What is mindfulness? I know, just live in the moment, etc.

September 22, 2018

Maybe you’ve seen mindfulness popping up more and more in your news feed. Maybe you’ve heard your friends implanting the word into their everyday vernacular as if its always been there. You may have even seen it featured in TIME magazine. You may have an idea that it means being present...but there has to be more to it than that, right? Right. I do find it interesting that there is not a universally agreed upon definition of mindfulness. Probably because it is meant to be directly experienced through one’s own body, mind, and sense faculties. Since everyone’s direct experience does and will vary, a dictionary definition is really just a sign post pointing toward an embodied experience of mindfulness. Yet, we all must start somewhere. 


The founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Jon Kabat-Zinn, offers a simple, yet powerful definition: mindfulness is the awareness that arises from paying attention on purpose in the present moment non-judgmentally. I feel this is a great entry-way into understanding mindfulness; however, to get a little deeper let’s...dig a little deeper.


Mindfulness practices are ways of strengthening and stabilizing our mind by increasing its ability to sustain moment-to-moment awareness, a kind of stamina we can build from simply paying attention. Paying attention to what? Good question. A formal sitting meditation practice can include almost any object of attention - a rock, a candle flame, our own image in the mirror. Though, a very common and foundational place to begin is our breath, along with the ebb and flow of physical sensations we feel in the body as we breathe. Then when our attention inevitably strays from our object of attention, we simply notice that our mind has wandered, then gently bring it back to our breath. However, mindfulness isn't just sitting for 20 minutes a day watching our boring old breath. Mindfulness is really a broad term for how to live one's life with kindness, compassion, and a strong conviction to gain insight into the nature of reality. But before getting too heavy into the nature of reality, let’s first define the ever-elusive, PRESENT MOMENT.   


As one MBSR teacher writes, One way of thinking of this life is that it's all happening in this moment. In this very moment. And if we are lost in some other moment, we are very literally missing our life. Seems simple enough. But it's actually really, really hard to live in this very moment. Let's try it...Look around you. Notice the light and colors. Take a moment to listen to sounds, whether near, far, clear, or faint. Feel your body, your toes, and the delicate way your clothes comfort your skin. Smells and tastes might be easy for you to notice as well, but if not, I'm guessing you hold that capacity. Finally, take a minute or two to notice thoughts or feelings present inside you at the moment. Whether its internal dialogue or a subtle feeling of anxiety because you're reading this and it's passed your bed time. Whatever you're experiencing, either through your senses (seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling, and tasting) or within your own mind, THIS is your present moment experience! THIS IS YOUR LIFE! Not (a thought about) what happened yesterday; not what you THINK is going to happen tomorrow, but right now! 


Not only does mindfulness give rise to our awareness of the present moment, it also shifts our relationship with the moment - whether this relationship is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. If we can experience each moment as it is, in a kind and non-judgmental way, consider the possibilities this could unlock. We are giving ourselves permission to NOT runaway from our moment-to-moment experience, our life. For how can we truly uncover our best self if we are not open to experiencing the totality of our life - the good, the bad, and the...you get the idea?! One of my favorite meditation teachers, Ethan Nichtern, says: Mindfulness teaches us that feelings don’t exist to be satisfied; they exist to be FELT. To really own the willingness to experience any emotion that arises - pleasant or unpleasant -  is a bold act of courage and bravery. A response I sometimes hear to this (and a valid one) is, Well, why would I want to experience my unpleasant experiences? Simply put, because life is full of these experiences! We actually suffer more by mindlessly and habitually trying to run away from them. There is a great deal of information and wisdom in painful moments. This aversion to our present moment experience (along with the opposite, a strong clinging to what is here right now) are key ingredients to producing dissatisfaction, struggle, and suffering. 


So, can we just feel what's happening right now, without adding commentary, without chasing tantalizing thoughts or storylines, without judging, without trying to ignore it, without striving to make it last longer, without reacting out of mindless habit, but just FEELING the texture of what’s happening right now, the only time that we’re actually alive? Yes...the answer is an emphatic yes! BUT...From Adam to Zacharia, everyone's attention wanders off, or is stolen from a car that just cut us off, or is commandeered by our fluctuating expectations of tomorrow's exam. But that's okay, that's what what our minds do. The good news is we have the ability to consciously bring ourselves back to right now. And if you missed the moment, that's okay...


there's always this moment...


and this one...




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