoughts. Instead, we acknowledge these thoughts as tentative and as objects/events for subsequent review and verification (Bishop, 2002). In the practice of mindful meditation, Shapiro, Carlson, Astin, and Freedman (2006) regard the nonjudgmental attitude one brings to mindful practice as one of the three pillars on which mindful practice rests, with the other two pillars being attention to the moment and intention (the underlying reasons for which one is pursuing mindful practice).
Research suggests that our ability to pause and fully attend to experience before reacting results in decreased reflexivity to life events (Bishop et al., 2004; Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999; Shapiro et al., 2006). Shapiro et al. (2006) have termed this ability to step back and dispassionately observe our thoughts and emotions as “reperceiving”—a process that helps reduce reactivity to situations by adopting a mode of awareness in which one is less identified with one’s experience (p. 381). Shapiro and Carlson (2009) indicate that through reperceiving “rather than being immersed in the drama of one’s personal narrative or life story, a person is able to stand back and simply witness it” (p. 94).
Research by Lillis and Hayes (2007) indicates that mindful practice can help reduce prior expectations and beliefs that interfere with learning. Their study involved undergraduate students receiving either a class learning session on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)—a form of counseling-based mindful practice—or a textbook-based educational training session. Results indicate that the ACT students experienced greater reductions in prejudicial attitudes than the other student group. A study performed by Lakey, Kernis, Heppner, and Lance (2008) found that participants who scored higher on mindfulness were found to score significantly lower on verbal defensiveness when presented with potentially self-threatening experiences, as measured by scores on the Defensive Verbal Behavior Assessment (Feldman, Williams, & Fong, 2002).
Attending to the Embedded Experience
Langer (2002) views mindfulness from the perspective of how we attend cognitively to new events and information that we encounter in the external world. Mindful practice extends this view of present-centered attention to include not only what we observe in the external world but also the thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations that together comprise our embedded experience (Brown & Ryan, 2003). This process involves attending to the full range of the cognitive, emotive, and somatic aspects of our experiences as these elements enter our awareness. Mindful practice differentiates itself from critical reflection in directing full attention not only toward one’s assumptions but also toward the full range of thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations that emerge within the moment (Healy, 2000). Bishop et al. (2004) suggest that mindfulness increases our ability to distinguish between what is happening in our bodies, thoughts, and emotions while simultaneously understanding the interconnectivity between these aspects of experience. The implication is that by doing so we are better able to understand how we are responding to situations, and how our responses influence the construction of our life experiences.
Staying Engaged with Challenging Life Events
A significant obstacle to transformational learning is that such learning can be an emotionally threatening process, “especially when it involves subjective reframing” (Mezirow, 2000, pp. 6–7). Mindful practice emphasizes the ability to fully attend to one’s experiences in the present moment, even if (p. 351) those experiences are emotionally threatening or unpleasant (Brown, Ryan, & Creswell, 2007). It is argued that an ability to remain fully engaged in the present reduces the likelihood that an individual will try to avoid, or seek distraction from, difficult or painful life experiences that could be potentially transformative (Bishop et al., 2004). The ability to stay engaged with challenging experiences is also regarded as an important prerequisite to personal growth within therapeutic settings. Accordingly, Germer (2005) cautions that during therapy, “if either the therapist or the patient turns away from unpleasant experience with anxiety or revulsion, the ability to understand the problem is likely to be compromised” (p. 7).
Mindfulness has also been shown to be associated with higher levels of emotional regulation and greater acceptance of emotional states (Baer, Smith, & Allen, 2004; Brown & Ryan, 2003; Brown, Ryan, & Creswell, 2007). A study by Arch and Craske (2006) demonstrated that individuals who participated in mindfulness training showed less emotional reactivity to aversive stimuli (unpleasant pictures) than did the control group. Ortner, Kilner, and Zelazo (2007) evaluated the effects of mindful meditation training on the degree to which individuals’ attentional control was vulnerable to emotional interference. In this study, participants’ attentional control was assessed by tracking their reaction times as they attempted to correctly categorize high- or low-pitched tones while receiving emotional interference produced through exposure to unpleasant visual stimuli. The findings revealed that participants who had completed a seven-week mindful training program showed less emotional interference to attentional control than the group of individuals who did not receive such training.
