What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the “human capacity to become intentionally and non-judgmentally aware of present moment-to-moment experience.” This capacity is innate and universal.
Popular definitions from experts:
Jon Kabat-Zinn: “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally”
Thich Nhat Hanh: "Keeping one’s consciousness alive to the present reality"
Zindel Segal: "A process of regulating attention in order to bring a quality of non-elaborative awareness to current experience and a quality of relating to one’s experience within an orientation of curiosity, experiential openness, and acceptance."
Ellen Langer: “Mindfulness is a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things."
Anti-thesis of Mindfulness: Involuntary Mind Wandering or Mindlessness
Alongside this capacity to be mindful, we human beings also experience the opposite of mindfulness—mind-wandering. It’s during mind wandering that we lose touch of the present moment, when we become mind-less. We tend to think about the past, or the future, get lost in daydreaming, planning or judging.
There’s a large-scale Harvard research that says that the human mind naturally wanders 47% of the time. The same research also says that the “wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010)
When we’re not focused on what we’re currently doing, we get uninvited thoughts. Some of these thoughts are unpleasant and they carry with them equally unpleasant emotions and impulses that can lead to something not really good for us. What is unpleasant tends to stick. When we resist them, they persist. They also layer up with more unpleasant thoughts or feelings in the same way that we can be annoyed that we’re annoyed, guilty that we’re angry, frustrated that we’re unhappy. Uninvited thoughts are powerful and highly influential towards our mood, how we think and how we behave. As Joseph Goldstein says…
It is amazing to observe how much power we give unknowingly to uninvited thoughts: “Do this, say that, remember, plan, obsess, judge.” They have the potential to drive us quite crazy, and they often do!
Mindfulness as a 'way of being'
Mindfulness, most importantly and most accurately, is a way of being. It is not simply a way paying attention or some kind of attention training. While it intrinsically involves training one's attention, it also essentially requires training in attitude. Traditional mindfulness is also known as 'heartfulness' because compassion, openness, curiosity, patience and connectedness are crucial components of its practice.
Scientists also emphasise that as a way of being, the practice of mindfulness utilises a neural network different from what the human brain normally uses (the default mode network). It uses a mode that involves 'being rather than doing,' 'sensing rather than thinking,' and 'non-striving rather than striving.'