Mindfulness is getting a lot of hype in the news and media these days. Sometimes it almost feels like it’s just become the next trendy thing, with people promoting it without truly understanding what it is. However, this is a trend that I think is actually worth your attention — so what’s the hype all about?
Mindfulness is not some mystical or mysterious experience. And although it comes out of the Buddhist tradition, it is not inherently a spiritual or religious practice (although it can certainly be integrated into such practices).
So what is mindfulness?
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
— Jon Kabat-Zinn
Mindfulness is the intentional practice of being fully present, grounded in the here-and-now, and taking a non-judgmental, compassionate attitude toward our experience, whatever it may be. Or, as Jon Kabat-Zinn — founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center and author of a number of books on this subject — has described it: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”1
Let’s take a closer look at each part of this definition:
1. Mindfulness is paying attention.
Have you ever noticed how you can start to eat one of your favorite foods, take a few bites, and then suddenly realize it’s all gone? Or maybe that you drive somewhere, only to realize that you have no memory of the journey because you were thinking about your to-do list? I know I have. These are examples of what we might call “mindlessness” (a.k.a. “going on autopilot”) — the opposite of mindfulness. We’ve all been there.
If you’re like most people, you probably spend most of your time thinking about either the past or the future. You may worry about what you need to do tomorrow or next week, or you try to anticipate all the possible ways something might go in an attempt to prepare yourself for some future, hypothetical outcome. Or you might ruminate about the past, thinking about what you should have done differently or regretting how things have turned out. When it comes down to it, most of us actually spend very little time living in the present moment.
Of course, it can be helpful to plan for the future, and it can be equally helpful to reflect on the past in order to learn from it. But it is also important to be aware of these processes so that we can be intentional — that is, we can make a choice — as to where we want to direct our attention in any given moment. Which leads us into the next part of the definition.
2. Mindfulness is paying attention on purpose.
We might be pulled suddenly back into the present moment by a stunning sunset or a beautiful symphony. Most of us have probably had these moments that seem to happen almost by accident — without our conscious control — where suddenly all the background chatter in our minds quiets down, and the present moment seems to come into clearer focus. We feel more awake or alive — more aware. Maybe these moments seemed to come out of nowhere, to catch us by surprise.
Many people use the words “mindfulness” and “awareness” interchangeably, but there is actually an important distinction: intentionality. Awareness can be intentional or not. Mindfulness, on the other hand, involves actively choosing to be aware — that is, cultivating awareness consciously and on purpose, not waiting for it to find us or depending on external events to bring us back.
This “on purpose” part requires effort. However, this should be gentle effort, not forcing anything to be other than what it is. We often use the metaphor that practicing mindfulness is like training a beloved puppy to “stay”: the puppy (your mind) may wander off, but you gently guide it back. It will surely wander off again (that’s what puppies — and minds — do!) and again you gently but persistently bring it back. We need to be kind to ourselves. In other words: don’t hit or yell at your puppy (or your mind). Not only would that be mean, but it also doesn’t work very well. If your experience in the moment is of struggling to be present, then just be aware of that. There’s no need to force anything.
3. Mindfulness is paying attention in the present moment.
We’ve already touched on this a bit, but mindfulness is about bringing our awareness to the present moment, the here-and-now rather than the there-and-then. It can mean being aware of how we’re feeling in the present moment about something that has happened in the past (or that might happen in the future), but there is an awareness of where our mind is focused and how we are feeling about it. When we think about the past or the future, we are aware that we are thinking about the past or the future. We are aware of the feelings this brings up for us, and we can choose how we want to respond — or if we want to shift our attention elsewhere.
Often, when we bring our awareness to the present moment, we find that things slow down a bit and we can create some of space for ourselves, a bit of calm in the midst of the storm of thoughts and emotions or of daily life. We can also be more intentional in how we want to respond to whatever we are experiencing, and this can have all sorts of positive impacts (for instance, in our relationships).
4. Mindfulness is paying attention non-judgmentally.
This non-judgmental part is very important! Often, when we pay attention to our experiences, thoughts, or feelings, we are very critical of them. We notice ourselves feeling sad or frustrated or angry, and we tell ourselves, “I shouldn’t feel this way.” Or we label our feelings: “This is bad.” We immediately want the feeling or experience to stop, so we try to fight or resist it. Or we get attached to it: “What a wonderful feeling!” and then, “I have to figure out how to make it continue, to get more of it!”
Unfortunately, somewhat paradoxically, the harder we try to resist or hold on to a particular feeling, the more out of control we feel. If it’s an unpleasant feeling, now we’re not only feeling that original feeling but all of the harsh criticism that follows, which makes us feel even worse. And if it’s a pleasant one, then we’re spiraling down a loop of thoughts — fears of losing the feeling, plans for how to maintain it — that take us away from the very experience we want to hold on to.
If instead of judging or trying to control our experience, we can simply be aware of them — whether it be the experience of washing dishes or the experience of a strong emotion like anger or grief — we often find that we can relate to these experiences differently. They are still be there, but they don’t have the same power over us. We don’t need to tighten ourselves in resistance. And if they’re pleasant, we can experience and appreciate them even more fully if we just allow ourselves to be with them.
Ready to give it a try?
Practicing mindfulness is not very complicated, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy: it takes practice. In some ways, it can be almost deceptively simple, and many people get stuck thinking that there should be “more to it” or that they’re not doing it “right” (hmmm, there’s that judgment again).
If we use a metaphor of physical or athletic training, we can think of mindfulness practice like going to the gym and lifting weights to strengthen our muscles so that they’re ready when we need them in a big, important game. If we don’t practice in low-pressure situations like practice-time, those muscles won’t be there at game-time when we really need them.
Let’s start out with something simple. Think of an activity you do every day that is relatively mundane and has some physical sensations associated with it that you can use as an anchor for your attention — something like taking a shower or washing the dishes. Make the intention of doing this activity mindfully each day this week. Then, while you’re doing it, tune in to all of your senses — the sensation of the water running over your skin, the smell of the soap — whatever they might be. Just be aware. So if you’re massaging lotion onto your hands, just massage the lotion onto your hands. Really feel it. If you’re sweeping the floor, just sweep the floor.
I can guarantee that while you’re doing this, your mind will wander (remember the puppy?). Just try to be aware of this when it happens, and gently bring it back to the present moment. If you want, you can make a mental note to yourself: “My mind wandered.” You can also make note of where it went: “I was thinking about what I have to do later today,” or “I’m wondering why I’m doing this silly activity and whether it will ever actually help me.” And then you can bring it back. Simple as that.
You can do that as many times as you notice your mind wandering. And the good news is that each time you practice bringing it back, you’re strengthening that muscle. So each time your mind wanders, it provides you with a wonderful opportunity to practice even more — all the more reason not to get frustrated with yourself when this happens.
Remember: be patient with yourself. This is an experiment and a process. It’s unlikely that you’ll have a truly transformative experience the first time you practice, but the more you practice in simple, everyday moments, the stronger that muscle will be when you really need it.
If you’d like, feel free to share about your experiences in the comments below or ask any questions you might have about mindfulness. What did you notice when you tried to practice? What may have been difficult or frustrating? Did you notice the judgment coming up? I would love to hear from you!
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