Mindful practice also appears to influence the types of coping strategies we employ when faced with challenging life events. Maddi and Hightower (1999) have identified two contrasting coping patterns: regressive and transformational. The regressive coping pattern is marked by the denial of, or distraction from, such life events. In contrast, the transformational coping pattern involves a willingness to fully engage in those experiences. Through such intense engagement, individuals attempt to resolve life problems through a variety of means, including developing a deeper understanding of life situations, positively reframing those situations, taking decisive action, and seeking support and assistance.
In a series of four studies with college students, Weinstein, Brown, and Ryan (2009) found that students who were more mindful reported that they were less likely to use avoidance strategies to deal with stress. Mindfulness has also been shown to lead to increased hardiness (the degree of commitment, control, and challenge that individuals display when faced with difficult life challenges) and coherence (the degree to which individuals perceive that the world is meaningful, comprehensible, and manageable), with consistent gains obtained over a three-year follow-up period (Salmon, Santorelli, & Kabat-Zinn, 1998). In short, mindful practice appears to support transformational learning by reducing experiential avoidance and encouraging us to stay fully engaged in, and attentive to, critical life experiences, even if those experiences are potentially threatening or stressful.
Mindful practice may also play an important role in transformational learning through its role in focusing present-centered attention while decreasing ruminative thinking. Baer (2007) defines rumination as:
A style of recurrent negative thinking in which the causes, consequences, and implications of negative events and feelings are repetitively analyzed. It includes persistently dwelling on personal problems and inadequacies and reviewing what has gone wrong and why. (p. 240)
Ruminative thinking works against constructive growth by redirecting limited thinking resources away from constructive problem solving and toward cyclical and self-destructive obsession with thoughts about past events (Shapiro & Carlson, 2009). Rumination has also been linked to ineffective regulation strategies that can impede change effectiveness and exacerbate depression (Hayes & Feldman, 2004). Mindful practice has been shown to result in decreased experiential avoidance and ruminative thinking (Hayes & Feldman, 2004; Jain et al., 2007; Ramel, Goldin, Carmona, & McQuaid, 2004; Shapiro, Brown, & Biegal, 2007). Mindful practice has also come to play an increasingly important role in addressing these problems through the use of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (Ma & Teasdale, 2004).
Mindful practice may also support transformational learning by strengthening our capacity for emotional self-regulation. High levels of mindfulness have been found to be associated with greater emotional regulation and mood control (Baer, Smith, & Allen, 2004; Brown & Ryan, 2003). Studies also (p. 352) indicate that mindful practice produces changes in brain function that are directly related to both increased positive affect and less reactivity to stressful emotional experiences. A study by Davidson et al. (2003) found that participants who received an eight-week mindfulness meditation training had “significant increases in left-sided anterior activation, a pattern previously associated with positive affect” (p. 564) compared to control group participants. Creswell, Way, Eisenberger, and Lieberman (2007) found that individuals who score higher on assessed mindfulness revealed brain activation patterns that were associated with reduced emotional response to stressful visual stimuli.
Disidentifying with Thoughts and Emotions
There is a substantial body of research to show that our ability to remain open and permeable to new information is particularly challenged when we encounter ideas and beliefs that threaten our self-concept (Aronson, 1998, 1999; Brown, Ryan, Creswell, & Niemiec, 2008; Greenwald & Ronis, 1978; Thibodeau & Aronson, 1992). In discussing how people use inattention and avoidance to deal with the experience of such cognitive dissonance, Aronson (1999) states:
Not only do we try to reduce dissonance when we experience it, but in addition, we try to defend ourselves against experiencing dissonance in the first place. One way of remaining oblivious to dissonance is by steadfastly refusing to pay close attention to what we are doing. (p. 246)
Similarly, Brown, Ryan, and Creswell (2007) warn that experiences that represent threats to our self-concept are less likely to be accessible to our conscious awareness.
There is evidence to suggest that mindful practice increases our ability to reduce our defensiveness to new information about ourselves by allowing us to disidentify with our thoughts. In effect, I begin to recognize that while I have thoughts and emotions, I am not defined by those thoughts and emotions. I discover that these are not a permanent part of my being, but rather are to be treated as transitory phenomena. If I am able to understand the transitory nature of my thoughts and feelings and to observe them from within a state of equanimity, then I will be less likely to strive to hold onto or defend them.
One of the three characteristics that Langer (1997) has established for mindfulness is an “implicit awareness of more than one perspective” (p. 4). Research results suggest that through mindful practice people begin to view their beliefs and opinions less as absolute truth and more as a single perspective on key issues or concepts. Associated with this change, our views become more tentative and we are more willing to change them based on new information. Mindful practice appears to facilitate openness to experience and thus the ability to learn from exposure to new information by increasing our receptivity to different perspectives.
