When people come to know that I practice and teach mindfulness, quite a number of them would ask me this same question: What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a word that we see everywhere in the media and at our workplaces nowadays. Through reading editorials and articles, we probably have a roughly idea about what it is, although we may not really understand what it encompasses. Many of us define mindfulness as a kind of meditation, but this concept of mindfulness might stop at images of sitting still and quiet in a cross-legged position, attempts to empty the mind, or of other rituals such as prayers and chanting.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the classic 8-Week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program, explains mindfulness as "paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally" (see source). If we tried to understand this definition conceptually, it might be difficult to fathom what this form of paying attention truly means. What do we mean by paying attention on purpose? Why the emphasis of the present moment in mindfulness? What does being non-judgmental have to do with mindfulness?
In this article, I will aim to explain in the simplest way possible the key words and terms used in describing and practicing mindfulness. It is worth noting that experiential practice of mindfulness is much more important for understanding what mindfulness is, than the terms I discuss below.
All of us have awareness. In the broader sense, awareness refers to the capacity of knowing or perceiving events, objects and situations. In mindfulness, we talk about knowing what is happening while it is happening, often referring to one's inner experience.
When someone makes you happy and you smile, you are aware that your face is smiling. When you are angered by another driver rudely cutting into your lane, you are mindfully aware of the grip of your hands tightening on the steering wheel, and the wave of heat rising in your body. You are aware of your own likes and dislikes, the thoughts and voices in your head, your emotions, actions and behaviours.
Awareness is different from reflection - reflection often takes place on hindsight, after something has happened and you're pondering about what had happened. Awareness takes place as the event itself is taking place, i.e. in the present moment.
There is a great emphasis on being present in practicing mindfulness. We cannot be practicing mindfulness if we are not in the present moment. By the present, we mean the here and now - what is going on in your inner experience at this particular moment.
The opposite of the present moment is the past or the future. The mind often carries us to the past to relive (and dwell in) memories, or carries us forward to think about (or worry about) the future. When the mind is engaged in the past or the future, we are no longer in the present moment.
For example, while you are having lunch, you start to worry about the business presentation you are about to give in an hour, or you begin to think about the comments your colleagues had made about your work earlier in the morning. Your mind is caught up about the past or the future, and you have lost the ability to pay attention to the present moment: i.e. the food on your plate, the tastes on your tongue, the way you are eating, etc.
In mindfulness, we are learning to be in the present, moment-by-moment - one moment at a time. We take each moment as it comes - learning to let go of the moments that have passed, and learning not to anticipate the upcoming ones.
Autopilot is the opposite of mindfulness. When we are mindful, we are aware of what is happening and what we are doing. But when we are in autopilot, we are doing something without being aware that we are doing it. For example, when we are driving, our mind shifts to autopilot and does the driving for us without us having to put too much conscious attention into the skill, and before we know it, we have reached our destination quite effortlessly. Autopilot is a function of the mind that allows us to carry out learned habits and skills efficiently, thus freeing the mind to engage in other activities or thoughts.
But when we are in autopilot, we also act out ingrained patterns of the past without knowing it, and some of these patterns are often negative or destructive. For example, when faced with new challenges, the mind automatically retrieves information about past failures and we react with the same cycles of fear and anxiety. Or we might shove unhealthy food down our body simply out of habit, or light a cigarette time and again without being aware of it until we have taken the first puff.
With mindfulness of the present moment, we learn to be aware of our negative patterns and behaviours, thus beginning to break out of our automatic patterns.
Mindfulness is one of the most effective antidotes to stress. When we talk about stress, we are referring not only to the stress itself, but also to the relationship we have with the stressors in our lives. These stressors can be internal or external, but more often than not, it is the stress we feel internally that really affects our health and well-being.
External stress is inevitable in life, and we often add on to the stress by reacting to the stress, such as allowing ourselves to engage in negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours. For example, your boss calls you into his or her office. This may feel a little stressful for you, but you tend to react to this initial (and external) stress by thinking: What does he want from me? Is she unhappy with my performance? And before you know it, these negative thoughts are taking over your mind, and you are ruminating not just about the stress at hand. Everyone in the office is looking at me with sympathy. This is so embarrassing. Why can't I do anything right with this job? What am I doing with my career? What am I doing with my life?
Mindfulness trains the mind to be aware of the stressors as they arrive, and learn to weaken and break out of the negative and automatic cycles of thoughts and emotions. With the practice of mindfulness, we are working on greater acceptance towards stress, without fighting with reactivity or avoidance or running away, thus changing our relationship with stress.
Doing versus Being
The modern pace of life, with its never-ending stream of tasks and communications, as well as roles and responsibilities we have to take on, has us engaging in the mode of doing all the time - we focus on to-do lists and check-lists; we think and plan ahead, we make decisions and problem solve.
Although these types of doing are important in getting us through the day, the doing mind also often gets into the habit of thinking non-stop, and we find that it gets increasingly difficult for the mind to shut off at night when it's time to rest and sleep. The doing mode also encourages the mind to make judgments and appraisals, assess and criticise, speculate and make assumptions, or dwell in what had happened (the past) and worry about what's to come (the future). For example, you might spend the whole night going through your to-do list for the next day over and over again, or get lost in regretting what you had done today at the workplace.
The practice of mindfulness encourages the being mode of the mind, and simply allows us to rest in the present moment instead of getting drowned in the turmoils of the inner mind.
As humans, we tend to be judgmental beings. We like to appraise things, people or events we encounter, deciding whether they are good or bad, beneficial or detrimental, useful or harmful. We have preferences, hoping for pleasant experiences to continue, and avoiding or pushing away unpleasant ones. We often want things to go the way we like, and when they don't, we react. These reactions we have greatly add on to the stress in our lives.
When we practice mindfulness, we simply pay attention to our inner experiences non-judgmentally. We learn to observe things just the way they are, without the adding of judgments, without preference, and without attempting to change the experience. Whatever that arises in the mind, we train the mind not to engage or react, but to simply observe non-judgmentally.
Paying attention is the fundamental practice of mindfulness. We always set an intention to pay attention at the start of each practice. We have learned how to pay attention - without judgment and in the present moment. But what are we paying attention to?
We can pay attention to anything that arises in our inner experience. To practice the foundations of mindfulness, we often start with paying attention to physical sensations of the breath and body. We also learn to pay attention to the physical sensations in movement. These practices help to anchor our attention to the present moment. As we progress along our practice, we learn to also observe the thoughts and emotions that come and go in the mind, without engaging in them.
Through paying attention this way, we acquaint ourselves with the nature of our mind, and over time we learn to concentrate better, increase our self-awareness, manage stress more effectively, shift the neurology of the brain to embrace more positive outlooks, and improve our health as well as emotional and mental well-being.
Do you have more questions about mindfulness, or need further explanation on a mindfulness term you have come across? Leave a comment, or drop Erin a message here or via email!
About The Author
MiMo founder Erin Lee is a Mindfulness Coach and MBSR Teacher at Mindful Moments, and advocate of mindfulness as the way of life. She conducts the classic 8-Week MBSR Program, as well as the 8-Week MBSR Workplace Program.
Are you a mindfulness practitioner and have meaningful experiences or thoughts about mindfulness that you'd like to share? You can contribute an article on the MiMo blog! Please contact Erin to find out more.