Updated: Dec 7, 2022
Writer: Erin Lee
"What is mindfulness?"
This is a basic and also one of the most popular questions I have heard asked about mindfulness. We have perhaps come across this word almost everywhere nowadays, and have come to know of the many benefits it could bring us if we practice it. But without actually practicing it effectively and adopting it as a way of life, most of us seem to only have a conceptual idea of what it is, and what it could potentially do for us. And this kind of intellectual understanding falls short of truly reaping the benefits it could bring in transforming our lives.
In this article I'd like to try explaining the meaning of being mindful in the simplest ways possible, so that practicing it and adopting it as a way of life hopefully becomes more intuitive for us.
In essence, there is nothing too complex or complicated about being mindful. Let's start with how Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, explains mindfulness.
"...paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally."
Let's zoom in and expound each part of Kabat-Zinn's definition.
Being mindful begins with paying attention. Actually, everything begins with paying attention. Our ability to attend to things in our environment is how we manage to get things done, and how we survive from day to day. Imagine not paying attention when we cross the road or cook a meal!
But paying attention is especially crucial for the practice of being mindful. We not only need to pay attention to our external environment, we also need to pay attention to our internal landscape. Without the capacity to pay attention, we are just distracted most of the time or only partially attending to our experiences. Without paying attention, we will not be able to truly understand ourselves, our relationship with the world we inhabit, and why we may be having such a hard time.
We shouldn't expect this paying of attention to just happen automatically. We have to be intentional about paying attention, including what we pay attention to, and how we use this faculty of attention. When our attention gets pulled away by distractions, for example, we need to purposely and patiently guide ourselves back to what we should be paying attention to. And we need to constantly remind ourselves to keep paying attention. This takes some effort.
"In the Present Moment"
We cannot be practicing mindfulness if we are not in the present. By the present, we mean the here and now - what is going on in your experience in this particular moment.
Relative to the present is the past and the future. The mind often carries us back in time to relive past memories, or takes us forward to think about what may happen. When the mind is engaged in the past or the future, we are no longer in the present moment. We may not realize that very often we are just not present. Instead, we get stuck dwelling in negative thinking patterns about the past, or feeling anxious about the future.
In mindfulness, we learn to let go of moments that have passed, and not to worry too much about those that have yet to arrive. From the past or the future, we bring ourselves back to the present and practice resting in the present moment, and simply be in the know of what's happening in our experience, one moment at a time.
This final part is slightly trickier to understand, but is actually the most critical component of practicing mindfulness.
The mind's first instinct is to place a judgement about everything that comes through the senses and into our awareness. We like to appraise things, people or events we encounter, deciding whether they feel good or bad to us. Judgements invite preferences - we want what feels good to continue, and what feels bad to go away. We want things to go the way we like. When what feels good doesn't continue, we react by craving and pursuing it; when what feels bad doesn't go away, we react by feeling bothered and upset. These reactions contribute significantly to our stress and the quality of our lives.
When we practice mindfulness, we practice paying attention to our experience non-judgementally. This means we learn to see things the way they are, without preference, and without unnecessary reactions. We train the mind to remain calm and balanced as we clearly witness the reality of our experience.
Let's now synthesize our understanding of this definition with an example of how mindfulness is practiced and applied.
You're receiving feedback from someone you work with. To process and understand this feedback you need to first and foremost pay attention. If your mind constantly wanders away to the other hundred and one things you have going on in your life, you need to notice you're distracted and purposely remind yourself to come back to the conversation and to sustain this attention on the engagement as much as possible.
Your colleague says something that triggers a memory of a past mistake you made. Your mind wanders back to the past incident and replays the scenario, and for a few moments you lose track of what is being shared with you. When you are mindful, you are quick to notice where your attention has gone to. You return to the present moment and tune in again.
Your colleague then follows with a comment that sounds rather harsh or unfair to you. The mind instinctively appraises the comment as "bad", and you immediately feel unpleasant emotions of shame and anger, an impulse for a sarcastic response, or a desire to back away from the conversation. Instead of perpetuating this reactivity, with mindfulness you stay present with this unpleasant experience, and practice witnessing the situation non-judgementally and without preference. This non-judgemental awareness allows you some space to return to a more balanced state of mind, and you find the capacity to manage the situation more calmly and wisely. You are able to take your colleague's comment in stride and see it as simply feedback instead of an attack.
Following our understanding of the above example, you may now find this other popular way of explaining mindfulness to be incredibly sensible
...knowing what is happening while it is happening.
The key word here to examine is "while". When we are mindful we clearly know what is going on in each moment of our present experience. If we only know something after it has happened, we are recalling a memory. If we know something before it has even happened, well, we don't actually know it - we are guessing or anticipating possibilities.
We can only be aware of the present moment. And this awareness of the here and now is what gives us the ability to be mindful of our internal experiences. When the very first moments of a reaction arises in us and we are able to notice it as quickly as possible, we have the capacity to regulate and recalibrate ourselves more skillfully and effectively. Noticing internal changes too late might mean that we would have said or done something impulsively before realizing it was unhelpful or unwise.
Another way of explaining mindfulness might be considering how it impacts our actions:
...knowing what you are doing while you are doing it.
Without mindfulness, we often fall into automatic habits and behaviours. For example, we experience stress and impulsively reach for ice-cream or some other unhealthy snack in an attempt to seek comfort and distract ourselves from the unpleasantness we are feeling. Most of the time we are not aware of this automatic tendency until we have engaged with the behaviour - such as after finishing a whole tub of ice cream, and come to regret the action.
When we practice knowing what we are doing while we are doing it, we are present and aware throughout the experience of the behaviour. Every moment of being mindful of our action is an opportunity to change or regulate our behaviour. With such awareness it becomes easier for us to put away the ice-cream after half a pint, or even before we dig the spoon into the tub.
A FINAL DEFINITION
I'd like to conclude by leaving us with a more detailed explanation of mindfulness by Saki Santorelli in his book Heal Thy Self.
...a disciplined way of learning to pay attention to all that is arising within.
This definition resonates greatly with me, because ever since I started practicing mindfulness and paying attention to what I am experiencing from moment to moment, it feels as if I have a guardian angel calmly and gently watching over me, helping me in understanding my mind and body, and guiding me in making better decisions and engaging in healthier behaviours.
Of course, understanding these explanations is only the first step to reaping the benefits of mindfulness. The next imperative step is to ensure that we put what we understand into actual practice and adopt it as a way of life.