Brown, Ryan, Creswell, and Niemiec (2008) suggest that in helping individuals disidentify with their thoughts and obtain “a clearer recognition that self-representations are simply mental concepts” (p. 77), mindfulness training allows individuals to react less defensively when exposed to social threats. A number of studies show that mindfulness training improves the ability to respond nondefensively to stress and conflicts, both within intimate relationships (Barnes, Brown, Krusemark, Campbell, & Rogge, 2007; Brown & Ryan, 2003) and when faced with the threat of social exclusion (Creswell, Eisenberger, & Lieberman, 2008). Closely related to these findings, mindful practice appears to support the development of interpersonal communication skills (Burgoon, Berger, & Waldron, 2000) and the development of empathic ability (Schure, Christopher, & Christopher, 2008; Shapiro, Brown, & Biegel, 2007; Shapiro, Schwartz, & Bonner, 1998). A study by Hutcherson, Seppala, and Gross (2008) found that engaging in the practice of loving kindness meditation, which is regarded as a key part of mindfulness training, activates portions of the brain associated with positive regard toward others.
Implications of Mindful Practice to Transformational Learning
In summary, mindfulness operates in specific ways that support transformational learning by helping individuals overcome common constraints to openness to experience. These changes show up in several meaningful ways, including improved attentional control; a decrease in experiential avoidance; stronger awareness and integration of emotive, physiological, and behavioral responses to life experiences; and the enhancement of empathy and communication skills. When viewed collectively, these short- and long-term changes produced through mindful practice lead us to question two long-held assumptions regarding transformational learning: the role that critical reflection is thought to play in transformational learning, and the degree to which transformational learning is viewed as age-dependent.
(p. 353) Reevaluating the Role of Critical Reflection in Transformational Learning
The fact that mindfulness plays a critical catalytic role in transformational learning has important implications for how we view the role of critical reflection in the transformative learning process. Mezirow (2000) cautions that while mindfulness is an important element of transformation, it is, by itself, insufficient to foster transformation. Instead, critical reflection is essential to complete the process (Mezirow, 2000). Such reflection requires an awareness of those tacit assumptions that guide our thinking and a further reflection on how these assumptions may shape or bias the manner in which we interpret and construct meaning from those experiences.
Within Mezirow’s (1991) transformative model, critical reflection takes the form of a rational and analytical process that subjects to rigorous examination the assumptions and logic that inform our beliefs and values:
It is within this process of consensually determining the conditions under which an expressed idea is true or valid that problematic meaning schemes (specific knowledge, beliefs, value judgments, or feelings involved in making an interpretation) are confirmed or negated and meaning perspectives (rule systems governing perception and cognition) are significantly restructured. (p. 5)
The importance that Mezirow places on critical reflection as a necessary precursor to transformational learning would appear to be predicated on his belief that transformational learning is typically triggered by an epochal event, such as job loss, critical illness in oneself or a family member, or the adjustment to life in a new culture. Certainly such events can serve as powerful vehicles for jarring us from complacency. In this way, the experience of living in a different culture might place an individual in contact with worldviews that are very different with regard to gender-related social expectations. Over time, exposure to different cultures might lead one to question long-held personal assumptions regarding gender roles. The individual might, for example, come to recognize that previously held perspectives were reflective of more culturally embedded hegemonic views regarding what is considered to be “right” with regard to socially prescribed gender roles. In the same way, the onset of a serious life-threatening disease might force one to reexamine one’s personal beliefs regarding what gives meaning and purpose to life.
We fully agree that such challenges compel us to examine the insufficiency of our basic assumptions regarding the views we hold of ourselves and our worlds. At the same time, one might ask whether transformational learning truly requires, as a catalytic agent, the sudden onset of such disruptive life experiences. The alternative view (Clark, 1991; Daloz, 2000; Daloz, Keen, Keen, & Parks, 1996; Taylor, 2000) is that transformational learning more frequently takes the form of personal change that occurs gradually over a longer period of time. While emphasizing the role of epochal events in transformational learning, Mezirow (2000) has also acknowledged that such learning may sometimes take the form of an incremental process that occurs over an extended time frame.
In studying the transformational experiences of 100 individuals who were identified as having made strong contributions to their society, Daloz, Keen, Keen, and Parks (1996) found that transformation typically occurred gradually over time. In further reviewing this study’s findings, Daloz (2000) concluded “we found no instance of transformation as the result of an isolated, epochal event. Indeed, the idea that profound change can occur literally out of the blue flies in the face of everything we know about human development” (p. 106).
