Self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-transcendence (S-ART): a framework for understanding the neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness

To study the Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things. To be enlightened by all things is to remove the barriers between one's self and others.”


David R. Vago* and  David A. Silbersweig

Mindfulness—as a state, trait, process, type of meditation, and intervention has proven to be beneficial across a diverse group of psychological disorders as well as for general stress reduction. Yet, there remains a lack of clarity in the operationalization of this construct, and underlying mechanisms. Here, we provide an integrative theoretical framework and systems-based neurobiological model that explains the mechanisms by which mindfulness reduces biases related to self-processing and creates a sustainable healthy mind. Mindfulness is described through systematic mental training that develops meta-awareness (self-awareness), an ability to effectively modulate one's behavior (self-regulation), and a positive relationship between self and other that transcends self-focused needs and increases prosocial characteristics (self-transcendence). This framework of self-awareness, -regulation, and -transcendence (S-ART) illustrates a method for becoming aware of the conditions that cause (and remove) distortions or biases. The development of S-ART through meditation is proposed to modulate self-specifying and narrative self-networks through an integrative fronto-parietal control network. Relevant perceptual, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral neuropsychological processes are highlighted as supporting mechanisms for S-ART, including intention and motivation, attention regulation, emotion regulation, extinction and reconsolidation, prosociality, non-attachment, and decentering. The S-ART framework and neurobiological model is based on our growing understanding of the mechanisms for neurocognition, empirical literature, and through dismantling the specific meditation practices thought to cultivate mindfulness. The proposed framework will inform future research in the contemplative sciences and target specific areas for development in the treatment of psychological disorders.

In the last two decades, the concept of mindfulness as a state, trait, process, and intervention has been successfully adapted in contexts of clinical health and psychology, especially with relation to treating stress and targeting emotion dysregulation. Operationalizing mindfulness has been somewhat challenging given the plurality of cultural traditions from which the concept originates, the difficulty with which it is measured, and its distinction from its common usage [see Baer (2003); Dimidjian and Linehan (2003); Brown and Ryan (2004); Grossman (2008); Gethin (2011)].

Generally speaking, there are two models for cultivating mindfulness in the context of meditation practice—a 2500-year old historical model that is rooted in Buddhist science and a 25-year old contemporary model that is heavily influenced by Jon Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, an adaptation of specific Buddhist techniques intended for general stress reduction (Kabat-Zinn, 1990). The historical model for training the mind has similar goals to the contemporary western medical model: both are interested in reducing suffering, enhancing positive emotions, and improving quality of life.

Although the contemporary view of the concept, “mindfulness” is increasingly becoming part of popular culture, there remains no single “correct” or “authoritative version” of mindfulness and the concept is often trivialized and conflated with many common interpretations. Mindfulness is described as (1) A temporary state of non-judgmental, non-reactive, present-centered attention and awareness that is cultivated during meditation practice; (2) An enduring trait that can be described as a dispositional pattern of cognition, emotion, or behavioral tendency; (3) A meditation practice; (4) An intervention. Dispositional mindfulness is now measured by at least eight self-report scales that are often uncorrelated with each other (Grossman and Van Dam, 2011). These semantic differences are problematic in the laboratory setting. Here we attempt to address this conceptual problem by synthesizing a comprehensive conceptual framework of self-processing in the context of neurobiological mechanisms by which mindfulness functions and that focuses on the goals of mindfulness-based meditation practice: to reduce suffering and create a sustainable healthy mind.

The proposed framework for understanding mindfulness focuses on self-processing and the underlying neural systems involved in self-awareness, -regulation, and -transcendence (S-ART). Different approaches to understanding mindfulness may focus on one aspect more than another—S-ART attempts to synthesize a unified framework that integrates the traditional Buddhist and contemporary models. The S-ART framework operates using the underlying premise that our perception, cognitions, and emotions related to our ordinary experiences can be distorted or biased to varying degrees. Depending on certain dispositional factors, these biases are sometimes pathological, but exist on a spectrum and may therefore be present without any clear psychopathology. Within this framework, mindfulness is described to reduce such biases through specific forms of mental training that develop meta-awareness of self (self-awareness), an ability to effectively manage or alter one's responses and impulses (self-regulation), and the development of a positive relationship between self and other that transcends self-focused needs and increases prosocial characteristics (self-transcendence). In support of S-ART, six neurocognitive component mechanisms that are highly integrated and strengthened together through intentional mental strategies underlying the practice and cultivation of mindfulness are proposed to modulate networks of self-processing and reduce bias. These mechanisms include intention and motivation, attention and emotion regulation, extinction and reconsolidation, prosociality, non-attachment, and de-centering. Thus, rather than reducing mindfulness down to a unitary dimension, the S-ART describes mindfulness in a broader framework of perceptual, physiological, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral component processes.

