Before we discuss answers to some of the more specific questions about mindfulness or meditation practice, it might be a good idea to establish the actual practice itself.
Because if you are not able to do the actual practice correctly, you may end up with more confusion and questions.
Although you may have already read a lot about it, let us start with the basics.
What is mindfulness?
It is actually a very huge question that deserves at least a book in itself. Because mindfulness is a very rich and nuanced notion, if I take the liberty of calling it a notion.
But that shouldn’t deter you at all. Mindfulness is best approached in a staircase fashion. One step at at time.
Mindfulness as a Translation of ‘Smrti’
Thomas William Rhys Davids, a British surveyor in Sri Lanka was the first to translate the Buddhist technical term ‘sati’ (in Pali) or ‘smrti’ (in Sanskrit) by the English word ‘mindfulness’. He never revealed what exactly led him to make that translation.
The common translation of the Sanskrit term ‘smrti’ in the days of his discovery and even today is ‘rememberance, memory, recollection, reminiscence or calling to mind. My mother tongue (Gujarati) a direct derivative of Sanskrit, translates ‘smrti’ to be ‘memory’ or ‘remembrance’.
There are two things to consider.
- The Buddhist technical term ‘smrti’ originated at least about 2500 years ago. Language evolves over time and the way a word is used can change.
- And if you refer to Oxford English Dictionary record about the use of English word ‘mindfulness’ from year 1530, it was translated as ‘the quality of being mindful; memory; intention; attention’.
Popular Mindfulness Definitions
Fast forward to recent times. You find following popular definition.
“A particular way of paying attention in the present moment, on purpose and non judgmentally. “ — Jon Kabat-Zinn
A more elaborate version is:
“A kind of nonelaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness in which each though, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is.” — Bishop et al.
Mindfulness is what arises out of paying attention in this particular fashion. And it is nothing else but awareness. Awareness is something you are intimately familiar with.
When you pay attention to something, you become aware of that. In fact, there is a more technical definition of attention: Awareness stretched towards something.
If I were to summarize mindfulness using one word, it is: Awareness.
Mindfulness Means Awareness.
Lets dig deeper into the definition. As you can see mindfulness definition has 4 factors.
- Mindfulness is about paying attention.
- It is about paying attention in the present moment.
- It is done on purpose. There is intentionality.
- It is done in a non-judgmental fashion.
We will focus on factors 1) and 2). In a separate blog post we will discuss factors 3) and 4).
Mindfulness is paying attention in the present moment. But can you pay attention anywhere other than the present moment?
No, you can’t.
Where else can you pay attention besides present moment?
You can only remember past moments and you can only think or plan about future moments. You can pay attention to the memory about the past moment and you can pay attention to the thoughts about a future moment.
When is it that the memory of a past event or the thinking or planning for a future event takes place? You guessed it right…
Only in the present moment.
You cannot directly pay attention to the past moments or future moments. Because you can’t live in the past or in the future.
You can only pay attention to a moment where you live.
The present moment is the only moment you ever have to live.
This also means, paying attention is same as being in the present moment.
Mindfulness invites you to pay attention or be present.
Whenever you are paying attention or are aware, you are practicing mindfulness.
As you read this, if you are aware of you reading this, you are practicing mindfulness.
- While you sit, if you are aware of you sitting, you are practicing mindfulness.
- While you walk, if you are aware of you walking, you are practicing mindfulness.
- While you eat, if you are aware of you eating, you are practicing mindfulness.
- And on and on..
Anytime, while doing an activity if you are aware of that activity you are practicing mindfulness.
Is that it?
Yes and no. Yes because mindfulness is awareness. It is extremely simple. Nothing complicated about it.
No, because even if mindfulness is simple, it is not easy. Because awareness just doesn’t come naturally to us. It is extremely difficult for us to pay attention. Especially to sustain attention. So moments of mindfulness comes easy, but anything more than that is difficult.
With mindfulness, more often you practice, more helpful it is.
There two ways of practicing mindfulness.
There are informal ways of practicing mindfulness. As mentioned earlier, when you are aware you are practicing mindfulness. That is the informal method.
How can you be more aware? Or how can you get better at mindfulness? That’s where formal meditation practices come into picture.
The ultimate goal of the mindfulness practices is to be more mindful as you go through your daily routine. The formal practices help with this goal.
Mindfulness Can be Cultivated Using Mediation
Some people do not make a distinction between mindfulness and meditation. But I think it is important to make one. As we will see.
What Is Meditation?
Now what is meditation? Meditation comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Bhavana’. Which means cultivation. Cultivation of what? Cultivation of the mind.
The mind is a very complex phenomena. It has many faculties and many attitudes. There are faculties of intellect, memory and attention to name a few. What exactly are we going to cultivate with mediation?
Well, mindfulness is awareness, which is same as paying attention. Hence in the context of developing mindfulness, with meditation you cultivate attentional faculty of your mind.
How do you meditate? You meditate just like you do physical exercise.
Let me ask you a question. How would you build or bulk up a muscle?
- You engage that muscle through either lifting a weight or something else.
- You disengage that muscle.
- You repeat steps 1 & 2.
With meditation we follow exactly same steps.
- You engage your attention.
- Your attention automatically disengages.(Unlike lifting weights!)
- When you notice the attention has disengaged, you repeat step 1.
It is pretty much as if you are building the muscle of attention.
Different Ways of Paying or Engaging Attention
And, how do you engage attention?
There are 7 different ways of paying attention. Actually all sensory channels are viable options for paying attention.
You are familiar with 5 external sensory channels. Sense of
You can pay attention to any of those external sensory channels. On top of those 5 channels, there is a 6th sensory channel of mind states, or thoughts, urges and emotions.
And there are internal sensory channels. Interoception and proprioception. They are also valid options for paying attention. Although just using proprioception by itself may not be very practical way of paying attention. Hence I’m counting total just 1 way of paying attention using external channel.
How can you pay attention using one of the external channels? Let us take vision or sense of seeing as an example.
5 Simple Steps for Meditation
- You pick a visual object. Preferably a small one as the real focus of our visual field is very small.
- You start focusing your eyes on that object.
- You also bring your mind over to that object. Which means you pay attention to the visual object. Because you could also have your eyes watching the object, but your mind somewhere else, thinking about other things. That would not be an engaged attention.
- Your eyes could still be on the object, but at some point in time, your mind will drift away, thinking, visualizing or analyzing something else, without your knowledge. And THIS IS COMPLETELY OKAY!! There is nothing wrong with mind wandering.
- At some point in time, you will notice that… Ah… I’m looking at the visual object of attention but my mind is somewhere else, lost in thoughts. At this point you simply bring yourself back to paying attention to the chosen visual object.
That is meditation. That is your simple routine to develop concentration.
And this was just an example of the visual channel. You can follow exactly same steps while substituting the visual channel for any of the other 6 channels that we talked earlier.
You can replace the visual object with your breath as well. In that case rather than paying attention to the visual object, you pay attention to your breath. We will cover this practice in more details in a separate blog post.
As strange as it may sound, but this formal meditation practice will strengthen your attentional skills and it will make it easier for you to be aware through out the day.
- Mindfulness is derived from Buddhist technical term ‘smrti’ or ‘sati’.
- It means awareness. It could be thought of as ‘memory’ or ‘bearing in mind’ as well.
- You can practice mindfulness informally or formally.
- Whenever you are aware you are practicing mindfulness.
- You can use formal meditative practices to support and reinforce mindfulness.
How do you practice mindfulness? Is it formal, informal or both? Let me know in comments below!