That personal transformation may frequently take the form of a gradual, incremental change process has important implications for our understanding of the role that mindfulness plays in transformational learning. Whereas epochal life events assail the fortress of self from the outside, mindful practice appears to offer a different path for change by gradually encouraging us to open the fortress gates from the inside. Mindful practice proves catalytic to transformational learning not by forcing us to directly challenge our pet assumptions about self and world, but rather by encouraging us to recognize the transitory, personally and culturally constructed, and ego-bound nature of those assumptions. We suggest that in this way, extended engagement in mindful practice shifts the core dynamic of what happens in transformational learning.
In addition, the importance that is placed on critical reflection in transformational learning presumes that one’s pet assumptions and beliefs are readily available for objective and rational review. This perspective fails to consider the many ways in which we are capable of rationalizing and self-justifying the motives and justifications that we use for sustaining our beliefs, opinions, and behavior (Aronson, 1998, 1999). Mezirow (2000) cautions (p. 354) that transformative learning can be a strong emotional experience “in which we have to become aware of both the assumptions under-girding our ideas and those supporting our emotional responses to the need to change” (p. 6).
Given these constraints, we suggest that a prerequisite condition for engaging in critical reflection is the willingness to nondefensively hold these assumptions up for self-examination and discourse. In other words, an important precondition for engaging in critical reflection is that one is sufficiently open and receptive to learn from experience. Throughout this discussion, we have offered evidence to show that mindful practice plays an important role in encouraging individuals to maintain such a state of experiential openness. This position is reflected in Shapiro and Carlson’s (2009) contention that mindful practice “helps people bring unconscious/nonconscious values into awareness” and “decide whether they are really the values they want to pursue” (p. 9).
Is Transformational Learning an Age-Dependent Process?
Within Mezirow’s (1991) model of transformational learning, individuals are viewed as developing broader and more inclusive meaning perspectives as they begin to understand the limits and constraints that shape their thinking. This includes developing a greater appreciation of other perspectives (Sinnott, 1984) and a fuller understanding of the social and ideological context in which knowledge and learning are embedded (Baxter Magolda, 2001; Kitchener & Brenner, 1990; Kitchener & King, 1981; Stevens-Long & Barner, 2006, 2011).
Viewed from this perspective, transformational learning requires an epistemological shift to a conceptual stance that is more complex. This is a pivotal assumption for those who assert that transformational learning is developmentally dependent. Mezirow (1991) eschews a rigid stage-development model of transformative learning, explaining that personal transformations do not always proceed through an inevitable sequence of well-delineated steps. At the same time, Mezirow (1991) links transformational learning firmly to the development of dialectical thinking (Basseches, 1984) in adulthood, cautioning that perspective transformation does not occur until adults have reached a certain amount of maturity, sometime between their mid-30s and mid-50s, and may continue over a 5- to 20-year period. Mezirow (1991) contends that individuals who fail to successfully negotiate these crises may develop rigid modes of thinking as adults. A similar position is advocated by Merriam (2004), who suggests that critical reflection requires adults to have achieved a prerequisite stage of advanced cognitive development, “most likely a level of postformal thought,” going on to say that “one can also consider critical reflection in terms of dialectic or postformal models of cognitive development” (2004, p. 1).
The question of whether researchers sometimes equate transformational learning with epistemological development is important, since so much of the literature on personal transformation has been informed by research on adult learners who are experiencing transformational learning within the limited context of the academic environment. Certainly, as adults progress through academic studies, a hoped-for by-product is the ability to develop more complex epistemological underpinnings (Stevens-Long & Barner, 2006, 2011). However, do such changes in worldview constitute the full spectrum of transformational learning?
We would submit that an individual can undergo personal transformation and yet may be only partially able to articulate that experience, or have difficulty establishing and validating the logic claims on which transformational learning is achieved. In making this statement we believe that it is important to uncouple transformative learning as intuitive discovery from the ability to conceptually frame and articulate one’s transformational journey within a more complex epistemological framework. This view of transformation as not only a rational journey of discovery but one that also includes intuitive and affective elements has come to be perceived as a legitimate perspective within the field of transformational learning (Boyd & Myers, 1988; Cranton, 1994; Daloz, 2000; Dirkx, 1997, 2000, 2006; Fedwick, 2003; Grabov, 1997; Healy, 2000; Imel, 1998; Taylor, 2000). Dirkx (2006) emphasizes the importance of engaging the affective aspects of transformation as a means of “establishing a dialogue with those unconscious aspects of ourselves seeking expression through various images, feeling, and behaviors within the learning setting” (p. 22). Similarly, many theorists (Boyd & Myers, 1988; Cranton, 1994; Grabov, 1997) have argued that transformational learning extends beyond the rational, analytical evaluation of one’s beliefs and assumptions to include more intuitive ways of knowing that are mediated by imagined images (dreams, myths, and fantasies), symbols, and metaphors.
