What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness for Beginners by Jon Kabat-Zinn. My own definition of mindfulness is very simple:
Mindfulness is the gentle effort to be continuously present with experience.
But I like Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness:
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way;
in the present moment, and
Kabat-Zinn, if you haven’t heard of him, is a famous teacher of mindfulness meditation and the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.
Paying attention “on purpose”
First of all, mindfulness involves paying attention “on purpose”. Mindfulness involves a conscious direction of our awareness. We sometimes (me included) talk about “mindfulness” and “awareness” as if they were interchangeable terms, but that’s not a good habit to get into. I may be aware I’m irritable, but that wouldn’t mean I was being mindful of my irritability. In order to be mindful I have to be purposefully aware of myself, not just vaguely and habitually aware. Knowing that you are eating is not the same as eating mindfully.
Let’s take that example of eating and look at it a bit further. When we are purposefully aware of eating, we are consciously being aware of the process of eating. We’re deliberately noticing the sensations and our responses to those sensations. We’re noticing the mind wandering, and when it does wander we purposefully bring our attention back.
When we’re eating unmindfully we may in theory be aware of what we’re doing, but we’re probably thinking about a hundred and one other things at the same time, and we may also be watching TV, talking, or reading — or even all three! So a very small part of our awareness is absorbed with eating, and we may be only barely aware of the physical sensations and even less aware of our thoughts and emotions.
Because we’re only dimly aware of our thoughts, they wander in an unrestricted way. There’s no conscious attempt to bring our attention back to our eating. There’s no purposefulness.
This purposefulness is a very important part of mindfulness. Having the purpose of staying with our experience, whether that’s the breath, or a particular emotion, or something as simple as eating, means that we are actively shaping the mind.
Paying attention “in the present moment”
Guided Mindfulness Meditation. A Complete Guided Mindfulness Meditation Program from Jon Kabat-Zinn
Left to itself the mind wanders through all kinds of thoughts — including thoughts expressing anger, craving, depression, revenge, self-pity, etc. As we indulge in these kinds of thoughts we reinforce those emotions in our hearts and cause ourselves to suffer. Mostly these thoughts are about the past or future. The past no longer exists. The future is just a fantasy until it happens. The one moment we actually can experience — the present moment — is the one we seem most to avoid.
So in mindfulness we’re concerned with noticing what’s going on right now. That doesn’t mean we can no longer think about the past or future, but when we do so we do so mindfully, so that we’re aware that right now we’re thinking about the past or future.
However in meditation, we are concerned with what’s arising in the present moment. When thoughts about the past or future take us away from our present moment experience and we “space out” we try to notice this and just come back to now.
By purposefully directing our awareness
away from such thoughts and towards the “anchor” or our present moment experience, we decrease their effect on our lives and we create instead a space of freedom where calmness and contentment can grow.
Paying attention “non-judgmentally”
Mindfulness Meditations for Teens. by Bodhipaksa Mindfulness is an emotionally non-reactive state. We don’t judge that this experience is good and that one is bad. Or if we do make those judgements we simply notice them and let go of them. We don’t get upset because we’re experiencing something we don’t want to be experiencing or because we’re not experiencing what we would rather be experiencing. We simply accept whatever arises. We observe it mindfully. We notice it arising, passing through us, and ceasing to exist.
Whether it’s a pleasant experience or a painful experience we treat it the same way.
Cognitively, mindfulness is aware that certain experiences are pleasant and some are unpleasant, but on an emotional level we simply don’t react. We call this “equanimity” — stillness and balance of mind.
Time: January 3, 2009, 5:14 pm
[…] think mindfulness is going to take a lot of re-training for my brain. Author Jon Kabat-Zinn says “Mindfulness […]
Greetings from London and thank you for an inspiring site!
This might sound an odd question, but I wondered whether you might have any suggestions as to how to deal with what the Germans call an ‘ear-worm’, that is a catchy tune that you can’t get out of your head – worst of all, an advertising jingle? For me, it’s much harder to shift focus away from this ‘inner tune’ than it is from words – perhaps because there’s a tune to fit most rhythmic activities, from walking to counting breaths…
Time: April 13, 2009, 11:54 am
I find the best way to deal with a tune that’s stuck in my head is to listen very carefully to what’s going on around me. I find it’s impossible to be 100% attentive to external sounds and also to generate internal sounds. When the music reappears, this acts as a mindfulness bell, reminding me that I’m no longer paying attention to the sounds around me.
Sometimes as well, however, there’s some message encoded in the lyrics or title of the song. When this happens it’s as if I’m trying to tell myself something. So sometimes it’s worth reflecting on the content.
thank you for your speedy reply – I look forward to experimenting with your suggestions! best wishes, Ruth
I was injured 6 years ago in a logging accident through my rehabilitation process I have discovered mindfulness. As mindfulness is still new to me I have however discovered how to pace my daily activities to aleviate much of my pain with the help of breathing and time management. I for some reason have an ability to minimize my pain in virtually seconds by being mindfull with the help of breathing. If I am able to kill my pain in seconds with my breath is there not a way to learn how to heal sickness or some injuries with mindfulness and breath with the help of the brain as an instrumental tool in this process.
So to the extent that we learn to accept and understand the greater powers of nature, and live by its rules, mindfulness is definitely a great helper in the healing process. But I hope you see that we can’t bend the laws of nature beyond their original design!