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Operationalizing mindfulness—integrating the historical and contemporary perspectives

Defining meditation and mindfulness from the historical perspective

In the historical Buddhist context, the term meditation is used to translate the Sanskrit term bhävana and its Tibetan equivalent sgoms. Etymologically, the Sanskrit term connotes the notion of “cultivation,” or “causing to become” and the Tibetan equivalent, refers to “development of familiarity” (Thera, 1962; Rahula, 1974; Bodhi, 1999; Jinpa, 2009). In light of these definitions, it should be clear that a traditional emphasis of most meditation practice is that of mental development, in which the practitioner is cultivating a general sense of well-being and virtue along with a level of deep familiarity with one's inner mental landscape, and one's patterns of behavior (i.e., nature of mind) (Rahula, 1974; Bodhi, 1999; Wallace, 2011).

One of the original translations of sati into the English word, mindfulness, was by Davids (1882). It was translated from the Pali root, sati (Sanskrit: smṛti), literally meaning “memory,” and closely related to the verb, sarati, referring to the process, “to remember.” Most conceptualizations of mindfulness from the Buddhist perspective emphasize a close and constant connection between the functions of memory and attention (Thera, 1962). In fact, on closer examination, mindfulness can be described as the continuous discriminative attentional capacity for encoding and recollecting experiences efficiently—without forgetfulness or distraction, and in the appropriate context (Thera, 1962; Analayo, 2003; Wallace, 2006); however, from the classical Buddhist context, views on the concept of mindfulness vary considerably (Dreyfus, 2011; Dunne, 2011). The Satipatthāna Sutta, one of the most influential Buddhist texts, describes the practice of mindfulness as a direct path to the “cessation of suffering,” and as a fundamental quality or skill amongst a set of mental qualities developed through specific meditation practices (Analayo, 2003). So as to avoid confusion, we refer to the attentional skill here as, “mindful awareness.”

In the Buddhist context, suffering (Pali: dukkha) is related to a lack of awareness for the following fundamental characteristics of experience: (1) Habitual craving or attachment (to sensory/mental objects we like) and/or aversion (to sensory/mental objects we don't like); (2) All phenomena (including the concept of self) are impermanent (they arise and pass away). The characteristics are thought to be based on an inflated sense of self-importance or self-loathing (Thera, 1962). These characteristics of suffering are incorporated into the more contemporary model of suffering illustrated in Figure igure1,1, in which habitual information processing biases reify a dysfunctional self-schema. In order to reduce suffering, the path of mindfulness is described to specifically place great emphasis on four particular tightly coupled qualities or skills which are developed through the prescribed meditative techniques, including (1) A balanced intensity of effort and diligence (Pali: ātāpi), (2) Wisdom of clear discernment or phenomenal clarity (Pali: sampajaňa), (3) Mindful awareness, and (4) Freedom from desire and discontent (Pali: vineyya loke abhijjhā-domanassạm), a form of equanimity. Equanimity (Pali, upekkhā) is translated as “on-looking” or “watching things as they arise” and is described to involve a balance of arousal without hyperexcitability or fatigue (Buddhaghosa, 1991). The application of equanimity involves impartiality without bias or discrimination arising from a sense of detachment from the attraction or aversion to ongoing experience (Gunaratana, 2002; Wallace, 2006; Bodhi, 1999). Phenomenal clarity refers to the intensity (or perceptual acuity) in which each moment is experienced. Qualities like equanimity and clarity develop over time along with mindful awareness, while one learns to neither suppress nor fixate on what is arising in sensory experience moment to moment. In concert with the other three qualities, mindful awareness is thought to be critical for improving access and insight toward subject-object relations, such that the most fundamental nature of objects (including the self) is perceived “as they truly are,” without distortions or biases inherent in cognition (Thera, 1962; Brown and Ryan, 2004; Wallace, 2006). This undistorted form of insight or experiencing is also referred to as “bare attention,” perception without interpretation (Thera, 1962; Analayo, 2003). The four qualities, including mindful awareness, critically facilitate the development of an advanced self-monitoring system that is the first essential step to S-ART—gaining awareness of suffering as it is described herein. Mindful awareness is also described to be specifically applied in a comprehensive way across four domains of experience: toward the body, toward feelings/sensations or affective tone, one's current mental state, and toward the matrix of interrelationships amongst all phenomena arising in one's consciousness (Buddhaghosa, 1991; Analayo, 2003; Wallace, 2011). It is important for the reader to be clear that this historical description of mindful awareness be seen as a critical skill, amongst others, developed in the meditation practices outlined in Buddhist teachings. It is this combination of four qualities along with the four applications of mindfulness that provide the historical framework for mindfulness, as the path toward reduced suffering and realization. Thus, our current framework on S-ART reflects the qualities that are emphasized here in the historical perspective and outline a skill set of processes that co-arise with mindful awareness and help create a sustainable healthy mind.

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