This view is represented by Taylor’s (2000) assertion that transformational learning can occur on an (p. 355) implicit level, outside of our conscious awareness. In a review of several studies involving perspective transformation, Taylor concluded that frequently such transformation occurred without the use of critical reflection on key personal assumptions:
Instead of critically reflecting on their experience, they seem to respond with unmediated perception, trusting their reaction of direct apprehension and sensory understanding, whereby the process of transformation takes place on an implicit level, outside the awareness of the individual. (pp. 220–221)
This willingness of some individuals to trust their direct perceptions of experience would appear to be analogous to the direct attention to thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and external events that occur during mindful meditation.
Mindfulness, Transformational Learning, and Adult Development
We have suggested that if mindfulness provides a pathway to transformation that can be uncoupled from epistemological development, then transformational learning cannot, in the truest sense, be viewed as age-dependent. At the same time, there is a significant body of evidence indicating that the extended use of mindful practice produces substantial long-term changes that have important implications for adult development. We contend that the extended mindful practice leads to four durable adult developmental changes: (1) increased dispositional openness to experience, (2) productive coping patterns, (3) improved brain functioning, and (4) a broader and more expansive view of self.
First, given the strong relationship that exists between mindfulness and openness to experience, we must consider the role that extended mindful practice may play in enhancing openness to experience as a long-term dispositional trait (Costa & McCrae, 1987). Dispositional openness to experience is demonstrated in the tendency to display curiosity and receptiveness to new experiences (Costa & McCrae, 1987) and has been found to be related to the development of emotional complexity, wisdom, and personality growth (Staudinger & Kessler, 2009). Moreover, dispositional openness appears to begin to decline beyond midlife. This decline is evidenced by Schaie’s (2005) comparative study of 1,171 participants who completed personality assessments in 1991 and again in 1998. These results indicate that our openness increases very little beyond our mid 40s, with a decline occurring during the late 60s (Schaie, 2005, p. 303). Similar conclusions were reached by a meta-analysis of studies on personality factors performed by Roberts, Walton, and Viechbauer (2006), and by a cross-cultural analysis of dispositional openness performed by McCrae et al. (2000).
In contrast to the decline in openness that appears to accompany aging beyond midlife, Bishop et al. (2004) posit that mindful practice is likely to enhance the continued growth of dispositional openness in adulthood. In support of this position, Hodgins (2008) discusses how mindfulness and openness interact to improve our ability to learn from potentially threatening life experiences:
Nondefensiveness has a kind of snowball effect. The less defensive we are, the more we can integrate our experiences, and the higher our threshold for threat becomes. Likewise, the more self-protective we are, the more defensive we grow, which ironically robs us of the opportunity to integrate experiences and establish more genuine and secure self-worth. (p. 122)
From our perspective these assertions raise the intriguing possibility that the supposed declining trajectory of dispositional openness in late adulthood could be arrested—even reversed—through sustained engagement in mindful practice.
The second durable developmental change associated with the extended use of mindfulness appears to be a shift toward more productive coping patterns to challenging life events. Support for this conclusion comes from the three-year follow-up study on individuals’ coping patterns within stress situations conducted by Salmon, Santorelli, and Kabat-Zinn (1998). Further research by Carmody and Baer (2008) with participants in an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program showed that self-reported improvements in stress management and positive well-being were directly related to the time participants spent in mindful practice. Finally, in comparing the coping patterns to daily life events exhibited by meditators and non-meditators, Lykins and Baer (2009) found that in contrast to 78 non-meditators, the 182 long-term meditators (average duration of 7.6 years of practice) in their study showed reduced rumination, greater behavioral self-regulation, and higher levels of self-reported well-being.
