Mindfulness (Sati) is being aware of the moment and “asking what is happening now?” — in the body, through the senses and in the mind. Mindfulness is paying attention without judgment or wishing things were different. Rather it’s bringing curiosity and acceptance to our experience in this moment and the next.
Mindfulness has become a buzzword in our society. When I stand in line at the market and gloss over the newsstand it’s amazing how many publications have Mindfulness in their title or in one of their leading articles. But what is Mindfulness exactly and how do you ‘practice it?’
Mindfulness is a common English word that simply means “paying attention” and this is a good starting point. Mindfulness is a skill that we can develop over time. It is the skill of being aware of what is happening without ‘adding on commentary’. Sometimes, Mindfulness is called Mindful Awareness. When we are mindful we become more aware of what’s happening in our minds – our thoughts, feelings, reactions, and sometimes — particular patterns.
Sometimes we think the intention of mindfulness is to change thoughts – this not the case. Instead, as we become aware of our mind states, we may choose different responses or actions. Through meditation and mindfulness we develop skills that can contribute positively to our lives and to our relationships.
What do I mean by stating that mindfulness can contribute positively to our lives?
Within the last several decades there has been numerous evidence-based research and study in the field of Mindfulness and it shows that Mindfulness:
- Decreases anxiety and depression
- Can literally re-wire the brain and regulate emotional responses
- Provides greater immune responses to illness and even protect against illness and disease.
A pioneer in the field and also the founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) John Kabat-Zinn, defines mindfulness this way:
“Mindfulness is awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. It is one of the many forms of meditation.”
Mindful awareness develops over time. It takes practice and we truly have to experience it to genuinely understand it.
I find defining Mindfulness is a little bit like defining love. We can read how others have defined love and we hear many expressions of love, but until we have experienced it over a period of time, we really don’t know love. [Isn’t that a song?]
Mindfulness takes a certain amount of concentration and clarity. It also takes stability and effort and the willingness and curiosity to explore what is happening in the mind at any given moment.
At the same time, we don’t want to ‘over think’ each thought as it arises. Remember, we are becoming aware of the mind stream, not analyzing it. That is why when we meditate we want to be relaxed and at ease. Meditation or sitting or walking in silence is one way to practice mindfulness and it is a valuable tool to begin a mindfulness practice. We also practice mindfulness in everyday life by being aware of what is happening internally and also outside in our daily experience.
An example of Mindfulness might be . . . when we are encountering a difficult situation and we recognize the pain or anxiety of the moment. Instead of shying away we stay present and patient, we take a moment to investigate and honor what is happening. Through mindfulness we may soften and be kind with ourselves and others, rather than responding defensively or feeling shame.
I like this definition of Mindfulness from Silvia Boorstein:
“Mindfulness is the aware, balanced acceptance of the present experience. It is opening to or receiving the present moment, pleasant or unpleasant, just as it is without either clinging or rejecting it.”
When we use Mindfulness in our daily life is we become acutely aware of what is happening – maybe an angry thought, a fear, a throbbing sensation in our temple or our heart beating fast. Then we remember (through mindful attention) that we are not defined by this anger, fear, or pain. Mindfulness is remembering that we can’t be defined by what we are thinking and feeling, they are just thoughts. We are developing the skill of mindful awareness to aid us in becoming conscious in the very moment that we are thinking and feeling.
I’ve given you two definitions of Mindfulness and here’s my own:
Mindfulness is being aware of the moment and “asking what is happening now?” — in the body, through the senses and in the mind. Mindfulness is paying attention without judgment or wishing things were different. Rather it’s bringing curiosity and acceptance to our experience in this moment and the next.
The real treasure of mindfulness – it is a really gift – it provides us with the opportunity to respond to what is happening rather than to react. We can respond in a way that helps rather than harms ourselves or other people – our intimate partners, friends or people we may not even know.
Mindfulness also leads to developing other qualities of the heart like loving friendliness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity.
Mindfulness is best understood through experiencing it. To best experience and develop mindfulness we use what has historically worked for many years, the practice of sitting in meditation. In a meditation practice we typically use what is called a ‘meditation object’ or focal point. This could be many things – sounds in the room, a mantra, our body or the breath. I suggest practicing with the breath as meditation object, coming back to the breath again and again allows us to be aware and in the present moment.
For my daily practice this is typically what I use. Our breath is always available to us, it is a reliable, dependable focal point. By focusing on the breath we can stay centered and when we drift away – into thinking mind – we can easily come back to the sensations of the breath and back to the present.