What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is our “capacity to become intentionally and non-judgmentally aware of our present moment-to-moment experience.” This capacity is universal but often under-utilised and underdeveloped. And although we can all become mindful of certain moments during the day, it is hard to prolong the awareness throughout. Hence, the need to bring 'intention' in attending to the moment as well as the necessity to develop or cultivate this human capacity.
Popular definitions from experts:
Thich Nhat Hanh: "Keeping one’s consciousness alive to the present reality"
Jon Kabat-Zinn: “Mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally”
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."
Descriptions of mindfulness
In order to bring other perspectives of mindfulness apart from the technical definitions mentioned, here are descriptions from the same experts and from other renowned mindfulness teachers.
Jon Kabat-Zinn says that “mindfulness practice means that we commit fully in each moment to be present; inviting ourselves to interface with this moment in full awareness, with the intention to embody as best we can an orientation of calmness, mindfulness, and equanimity right here and right now.” He also says it’s to “give yourself permission to allow this moment to be exactly as it is, and allow yourself to be exactly as you are.” And in facing difficulties in life, Jon says that “you can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”
Jack Cornfield, one of the pioneers of mindfulness in the West says “mindfulness meditation is that which uses the process of life itself as the subject, as the focus of the meditation practice, and in that way we will use our breath and body, sounds, the feelings within us, our heart and our mind… all of the stuff of our life as the place of focus.
Dr Rebecca Crane, Director of Bangor Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice says, “Mindfulness is an awareness practice and it’s a relational practice. It’s about relationally connecting with my inner experience through my awareness. And that becomes a way that I can navigate the world and connect with the world.”
From Tara Brach: Mindfulness is a way of paying attention moment-to-moment to what's happening within and around us without judgment. When we attend to the moment-to-moment flow of experience, and recognise what's happening…fully allowing it, not adding judgment or commentary, then we are cultivating a mindful awareness.
Dr Helen Ma, founding teacher of the Hong Kong Centre for Mindfulness says, “mindfulness helps me not to get swept away by my story which induces suffering and it’s very liberating.”
On mindfulness meditation, Pema Chodron says “meditation gives us the opportunity to have an open, compassionate attentiveness to whatever is going on. The meditative space is like the big sky— spacious, vast enough to accommodate anything that arises. It teaches us how to relate to life directly, so we can truly experience the present moment, free from conceptual overlay.”
And lastly, world-leading mindfulness teacher and Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, says, “Mindfulness is the capacity to become aware of what is going on… of what is there. And the object of your mindfulness can be anything. You can look at the sky and then breathing in, you can say, I’m now aware of the blue sky. So you’re mindful of the blue sky. You recognise the blue sky as existing and if you continue the practice, you see that the blue sky is wonderful. And maybe, you have lived 30 years or 40 years but you have not seen or touched the blue sky that deeply.”
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 or getting distracted. 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 inevitably get uninvited thoughts at some point. Some of these thoughts are unpleasant and they carry with them equally unpleasant emotions and impulses that, if we get 'lost in them' or 'react to them,' we can behave in a way that isn't good for us. But it's not just unpleasant thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and impulses that we can be reactive towards. Pleasant ones can also carry with them an emotional charge of 'wanting more' or 'clinging' and neutral experiences can lead us towards spacing out or boredom. Unpleasant, pleasant or neutral, whatever the case may be, we can still react automatically to them instead of skilfully responding to the experience.
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!
To give a practical example, a person obsessed by an email--whether it's pleasant or unpleasant--goes home to the family, unaware of this obsession. As a reaction to the thought of the email, the person can over-think how she should reply. Or maybe, without awareness, react to the bodily sensation of the heart beating faster or the accompanying anxious feeling so much so that she cannot be present to her family at the dinner table. She eats, walks, sits, stands and do things on automatic pilot because of the gripping email capturing her attention. The mind wanders, and she doesn't know that it wanders at that particular moment. And she eventually loses the family time she knows can nourish her after a hard day's work.
Mindfulness is not just about Attention
Mindfulness, most importantly and most accurately, is a 'way of being' accompanied by attitudes that are as important as the act of paying attention. Apart from the attitude of being non-judgmental towards one's experience, mindfulness is also flavoured by the attitudes of openness, appreciation, spaciousness, friendliness, curiosity, kindness, non-striving, patience, compassion
The IAA Model of Mindfulness
A simple but very helpful model by Shauna Shapiro can help clarify the distinct elements of this human capacity. Shapiro describes the interlinked components of Intention, Attention and Attitude. Unless they are all present, the practice can't be considered mindfulness.
Common misconceptions of Mindfulness
Here’s a list of misconceptions that we’ve encountered throughout our years of teaching. We find it important for you to have an understanding of where people are at. Because the reality is, even though mindfulness teachers communicate their technical definitions of mindfulness, sometimes, misconceptions still stick. Maybe it’s because of habit or maybe it’s because the very misconception is their primary motivation in attending a class or a course. Take for example the misconception of mindfulness as relaxation. That’s a sticky one that is really common.