Third, research indicates that extended mindful practice supports sustained developmental changes through alterations in brain functioning. One of the most exciting frontiers of brain research involves brain plasticity, also known as cortical plasticity or (p. 356) neuroplasticity. Brain plasticity refers to the ability of the brain to continue to reorganize itself, based on thinking, learning, and activity, through building new brain cells and altering connections among neural pathways (Doidge, 2007). Brain plasticity was long thought to be limited to early childhood, with the assumption that human brains are “hard wired” by the time they reached adulthood. Recent studies (Boyke, Driemeyer, Glaser, Buchel, & May 2008; Defelipe, 2006; Doidge, 2007) now suggest that the human brain can continue to reorganize itself throughout adulthood.
Several studies have shown that the extended use of mindful practice leads to changes in brain functionality. Such changes include alterations in cortical functions that are associated with increased positive affect and reduced reactivity to stressful emotional experiences (Davidson et al., 2003), and the thickening of cortical areas that are associated with increased attention (Carter, Presti, Callistemon, Ungerer, Lui, & Pettigrew, 2005; Jha, Krompinger, & Baime, 2007; Lazar et al., 2005). An important result found in the study by Lazar et al. (2005) was that the greatest gains in cortical thickening occurred in older participants, leading the researchers to suggest that meditation could serve to counteract the cortical thinning typically associated with aging. Similarly, in Slagter et al.’s (2007) study on the impact of mindfulness on attentional blink, the authors noted that the results were significant, since attentional blink has long been thought to be a rather stable response pattern that cannot be altered through training. Based on the aforementioned studies, we conclude that mindful meditation can support brain plasticity in adulthood.
Collectively, these first three sustained developmental changes are significant. However, one of the most important developmental changes that appears to be associated with the extended use of mindful practice involves a fundamental shift in how individuals construe the concept of “self.” Epstein (1973) defined the self as “a subsystem of internally consistent, hierarchically organized concepts, contained within a broader conceptual system” (p. 407). Recent research suggests that through extended mindful practice, this traditional view of self as a coherent, integrated, and relatively immutable cognitive structure undergoes significant change. Through this change the individual comes to view the self as more transitory, mutable, and less bound by contingent assessments of self-worth. Several studies suggest that as individuals continue to practice mindful meditation, their goals for practice begin to shift from the more pragmatic or judgmental to the more spiritual or self-liberating (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999; Mackenzie, Carlson, Munoz, & Speca, 2007; Shapiro, 1992).
Shapiro (1992) compared the outcome goals of 27 individuals who participated in either a two-week or three-month intensive meditation retreat. The participants were experienced in a variety of mindfulness practice techniques, including Buddhist meditation, breathing concentration, yoga, and visualization. Participants’ meditation goals were coded into the three categories of self-regulation, self-exploration, and self-liberation. Interview responses were indicated as representative of these respective categories; for example, “learn to control my stress better” (regulation), “want to learn more about myself” (exploration), and “want to go beyond my narrow ego” (liberation) (pp. 27–28). Results of Shapiro’s (1992) study indicated that practitioners’ self-reported outcomes were fairly consistent with their initial goals going into the study. In addition, over time individuals’ goals shifted from the more instrumental goal of self-regulation, to self-exploration, to self-liberation. A similar evolution of meditation goals—from the instrumental to the more spiritual—was noted by Mackenzie, Carlson, Munoz, and Speca (2007) in their research with cancer patients who practiced meditation.
If mindful practice helps individuals view their experiences as transitory phenomena and enables them to attend to personal experience in an open and nonjudgmental fashion, then mindfulness may play a role in fostering a view of self that is more unconditional and less self-evaluative. Thompson and Waltz (2008) confirmed this proposition in a study of 167 university students by finding correlations between students’ scores on mindfulness, self-esteem, and unconditional self-acceptance.
Farb et al. (2007) studied whether mindful practice influenced how individuals engaged in self-reference. The researchers distinguish between two forms of self-reference: experiential self-focus (EF) and narrative self-focus (NF). Experiential self-focus involves mindfulness in that the individual solely attends to what is occurring in his or her thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations in the present moment, without cognitive elaboration on those observations. Narrative self-focus refers to thinking about and making judgments on what one is experiencing in terms of how one views oneself as a person. Gallagher (2000) explains that, compared with EF, NF is an awareness of self that goes beyond (p. 357) the present to include both thoughts about oneself in the future and memories of oneself in the past.
