It’s no surprise to me that mindfulness has become a household word in recent years. It is a way of living that is both elegantly simple and exceedingly powerful. When practiced skillfully, it becomes nothing less than transformative. Understanding the concept of mindfulness can be quite confusing though, given the wide variety of definitions and practices that have proliferated with its popularity.
The American Mindfulness Research Association defines mindfulness as, “The state, process, and practice of remembering to observe moment-to-moment experience with openness and without automatic patterns of previously conditioned thoughts, emotions, or behaviors” and says, “Mindfulness can be cultivated through mind-body practices (such as focused attention and open monitoring meditation as well as other intrapsychic and sensory-based practices) that are founded on a discerning mode of awareness that recognizes wholesome and unwholesome states of being.”
We can conceptualize mindfulness as a trait, a skill or a process, but in this post I’d like to explore mindfulness as a practice – a systematic form of mental training. What distinguishes a mindfulness practice from other types of practices that support wellbeing? Wise minds are working hard at figuring this out and I’d love to hear what others have to say about it. My understanding is that any practice can be done mindfully. Its the way in which it is engaged that makes it truly mindful. Let’s explore together some of the elements that seem to be key in practicing mindfulness.
Shinzen Young has operationally defined mindfulness practices as “systematic exercises that elevate a person’s base level of mindful awareness” in which the acquisition and application of attentional skills is a highlight. Part of what makes a practice mindful is that we are deliberately placing, sustaining, and shifting attention rather than letting our minds be pulled this way and that. We are learning to move out of the automatic pilot mode that most people typically exist in. When we unconsciously allow phenomena to direct our attention, getting caught up in our thoughts and emotions rather than observing them, there is little room for choicefulness and wise responding. Practicing mindfulness gives us greater capacity for making choices based on conscious awareness of what we are actually experiencing. Attention, one of the three core components of mindfulness (including intention and attitude) identified by Dr. Shauna Shapiro in her book The Art and Science of Mindfulness, is simply focused awareness.
Mindfulness happens in the present moment – experiencing phenomena in “real time”. When we are caught up in our own stories about the past or speculation about the future, suppressing thoughts and feelings, or reacting reflexively, we are not fully present. But, the moment that we notice we are lost in thought or caught up in emotion is a moment of mindfulness. This kind of objective witnessing of inner experience has been called metacognitive awareness, self-as-context, or decentering. A simplified explanation of this is that we essentially learn to get out of our own way so we can view things unobstructed. Research has revealed evidence of this construct as a potential mechanism that distinguishes mindfulness practice from other stress-management approaches like relaxation training. Being present means being here with what is – not trying to get somewhere else or be something different than we are in this very moment.
A major element in mindfulness practice is the spirit in which it is engaged. There is an emotional regulation component to mindfulness – we are meeting whatever arises with equanimity (calm and balance) rather than with reactivity. As Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD would say, we are paying attention is a special way. He developed a list of the attitudes that help us cultivate mindfulness and that are naturally cultivated when we practice. We often go about life with a sort of closed-mindedness, filled with expectations and preconceived notions, pursuing what we perceive as wanted or pleasant, avoiding what we perceive as unwanted or unpleasant, and ignoring what we perceive as neutral. When practicing mindfulness, our intention is different. We are not trying to get anywhere other than where we already are. We do our best to approach experience with a beginner’s mind, opening to what is arising rather than filtering it through what we think we already know. We invite a willingness, a friendly curiosity, an open-mindedness and a non-judgmental stance toward phenomena. Perhaps most of all, we greet experience with kindness and compassion, allowing things to be as they are and trusting inner knowing to guide the way.
Another important aspect of a mindfulness practice is that over time, it leads to clearer understanding. Attending closely and consistently with balance and stability to moment by moment experience naturally makes us more aware of our own habits and patterns as well as the workings of the world. We are able to gather important data about ourselves and others with less bias. Our observations are more accurate, we understand things more deeply, and we see things more clearly. We realize certain truths about reality through direct experience – that everything is constantly changing, nothing is as personal as we take it to be, and we are all profoundly interconnected. More importantly, we become much more aware of what we don’t know and we begin to accept with humility the inherent ambiguity of living. All of this eventually leads to greater wisdom, which allows us to make better decisions. However, wisdom arises at its own pace, through direct experience, so we cannot force it. The only way to earn it is through patience and devotion to practice.
Given these elements, it can be an interesting exercise to think about whether certain practices we’ve read about or experienced are actually mindfulness practices or something else entirely. We might challenge ourselves to think about how to make various experiences more mindful. How might another type of practice be modified to turn it into a mindfulness practice? I welcome your thoughts in the comments area about these elements and any other important elements a mindfulness practice might include.
Feldman, G, Greeson, J. & Senville, J. (2010). Differential effects of mindful breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and loving kindness meditation on decentering and negative reactions to repetitive thoughts. Behav Res Ther; 48(10): 1002–1011.
Gao, L. et. Al. (2017). Differential Treatment Mechanisms in Mindfulness Meditation and Progressive Muscle Relaxation. Mindfulness; Dec: 1-12.
Contemplative Mind in Life, A Global Collection of Mindfulness and Meditation Research Resources: What is Mindfulness?