Monday, August 17, 2009

What is Mindfulness?

I have used the terms "mindful" and "mindfulness" quite often when describing the unified state of "body-being", the Oneness of mind and body, but it never occurred to me until now that some people may not understand what it means. Meditation is central to my Path with Heart whether it be in a seated form, a moving meditation like Tai Chi, or expanding this state of being into every-day tasks and situations. Because all forms of meditation or body-being integrity require mindfulness, here is an in-depth explanation of this state of being by an expert in the mind-body-environment relationship, Jim Hopper, a Harvard Ph.D. in Psychology. This is just an introduction so there is much more useful information on mindfulness that I will add at a later date. Enjoy!


Psychologist and mindfulness meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn has simply defined mindfulness in this way:

"paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally."

This sounds simple, but mindfulness is a skill that takes practice to cultivate and maintain. Why? Let's consider the different parts of the definition...

  • "Paying attention"
    • How much of the time are you really paying attention to what's happening in your life – as opposed to thinking about something else, remembering things, imagining possible futures, and acting out habitual patterns or, more accurately, reacting to people and situations based on old habits of perceiving, thinking, feeling, and behaving?
    • Paying conscious attention can be especially hard when a current interaction reminds us of past hurts or betrayals – and before even realizing it, we can automatically and defensively responded as if those old experiences were happening again.
    • All of us have our habitual patterns, our vulnerabilities to automatic reactions based on past experiences of hurt, our "buttons" that can get "pushed." This is particularly true when we are already stressed and/or in a hurry. Truly paying attention in our lives is a challenge for anyone.

  • "On purpose"
    • It takes a conscious decision, and effort by one's mind and brain, to pay attention to what's happening in the present. In fact, such choices and efforts are required over and over again, since we are continually pulled back into habitual ways of processing information and responding to things.
    • Too often we're on "auto pilot," not even trying to pay attention to what's actually happening in the unique situations and interactions that make up our lives.

  • "In the present moment"
    • Most of us, most of the time, are absorbed in memories of the past or visions and plans for the future.
    • For most people, it is rare to be aware, without some amount of distraction or multi-tasking, of what is actually occurring in the present moment.
    • Particularly when strong emotions arise, people often respond not to situations as they are, but to reactive perceptions and thoughts based on painful experiences in the past. In the most extreme instances, one may not be "here" in the present, but "back there," reliving the past through responses to present situations.

  • "Non-judgmentally"
    • This is one of the hardest things to achieve. We so often react intensely to our experiences, particularly unwanted experiences, and to our initial responses to them.
    • "This is horrible!" "What an idiot!" "How could I do that?!" "I can't take this any more!" "Here I go again." You know the ways you can instantaneously and automatically judge situations, other people, and your own thoughts, feelings and behaviors – often in a chain reaction of increasing judgment and distress.
    • "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. We can lose our focus, forget what's important, get caught in cycles of addiction, selfishly take advantage of others, etc.
    • In contrast, the non-judgmental quality of mindfulness brings great freedom – to see things more clearly, to evaluate situations with some 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 all have at least glimpses of this potential, when we are 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. One must be prepared, though, to be able to relax this flow of emotions if they become become overwhelming.*

In addition to defining what mindfulness is, it's important to define what it is not. Here are two common misconceptions:

  • Paying attention mindfully is not about detaching from your experience and failing to emotionally engage with your life. It does not cause apathy. It does not kill passion. In fact, mindfulness allows one to engage more fully with one's emotions and other experiences, rather than simply reacting to them with habitual patterns of avoidance or acting out.
    • For positive emotions, this means having more access to them and greater ability to put them into beneficial action.
    • For negative emotions, such direct and open engagement is a foundation for making them more manageable, a protection against attempting immediate escape or impulsively acting out.
  • Non-judgmental awareness is not the same as passively accepting whatever happens, including harmful things. It does not mean failing to evaluate whether others' actions or your own are harmful, or failing to protect yourself from victimization, or failing to prevent yourself from causing harm. Quite the opposite: non-judgmental mindfulness enables one to respond to such situations from awareness and thoughtfulness rather than habit, over-reaction, compulsion, addiction, etc.

* I will post another entry soon pertaining to this situation.

"The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds. In other words, be mindful."

~ RD Laing

"When living mindfully we define our own success, live in the moment and open our Self up to the abundance we deserve. Uncertainty is removed as we choose our own definitions and free our Self from the cultural confines placed upon us. The practitioner is then free to realize individual success beyond expectation..."

~ Jodi Williams, The International Centre for Mindful Existence

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