Farb et al.’s (2007) study involved individuals randomly assigned to two groups: 20 adults who completed an eight-week course in mindfulness training (MT) and 16 adults who were on a wait list for the training. Both groups were instructed in EF and NF self-reference distinctions and then asked to assume an EF or NF perspective as they were presented with a series of positive and negative trait words. Using functional MRI imaging, the researchers found distinctly different brain activation patterns for the two groups during their exposure to positive and negative trait words. Non-meditators who completed MT showed greater activation of the medial prefrontal cortices (MPFC), which have been shown to support such NF-related activities as memory of self-traits and aspirations for the future (p. 314). Based on individual- and group-level analyses, the researchers conclude that:
This hypothesized cortical reorganization following MT is consistent with the notion that MT allows for a distinct experiential mode in which thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations are viewed less as being good or bad or integral to the “self” and treated more as transient mental events that can be simply observed. (p. 320)
Farb et al. (2007) suggest that this study has important implications for psychological and physical well-being, given prior research that associates the NF mode of self-reference with high levels of rumination about self (Watkins & Teasdale, 2001) and increased vulnerability to illness (Segal, Kennedy, Gemar, Hood, Pedersen, & Buis, 2006). Siegel (2007) proposes that there are broad implications of Farb et al.’s (2007) study to the understanding of perception of self and well-being:
The notions that one can “change one’s mind” or to even not identify with these mental activities as the totality of who one is are ideas often not even in one’s worldview prior to immersion in mindfulness training. Once this distinction, this noticing of the contents of the mind, is readily accessible through intentional practice, the capacity to alter habitual patterns is created and the possibility becomes available for relief from self-preoccupied rumination, self-defeating thought patterns, negative autobiographical narratives, and maladaptive patterns of emotional reactivity. (p. 260)
Merriam and Clark (2006) suggest that one’s narratives help mediate the varied perspectives provided by the different “selves” who collectively constitute who one is (p. 36). This perspective views self-development not in terms of a continual movement toward integration and coherence of a singular and static self, but rather as the ability to fully and actively interpret the continual dialogue that occurs between the multiple voices/views that represent one’s different needs, wants, fears, and aspirations. Stevens-Long (2000) uses the term “prism self” to describe this view of self as the interpreter of one’s complex inner dialogues.
The disidentification from thoughts or “dominant narratives” through mindful practice enables alternative narratives or views of self to emerge (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999). Other researchers (Shapiro & Carlson, 2009; Wallace & Shapiro, 2006) contend that through mindful practice there is a change in one’s relationship to thoughts, versus changing thoughts themselves, and often a corresponding shift in the self-sense. Shapiro and Carlson (2009) offer that the self becomes transparent:
… to be seen through or deconstructed—that is, it is realized to be a psychological construction, an ever-changing system of concepts, images, sensations and beliefs. These aggregates, or constructs that were once thought to compose the stable self, are eventually seen to be impermanent and fleeting. (p. 97)
In other words, over time, as one continues to engage in mindful meditation, one’s sense of “self” is no longer confined by the limits of thoughts, ideas, social roles, or assumptions about self and worldview. Stevens-Long (2000) offers the concept of “multiplicity” of self in that “one may begin to see the self as an object that is made and remade through the continuous interplay and evaluation of competing voices and images… understanding the personal ego as an object of awareness” (p. 169).
A similar view is presented by Brazier (2003), who states that the Buddhist approach:
Is neither to build nor to abase the self. It is to recognize the reality of our existential position in relationship with the world … The teaching of non-self is not a denial of the existence of the personal as a complex entity, functioning in a complex world. Non-self theory places people in dynamic encounter with one another and the environment they inhabit. (p. 138)
Through the extended use of mindful practice, our view of self becomes more pliable and acknowledges the multiplicity of selves within. In doing so, we begin to discern the transitory and ethereal nature (p. 358) of self. We come to relate to others and the world with greater compassion and with an understanding that our self-identity is more than the sum of the social and cultural constructions that shape and influence us. This view completely changes our relationship to self-learning and development, in that we find ourselves more willing to think in terms of alternative perspectives, to treat our beliefs as tentative, and to engage in a broader exploration of self.
This line of thinking is closely aligned with the perspectives offered by those theorists who view transformational learning from a broader, more spiritual perspective. Boyd and Myers (1988) define transformational learning as a “fundamental change in one’s personality involving [together] the resolution of a personal dilemma and the expansion of consciousness resulting in greater personality integration” (p. 459). For Kasl and Elias (2000), transformational learning is:
The expansion of consciousness in any human system, thus the collective as well as individual. This expanded consciousness is characterized by new frames of reference, points of view, or habits of mind as well as by a new structure for engaging the system’s identity. (p. 233)
In comparing the goals of Buddhist and Western psychology, Fulton and Siegel (2005) make the following observation about the aims and goals of mindfulness, as practiced within the Eastern tradition:
Mindfulness meditation is not intended to replace one meaning with another, to reframe experience through interpretation, or to rewrite a personal narrative. By operating at a more fundamental and “refined” level of attention, mindfulness meditation has a more primal and transformative power … The insight that arises through mindfulness practice is not a proposition or syllogistic truth but is experienced as a condition of being, which depends upon the training of consciousness. (p. 37)
Fulton and Siegel (2005) add that within Buddhist psychology, the purpose of mindfulness is not to establish or enhance self-esteem, but to reveal the “self” as an artificial construct.