So here's a list of “What mindfulness is NOT.”
Mindfulness is NOT a quick-fix for relaxation - We’ve taught more than 2,000 people across the years, and we’ve come to observe that this is the most common misconception of mindfulness. There are some apps, books and courses out there that can give the impression that a frantic way of life can be cured by mindfulness meditation by giving on-demand relaxation. If you observe what goes on in the mind, you’ll know that sometimes, it gets thoughts, sensations or feelings that MAY actually bring you unease. And if you’re already a meditator, you understand that pleasant, neutral or unpleasant experiences are all passing, all temporary. Mindfulness meditation is not intended to replace whatever is unpleasant with relaxation. Mindfulness Meditation is rather intended to stabilise your attention by repeatedly directing it onto your intended focus. By the regular practice of stabilising your attention, there’s the potential for a certain sense of peace because having stressful thoughts are no longer a big deal. That’s what Pema Chodron would say in a few of her talks... "It’s not a big deal."
Mindfulness is NOT calming music - I can totally understand why there's a proliferation of videos that have the word mindfulness in their title and is all about music that can calm the listener. Again, practising mindfulness may or may not result in relaxation. The point is the noticing of the experience. So the mindfulness in engaging music is not the characteristic or nature of the music itself but the intentional attentiveness to the music by the listener.
Mindfulness is NOT a colouring book for adults - First of all, this is not meant to downplay the benefit of adult colouring books. I know some people who find this very helpful. But I just need to mention this because I’ve encountered people who buy “mindfulness colouring books” who then say they “do mindfulness” because of colouring in. Although colouring with precision involves a form of directing attention it does NOT necessitate mindfulness attitudes that are as important as the act of paying attention. What I mean by this is that you can colour a book while trying hard to do it or constantly judging the way you colour the book. This 'trying hard' and 'constantly judging' don't match the mindfulness attitudes of non-striving and non-judging. You can also colour a book with the goal of getting relaxed because focused attention can be relaxing. While that is a nice goal to achieve, practicing mindfulness does not involve the achievement of goals. So the bottom-line is that while it’s possible to colour a book in a mindful way, it’s also possible to do it without mindfulness.
Mindfulness is NOT a religion - Although we said earlier that mindfulness streams from Eastern wisdom traditions, in itself, it’s not a religion. It is commonly associated with Buddhist psychology but it is not solely Buddhist itself. 2500 years ago, the historical Buddha discovered this inherent human capacity to become non-judgmentally aware in the same way Isaac Newton discovered gravity. Brown and others remark that to say “mindfulness is Buddhist is like saying gravity is Newtonian.” In saying this, if you begin studying to become a mindfulness teacher, it’s necessary to learn both the Buddhist underpinnings of the mindfulness intervention as well as its relationship to modern psychology. In fact, Buddhist psychology is a recommended masterclass if you’re training to facilitate mindfulness-based approaches. Also, to be realistic, you’ll probably encounter Buddhist religious practitioners teaching mindfulness in their own tradition. You can also find mindfulness teachers who don’t necessarily call themselves Buddhist but use Buddhist terms such as the Dharma, Metta, and the like when they run courses. So just be aware that that’s why there’s a perception that mindfulness is either a religion itself. Or that mindfulness is specifically Buddhist. And particularly in the UK, some mindfulness retreats are held in Buddhist centres and to be honest, this can be a turn off to people who practice another belief system or to people who are just not interested in Buddhism, especially when they see statues and figures not compatible with their own religious or world views. In my opinion, it’s best to briefly honour the Buddhist roots of MBSR and then really focus on the science and experience of it. It’s also good to use inclusive language when you’re teaching.
Mindfulness is NOT necessarily a practice of meditation - Besides meditation, you can also cultivate mindfulness through informal practice. Mindful walking and mindful eating, for example, are informal practices of mindfulness because you pay attention to them as you do them moment-by-moment. They become a vehicle towards mindfulness when you’re able to shift from what scientists call, the “doing mode of mind” to the “being mode of mind.” In the being mode of mind, you sense the movement, you sense the eating, in a non-striving and embodied way—instead of being swept away by whatever your mind wanders to. Just a pre-caution though… some mindfulness teachers consider these mindfulness activities meditations too. But what they actually mean is that these activities are done with awareness. They’re similar to / but not the same as / the formal sitting or lying down meditation. And as mentioned earlier, there’s also a possibility to become more aware of your self and your experience in ways other than meditation—through counselling, coaching and non-judgmental feedback, art and music. Also to reiterate, DBT or dialectical behavioural therapy involves mindfulness exercises. But they’re not meditation.
