I was backpacking with my son in Yosemite National Park during the summer. We were making our way up to El Capitan from the west and John Coltrane’s take of Rogers and Hammerstein’s My Favorite Things was echoing in my head. I was thinking about the things I enjoy most and their possible relationships with one another.
Two of my favorite things, or processes, are program evaluation and mindfulness. I have been working in the field of program evaluation for almost 20 years and I have had a formal and regular mindfulness practice for about 3 years.
What do mindfulness and program evaluation have to do with each other? In particular, how can mindfulness enhance the practice of evaluation? First off, let’s define these terms.
Scott Bishop and colleagues (2004, p. 232) described mindfulness as having two main elements:
- “…self-regulation of attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience, thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment.
- …adopting a particular orientation toward one’s experiences in the present moment, an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance.”
Michael Scriven’s (1991, p.139) often-cited definition of evaluation (often referred to as program evaluation) in his Evaluation Thesaurus includes: “the process of determining the merit, worth, or value of something, or the product of that process.” Evaluation is usually concerned with determining if an intervention works and/or how to improve it.
Mindfulness does not only occur when one is sitting in meditation in some yogi posture, as is often stereotypically conceived, but can occur in any context. In fact, Joseph Goldstein, a prominent mindfulness author and teacher, at a retreat in 2018 indicated that the practice of sitting meditation was often incorrectly seen as the highest level or most desirable mindfulness practice. Instead, he noted that approaching one’s life with mindfulness, during daily activities outside of formal sitting, lying, or walking meditation practice was the goal. This includes the work that we do, in any field.
Through increased mindfulness we can improve our awareness of what is actually happening in a particular moment or interaction, rather than through a distorted lens of bias and negative emotions. We can better see reality as it is, rather than how we want or fear it to be. We obtain improved clarity versus delusion. Evaluators can benefit from incorporating this way of being and doing into their evaluation practice.
Craig and Karen Russon (2009) developed the Insight Evaluation Approach, which relates to this process. The term “insight” comes from the Pali word “vipassana”, which has also been translated as clear-seeing or seeing deeply. Insight Evaluation methods include the use of concentration and mindfulness, paralleling the two general types of Buddhist meditation practice, known as samatha and vipassana, respectively. Among other elements, it includes an openness and awareness of experiences related to evaluation projects and the use of oneself as an instrument in the evaluation, paying attention to intuition.
Evaluators can also learn from Ronald Epstein’s (2003) extensive work in applying mindfulness to the practice of medicine. He described how he incorporates mindfulness into his practice: “First, I observed, as dispassionately as possible, my own actions, thought processes, and emotions in a similar way to observing the arising and dissipating of thoughts during meditation practice, or the kind of self-observation that one tries to achieve while practicing a musical instrument. The second part of the process was equally important. During everyday medical practice, I tried to take moments to be aware of my own expectations, judgments, and categorizations” (pp. 2-3).
He also identified the following characteristics of mindful practice in his paper published in JAMA in 1999 titled, Mindful Practice, which can provide us with further incentive to engage in this work:
- “Active observation of oneself, the patient, and the problem
- Peripheral vision
- Preattentive processing
- Critical curiosity
- Courage to see the world as it is rather than as one would have it be
- Willingness to examine and set aside categories and prejudices
- Adoption of a beginner’s mind
- Humility to tolerate awareness of one’s areas of incompetence
- Connection between the knower and the known
- Compassion based on insight
- Presence” (p. 835)
My practice of evaluation is informed by mindfulness in a similar manner to how I attempt to incorporate it into other aspects of my life. It has helped me in the following ways:
- Awareness of my emotional state and how that impacts how I view and work on a project.
- Identification of evaluation anxiety in my clients so that it can be dealt with directly and in skillful ways. “Excessive evaluation anxiety” or fear of a negative evaluation was described by Stewart Donaldson and colleagues (2002) as a factor that can negatively impact the validity and use of evaluations.
- Noting of cognitive biases that can impact how I design evaluations and interpret findings.
- Noticing when I prematurely come to conclusions or categorizations of things as good or bad.
- Observance of insights and intuitions as they present themselves.
- Fully attending to the task or experience at hand and less multi-tasking.
- Bridging the gap between how I should practice evaluation and how I actually practice it.
As my son and I made the final push up to the top of El Capitan we got our first glimpse of the well-known Yosemite icon, Half Dome. We spent the night on El Capitan, watching the setting sun and changing light drastically transform the view of the valley and mountains. Of course, Half Dome did not change, only our view of it did.
I realized that witnessing nature unfold in the mountains during those days was also related to my work as an evaluator. That another favorite thing of mine, backpacking, informed what I did as well. It seems that everything is related, we just have to notice it.
Mindfulness Related Resources
There are many ways to get started in building a more deliberate mindfulness practice. Here are some resources that I found helpful:
Wherever You Go There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Insight Meditation by Joseph Goldstein
Insight Timer – free mediation app that includes a timer, courses, and guided meditations
Waking Up – guided meditation app by Sam Harris, recommended by Tim Ferriss and Peter Attia
Podcast Episodes and Recordings
Jack Kornfield podcast
Guided Audio Recordings of Meditations
Andrew Weil’s demonstration of 4-7-8 Breathing
Mindfulness Survey for Self-Assessment
Five Facets Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ), which has 39 items, which assessed 5 facets of a general tendency to be mindful in daily life: observing, describing, acting with awareness, nonjudging, and nonreactivity.
Meditation Retreats and Courses
1 to 10 day retreats are fairly common and available. I attended one at the Garrison Institutelead by Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein that I found to be particularly helpful.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course– offered in person and online. Search for MBSR and your location to find local offerings of the 8-week course.
Please include other helpful resources in the comments section. I am also eager to receive your feedback on this brief article.
Bishop, S. R., Lau, M., Shapiro, S., Carlson, L., Anderson, N. D., Carmody, J. et al. (2004). Mindfulness: A proposed operational definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11, 230-241.
Donaldson, S. I., Gooler, L. E., & Scriven, M. (2002). Strategies for Managing Evaluation Anxiety: Toward a Psychology of Program Evaluation. American Journal of Evaluation, 23(3), 261-273.
Epstein, R. M. (1999). Mindful Practice. JAMA, 282(9), 833-839.
Epstein, R. M. (2003). Mindful Practice in Action (I): Technical Competence, Evidence-Based Medicine, and Relationship-Centered Care. Families, Systems, & Health, 21(1), 1-9.
Russon, C. & Russon, K. (2009). The Insight Evaluation Approach. Journal of MultiDisciplinary Evaluation, 6(12), 205-209.
Scriven, M. (1991). Evaluation Thesaurus (4th ed.). Newbury Park, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.