Therefore, it appears that the extended use of mindful meditation may encourage individuals to broaden their scope of personal exploration from the pragmatic to the spiritual, and help them develop a sense of self that is less self-evaluative and narrative and more self-accepting, fluid, and experiential. We reassert that by encouraging openness to experience, mindful practice provides individuals with a unique pathway to transformational learning. Although critical reflection may encourage transformation by helping individuals to examine the presuppositions on which their values and beliefs are based, mindfulness works in a different manner. Mindfulness enables individuals to accept the ephemeral nature of those values and beliefs and, by doing so, to begin to come in contact with a self that extends beyond social constructions.
Areas for Future Research
In this discussion, we have shown how mindful practice and openness to experience interact to provide a relatively unexplored pathway to transformational learning. In doing so, we have explained the mechanisms through which mindful practice helps individuals overcome constraints to openness to experience, stay engaged within challenging life experiences, reduce their defensiveness to new information about the self, maintain greater emotional regulation during stressful events, and disidentify with negative thoughts and emotions. We have also discussed how the long-term use of mindful practice may support adult development through such avenues as increasing dispositional openness to experience, encouraging productive coping patterns, and fostering changes in brain functionality that are associated with sustained attention and reduced reactivity to long-term stressors. Yet, although we believe that excellent foundational work has been undertaken to reveal the relationships that exists between mindful practice, openness, and transformational learning, many questions remain unanswered.
First, how might different mindful practices influence transformational learning? Currently, much of the research being conducted on mindful practices is based on some version of the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) method developed by Kabat-Zinn (1990, 2003). While some studies have attempted to provide comparative reviews of the relative efficacy of different mindful methods to the management of areas such as anxiety reduction (Sears & Kraus, 2009), relatively little is known about how different mindful practices (i.e., yoga, mindfulness meditation, cognitive-behavioral therapy) support transformational learning.
Further, are all approaches to mindful practice equally catalytic with respect to transformational change? From a phenomenological perspective, do the individuals who engage in these different approaches experience transformational change in (p. 359) the same manner? Do all mindful techniques support the same types of durable changes, such as improvements in brain function and coping strategies, or changes in self-reference? Certainly more research is needed on this topic.
In addition, there is a wealth of longitudinal research showing how mindful practice affects age-related development. Several researchers (Hart, 2004; Holland, 2004; Roeser & Peck, 2009) have advocated the use of meditative practices in formal educational settings to support such developmental changes as improved attention, reduced defensiveness to new life experiences, and increased empathy and compassion. Yet relatively little research has been undertaken to evaluate the long-term effects of such practices on age-related development.
Finally, we have intentionally highlighted how mindful practice differs from the use of critical reflection by offering a uniquely different pathway to transformational learning. In making this distinction, however, we are not contending that mindful practice and critical reflection cannot be effectively combined to support transformational learning. We know, for example, that mindful meditation has been successfully used to help individuals cope with such traumatic epochal life events as confronting serious health-related problems (Kabat-Zinn, 2003). For many individuals, the application of mindful meditation has led to self-descriptions that are closely aligned with transformational change. Future exploration is recommended to answer the question: what interactive effects are produced when mindful practice is intentionally combined with critical reflection as part of a formal adult learning process? We believe that this question offers great promise for future research.
In summary, we believe that substantial research results suggest that mindful practices can support transformational change by providing a catalytic agent for increased openness to experience and the reduction of experiential avoidance. Thus, mindful practice provides an alternative pathway to transformational learning. This new pathway is not one dependent upon the types of epistemological change that are engendered through the use of critical reflection, but one in which individuals gain an intuitive understanding of the temporary and self-constrained nature of habitual thoughts, emotions, and beliefs. Through this pathway individuals develop a broader, more encompassing view of self and worldview, while learning to relate in a more empathic and compassionate way to others. We feel that valuable research within this area has only just begun and are optimistic that future research will shed more light on the mechanisms through which mindful practice supports and sustains transformational learning and development.
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