Is Mindfulness Just Being Present?
It has often been said that mindfulness means awareness.
Mindfulness = Awareness
Awareness is same as paying attention. A technical definition of attention is ‘awareness stretched outwards and onto the object’.
Mindfulness = Awareness = Paying Attention
Where else can you pay attention besides present moment? No where. You can recall past and you can think about the future, but all of that thinking or recalling has to happen in the present moment.
Mindfulness = Awareness = Paying Attention In the Present Moment = Being Present
For a beginner it is skillful to equate mindfulness with awareness or being present.
But is that all?
Mindfulness has a very rich and nuanced meaning.
It is not just the customary ‘being present’.
At this point it may be worth investigating what it really means to be present or pay attention in the present.
Typically, you relate being present with not thinking about the future or not thinking or remembering the past.
If that is your definition of being present, mindfulness is not just that. It is more than that.
In a sense that is not an accurate characterization of being present either.
If that were the case, most of the animals would be mindful. Although it is hard to verify, they don’t seem to be remembering the past or thinking about the future so much.
Take the example of your favorite pet dog. Especially take Springer Spaniel or black Lab.
They are very playful, lively animals. They always seem to be in the present and having a great time. But are they mindful?
No, they are not. Because although they seem present all the time, they are continuously being let around by their senses, instincts and desires. Especially their nose.
This is one of those hard things to verify but they do not seem to have the ability to know what is happening as it is happening.
To help make sense of all of this, mindfulness can be thought of as a mind state. To understand it better, let’s look at the nature of mind
Different States of Mind
Your mind has three possible states:
- Lost state
- Present or Paying attention state
- Knowing state
Let me elaborate further what they are
You often identify this state as ‘lost in thoughts’ state. The signature characteristic of this state is that you are not present. You are not paying attention to the external or internal senses, but you are paying attention to what is happening in your mind without realizing.
You are busy thinking, but while doing so, you do not know that you are busy thinking. That is the hallmark of this state.
You completely identify with the thoughts.
In the lost state you are not necessarily always thinking, although for a majority of the time some type of thinking is usually present.
You could also be lost in an emotional reaction.
Something happens and you react by getting angry. You can easily get under the strong grips of the angry feelings.
Usually thoughts are also present when you feel a strong emotion. But mainly you are swept away by the emotional feelings. In this case anger and you may not realize at all for a while that you are having such strong emotional feelings.
A few examples:
Your spouse is telling you something and you are thinking about your work deadline tomorrow and how you are going to make sure you meet your deadline.
You are lost in thoughts and you don’t register a word your spouse says.
You walk from your door to your car on the side of the road, but you are thinking what your spouse or your boss said earlier, “He doesn’t get it.” or “He is a total idiot.” You don’t realize that you are walking up to your car.
When you are lost in thoughts what happens to you is dictated by your thoughts.
If you get catastrophic or the worst case scenario thoughts. You will get anxious and worried.
If you get pleasant thoughts you may feel pleasant.
You spend much more time in this state than you may realize. At least more than 50% of your time is spent lost in thoughts while you are awake.
And you spend so much time in this mode, it becomes the second nature and you do not even realize that you are thinking.
Your mind is normally completely buzzing with all types of thoughts, without the slightest of your knowledge.
Present or Paying Attention State
In this state, you are not lost in thoughts or reactions. You are not lost in thoughts about past or thoughts about the future.
You are not lost in some random, day dreaming or visualizations.
You are present with what is happening. You are paying attention.
Your spouse is saying something you are totally listening.
You are watching a football game and you are totally into the game and paying attention to what is going on in the game.
You are playing your favorite sport and you are sharply focused on what is going on in the game. Watching the ball sharply and planning your return and executing it.
If you are taking a swing in golf, you are focused on estimating the and executing your stroke.
If you are gardening, you are completely focused on loosening the soil, clipping the twigs, watering the plants. You are completely there with the activity. You are not thinking about other things while doing the activity.
Sometimes this state is referred to as ‘flow’ or being in the ‘zone’.
You may have been equating this state with mindfulness. You can be in the ‘flow’ and not be mindful.
Being completely present with the environment or the activity is not mindfulness in itself.
You may disagree. And I would encourage you to voice yourself in the comment.
It will become more clear when you go through the third state, why just being present is not same as mindfulness.
Being present can be beneficial compared to being lost.
There are two sub categories in the present state.
- Being present with activities.
- Being present with thoughts.
Being Present with Activities
Let’s first take the case of activities.
When you are present with activities, you are fully focused. Being fully focused means you can be more efficient and productive with the activity.
At work you are trying to finish a task. If you keep getting lost in thoughts about what will happen at the meeting tomorrow, what will happen when you go back to work, you can’t focus on work and your work will suffer.
In tennis, you are trying to return, but you are worried about losing and your performance. That will prevent you from clearly seeing the ball and articulating a better return.
If you are present with the activity, you can perform better at that activity.
This is still not mindfulness. It is just being more efficient or better.
Now let’s take the case of thoughts.
Being Present with Thoughts
You can either be lost in thoughts, where you don’t know that thinking is happening. Or you can be present with thoughts. That is when you are aware of the thoughts.
When you are lost you are at the mercy of your thoughts.
When lost, what happens to you is dictated by your thoughts. But when you are present, you are not at the mercy of your thoughts.
When you are present, you can still have thoughts. Being present doesn’t mean no thinking.
But when you are present, you are also paying attention to your thoughts. Or in other words you are aware of the thoughts. You know that thinking is happening.
This knowing is very crucial for mindfulness. It is the key.
Knowing that you are thinking or thoughts are crossing your mind, while you are thinking, you are getting closer to being mindful.
