About a year ago I wrote an essay titled “Mindfulness: State and Trait” (June 26, 2012). In that essay I described two ways to understand the personal experience of being mindful. One way, state, is when we actively practice any form of meditation (e.g. sitting, walking, body scan, mindful stretching, etc.). State mindfulness is the “work” of our practice, and how we cultivate deeper and deeper levels of mindful living.
On the other hand, trait refers to our temperament, or, if you prefer, our personality, which is relatively stable in terms of its day to day manifestation. You might think of “state” as analogous to the weather and “trait” as analogous to the climate. Weather may vary, but climate is steady (well, we hope so anyway). Your meditation practice is a chance to explore your internal weather, with your personality as a stable backdrop.
One interesting aspect of the practice of mindfulness is that the regular inducement of state mindfulness leads to strengthening trait mindfulness. That shouldn’t be that surprising, of course, as anyone who’s ever practiced a skill knows. The more you work on playing the piano, the more you become a “piano player.” It’s like the great scene in “The Karate Kid:” “wax on, wax off” leads to the ability to block a punch reflexively. Meditate regularly enough and you find yourself taking a mindful breath in the midst of the chaos without effort; suddenly you have clarity where once there was confusion.
A question we always ask at our monthly meditation meetings is “How’s your practice going?” Here’s another question you might want to ask: “Is my practice leading to a strengthening of mindfulness as a trait?” If you’re curious about that one, there’s a trait mindfulness inventory that’s being used in research that seems to have good validity. It’s called the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire. It’s self administered, and can be found online at http://www.awakemind.org/quiz.php
If you take this inventory you’ll notice that it gives you an overall mindfulness score but it also breaks mindfulness into five facets: Observe, Describe, Act with Awareness, Non-Judging, and Non-Reacting. In my next essay we’ll take a look at these five facets and their correlations with other psychological factors (e.g. depression-proneness, relationship skills etc.).