Mindfulness: What is It?

The concept of Mindfulness originated thousands of years ago in Buddhism as a means to greater self-awareness by becoming fully aware of what you are experiencing in the present moment. The idea is that when you access the present moment, suffering ends and happiness can arise.

Mindfulness is also a practice of connecting awareness with attention, bringing heightened focus and attention. You observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance rather than becoming immersed in them. You come to be aware that you have two selves-one that's having the experience and one that is witnessing it and is separate from it. First, you allow this witnessing self to emerge in your consciousness. Then, when a sensation or feeling comes, instead of fixating on it-instead of analyzing it and building on it-you simple observe it as it arise.  You catalogue it, as "not worthy of further exploration" or "something to contemplate later to see what I can learn from it," and let it drift out of your awareness.

In the late 1970's and early 1980's Western psychologists adopted mindfulness as way decrease stress and elevate mood without medication-some of themed exploring meditation and deep breathing techniques from Buddhism and yoga in clinical settings. Among them was Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He has written several books on the use of mindfulness for releasing self-judgment and identifying emotional blocks that are worth reading.

Kabat-Zinn offer simple definition of mindfulness, "paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally."

 

Here's some insight into what it means:

"Paying Attention"

To be mindful, you have to pay attention to whatever it is you've chosen to attend to.  A lot of people don't.   How much of the time are you really focusing on what's happening in the present, rather than rehashing the past and worrying about the future?  How often have you automatically acted out habitual responses to the people and circumstances around you?

 

"On Purpose"

It takes a conscious effort to pay attention to what's happening in the present moment. You have to do it on purpose.  Until we develop the habit of it, we're often on "autopilot"-reacting without awareness to what's happening around us.  We don't see that we have a choice about to respond.

 

"In the Present moment"

It's easy to be consumed by the past and future.  Particularly when they're responding to strong emotions, people who aren't focusing on the present moment often react based not on what's happening but on their past experiences.  To be "in the present moment" is to observe events for what they are.  You can cultivate this by gently refocusing your attention to the moment throughout the day.

 

"Non-Judgmentally"

This is a tough one to attain. We tend to react intensely to our experiences-particularly the negative ones.

"What an jerk"  "This is sucks!"  "I hate this!"  "I can stand this any longer!"  How could I do that!"   "Here I go again." Most people are well-acquainted with the many ways we immediately and reflexively judge situations, other people and our own thoughts, feelings and behavior.  It's usually the beginning of chain reaction that only increases judgment and suffering.

"I need..."  "I want..."  "I deserve..." Positive judgments and the cravings they evoke can also be a problem, particularly when they are automatic and intense.  They can make us lose focus, forget what's important, get caught in cycles of addiction, take advantage of others

In contrast, the non-judgmental quality of mindfulness brings great freedom- to see things more clearly, to evaluate situations with distance from our habitual emotional reactions and impulses, to observe emotions and impulses as they arise without either trying to escape them or letting them carry us away.

We've all had at least glimpses of this potential, when we're feeling so positive and relaxed that something which would normally cause strong judgment and negative emotions is seen as no big deal, more clearly for what it is: a passing unwanted experience or temptation to indulge.

But to bring this non-judgmental quality into our daily lives, consistently, even at very stressful times, this is something many of us can hardly imagine. Yet it is possible, by practicing mindfulness (and kindness). And for those who are vulnerable to remembering and reliving painful experiences from the past, to strong waves of emotion, to intense self-criticism-the cultivation of non-judgmental mindfulness can bring tremendous relief and freedom from old patterns.

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