This sets the stage for the last mind state. The mind state of knowing.
But before we go there, let me clarify one point about being present with thinking.
Being present with thoughts doesn’t mean thoughts will not affect you. When you notice thoughts, they may still give you worry, anxiety or euphoria.
But when you are not lost in thoughts, and when you know that thinking is going on, it can help you realize that thoughts are not facts.
Thoughts are not reality. They are just thoughts. And what is a thought?
Ask yourself that question, next time you notice a thought. “What is a thought?”
Thoughts are a subtle energy and in of itself, nothing more than just a tiny blip. But they govern your whole life. Much more than you may realize.
Being present with thoughts, may help you realize the true nature of thoughts and not identify with them so much.
Now let’s talk about the last state.
As the name suggests, you know what is going on in this state.
If you are involved in an activity, you know that you are involved in that activity. Which is nothing else but awareness.
If you are involved in thinking, you know that thinking is going on. There is awareness of thinking.
Not only that. For each instance of experience, for everything that you:
The mind reacts with a certain attitude, label, category or judgment.
The mind’s attitude is also present in each moment.
Mindfulness invites you to to know this mind’s reaction or the attitude as well.
When you are present with what is going on and you know what is going on including your mind’s reaction to what is going on you are mindful.
Let us take an example and compare all three states.
Say you are playing tennis.
Lost While Playing Tennis
While playing tennis, if you are occupied with thoughts about what if you lose the game, How your buddies will make fun about your abilities.
Not knowing while those thoughts are crossing your mind, because you are completely identified with the situation where you have lost and your buddies are making fun of you.
You are in the lost state.
Present While Playing Tennis
While playing tennis. You are fully focused on the game. You are not having any other thoughts.
But you are using all your mental and attentional resources to watch the ball, return it in a specific manner as well as serve in a specific manner.
You are in the present state. Because you are paying attention to the activity at hand.
But you may have no awareness that you are engaged in playing tennis, serving, returning, moving around the court. There is no knowing that you are playing tennis.
Be careful here. You can be fully engaged in an activity without knowing that you are engaged. Or you can be fully engaged in an activity while still knowing that you are engaged in that activity.
Those are two different states of mind. Mindfulness requires you to be in the latter state.
If you think it is not possible to be aware while playing tennis as it may interfere with actually paying attention. That is a separate discussion of its own, which we will cover in a separate blog spot.
Also, you don’t have to be mindful of everything.
Knowing While Playing Tennis
While playing tennis, if you are fully present in the game, which means you are not lost in thoughts. You are focused on the actual activities of the game.
Let’s say on top of that, you are also aware that you are playing tennis. Not only that, let’s say that you are losing the game and you are extremely pissed about the situation.
For sake of this discussion, assume that you are losing the game, but you are still fully focused on the activities of the game.
Not only that you are aware that you are fully engaged in the activities of the game.
You are pissed and angry. You could either be aware that you are pissed and angry or you could be not.
Mindful Tennis Play
If you are aware of your mind’s attitude or reaction to the present situation, i.e. you losing the game, that is mindfulness.
You don’t have to get stuck at the technicality of whether for each moment you should be simultaneously aware of your fully focusing on the game, being aware of that and you knowing that you are pissed an angry. That is not the idea.
You may not be aware of all of that in an instance. But in general, when you have an awareness of what is going on including the mind’s reaction, that is mindfulness.
Let’s take one more example.
Say you are eating something, a piece of an apple.
Lost While Eating Apple
If while eating that apple, if you are thinking about what you should eat for dinner later that day. What you should do about the nosy neighbor.
Not knowing that those thoughts are present, because you are fully identified with the content of thoughts. The planning of the dinner. Or the planning about the annoying neighbor.
You are in a lost state. Because you are lost in thoughts.
Present and Knowing While Eating Apple
If while eating that apple, you are not thinking about other things. But you feel the texture of the apple as you bite and as you chew. You feel the taste, or you are aware of the taste.
You are fully present with the activity of eating apple.
You are in the present and knowing state.
Is this being mindful? Not yet.
Did you notice the difference between playing tennis and eating apple example? For eating example, being present and knowing happens together.
Because eating is almost an automatic activity. Of course it is not completely automatic like breathing. You still have to use attention or mental resources to pick your food and put it into your mouth, etc.
But unlike Tennis, which is a skill and requires much more mental resources to just carry it out, eating is automatic.
For mostly automatic processes being present with the activity equates knowing the activity as activity happens pretty much automatically.
Mindfully Eating Apple
You are present and you are also aware of what is going on. But as you eat an apple, you may like the sweet taste of apple and each bite gives a small amount of pleasure and as soon as you are done with one bite, you eagerly look forward to taking the next bite.
Are you aware of the mind’s attitude to eating apple? You may like and look forward to eating more apple, or you may not like the taste of apple and may want to stop eating it. Or you might not have a specific opinion about the taste of apple.
If you are aware of the mind’s attitude towards the apple, you are mindful. But if you are not, that is not mindfulness.
Hopefully the examples make sense. If they don’t please let me know in the comment below.
I will caution you that, all the explanation and examples may point point mindfulness to be a rigid mind state, it is not. Mindfulness is all about wisdom.
It is just that in all moments, a specific reaction, judgment or attitude of mind is also present on top of the sensory stimulus and there is value in noticing that.
Mindfulness requires you to be present, but it is more than that.
Mindfulness requires you to know what is going on, while you fully engage in what is going on.
Mindfulness also requires you to be aware of your mind’s judgments or reactions to what is going on.
If you read so far, congratulations! Please let me know below, whether this was helpful or not. It would be great to hear your opinion, if you care.