Mindfulness is NOT emptying the mind - You might have heard that some people practice mindfulness because they want to empty their minds. They say they do mindfulness meditation because it helps them get rid of clutter in their head or because they want to silence the mind’s overthinking. Mindfulness is not meant to empty or silence the mind. Our mind naturally wanders. As human beings, we are hired-wired to plan, think, daydream, judge, ruminate over the past or worry about the future. So it’s impossible to empty the mind as a goal. In fact, a Harvard study by Matthew Killingsworth and Dan Gilbert showed that mind-wandering is a universal human phenomenon. The human mind naturally wanders 47% of the time during our general waking hours and 50% of the time during work. So even though you muster all your strength to empty your mind for a set period of time, you’ll eventually find it attending to some thought or even getting captured unaware by a thought or an emotion. The sad thing about the misconception that mindfulness is about emptying the mind is that people who try practising it with the expectation of instant relief from overthinking will eventually find the mindfulness practice incapable of achieving this goal. If you have a human mind, it will naturally wander. It can’t be emptied. And the sooner you realise this by experience the sooner you’ll learn that mind-wandering is NOT a mistake. It’s OK. And there’s no need to be harsh on yourself when you can’t empty your mind.
Mindfulness is NOT a panacea - There are backlash and criticism of mindfulness seen as a cure-all intervention. Here, we have to be careful about claims on what it can and can’t do. In recent years, the media and poorly designed studies were criticised for the hype around mindfulness. We are still in the early stages of the science behind the benefits of mindfulness. So far, we know though that long-term, consistent meditation does seem to increase resiliency to stress. Mindfulness meditation almost certainly sharpens people’s attention. Mindfulness does seem to improve mental health—but not necessarily more effective than other interventions or things people can do to help themselves. Mindfulness also has some impact on physical health. The variety of experiments on problems it can solve give rise to the idea that it can be a panacea. It’s not. Be cautious then on what to believe. And to be safe, always resort to peer-reviewed papers from reputable scientific journals.
Mindfulness is NOT intended to be a pleasant experience - This doesn’t mean that people won’t have a pleasant experience when they try a mindfulness practice. They generally do, especially at the start. This is to say though that mindfulness is intended to notice whatever the experience is, to be fully with it and open up to it—whether it’s pleasant, neutral or unpleasant. When the experience is unpleasant or uncomfortable—say there’s physical pain or sad thoughts that the person doesn’t like—that’s usually an opportunity for learning. That’s the time to see clearly what’s going on. That’s the chance to choose a skilful response to what’s difficult instead of just habitually reacting to it the way we always do.
Mindfulness is NOT yoga in itself - It’s understandable that there’s a misconception that yoga itself is a mindfulness practice. You can go to a yoga studio and copy the poses that the instructor wants you to do and by the end, you’ll be asked to lie down, relax, and be aware of your body breathing. So it can be confusing if we say that yoga itself isn’t mindfulness. First, it’s important to note that Jon Kabat-Zinn calls the yoga that’s in MBSR “mindful yoga.” This means that mindfulness isn’t necessarily cultivated by perfecting the yoga poses. Mindfulness is about noticing the body as it moves moment-by-moment without judging the movement as perfect or not. So it’s really about the quality of awareness, about the noticing, and not the yoga poses themselves. In fact, there’s a possibility of mindfulness even though you can’t do the yoga pose you’re required to do. There’s also the equal possibility of not being mindful if the movement is harsh, striving, and primarily oriented towards the goal of achieving the pose. The bottom-line is, yoga can be done mindfully or with awareness. But not all ways of doing yoga is necessarily mindful.
Mindfulness is NOT the breathing exercises themselves - Just like mindfulness isn’t yoga, mindfulness also is NOT exercises in breathing. It’s the noticing of the breathing that is mindfulness.
Mindfulness is NOT passivity - Mindfulness is actually the opposite of passivity. It’s active and deliberate. It may or may not require movement but the fact that there’s intentionality in taking notice of experience, attention is active. It’s understandable that some people can see mindfulness as passivity because it involves a lot of sitting in silence and sometimes, lying down in silence too. That’s similar to chilling out and doing absolutely nothing. The difference is that in chilling and doing nothing, attention isn’t directed anywhere in particular. There’s a big possibility of the mind getting captured by random thoughts. This means that “intentionally being present” doesn’t happen. When the mind wanders, that’s when we’re passive because we just let our attention get carried away, brought anywhere without our consent. On the contrary, when we deliberately pay attention to something, that’s when we’re active.
Mindfulness as a practice is NOT for everyone - There are many ways to reduce stress—be it exercise, healthy eating, building relationships, expressing emotions through dancing, singing, and other forms of art, etc. Each person will have to choose what’s right for her or him in a specific context and time. Mindfulness is intended to be invitational, not mandated, and never forced. In fact, if you’ve started training to teach mindfulness according to best practice, you would have been taught to carry out a pre-course interview with a potential participant. This interview is meant to understand if mindfulness is right for the person and if this is the right time for the person to engage with it.