What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is pretty much a type of awareness. But it is not the plain awareness that we are familiar with. It is non-judgmental awareness. But then…..

What is awareness?

This may sound silly! You already have a very good idea what awareness is. But let’s revisit it a bit.

How many times have you had this experience where you started eating a cookie or a candy bar by taking the first bite and later on only to realize that whole cookie or the bar was gone without your conscious recollection.

Similarly, how many times have you felt that you started getting in the car and you arrived at your destination, again with no memory whatsoever of what happened in between.

We know such instances well and they are known by different names such as “not paying attention” or “auto-pilot” mode or “lost in thoughts” mode.

This tends to be the default mode our minds work in. Whereby our mind is not attending to the present moment, but is lost in thoughts. It is lost in thinking about the past or recalling memories or planning about the future.

It is not as if we do this all the time, but we do it fairly often. We are in “auto-pilot” mode, especially with the tasks that are routine, like driving to work, going grocery shopping etc.

We go through our lives largely without paying attention, or without being conscious or more accurately without being what we refer to as ‘aware’.

From time to time we do pay attention to what is going on, but mostly we are not paying attention to what we are doing, what we are thinking or what we are feeling.

But that is not the only way to live our lives. It is possible to pay attention to what is going on as we go through our lives.

There are two ways to do any activity. You can do it with paying attention or without paying attention. You can pay attention to each bite of the cookie that you take, or you can eat it without paying attention.

You can drive to your work with paying attention. This means, you can pay attention…….Picking up the car keys. Walking out of the door. Walking up to the car. Opening the door. And on and on…..

You get the idea. Driving to work actually involves numerous sub-activities distributed over numerous moments that make up the whole activity.

To summarize, awareness is “attending to” or “be conscious of”. More precisely, awareness is “attending to the present moment”, or “be conscious of the present moment”.

As you read this text, you could be really attending to what you are reading and be aware of it.

As you read this text, you may be sitting on a chair, or on your bed, and you can take a moment to attend to the feeling of your body making contact with the chair or the bed.

Normally when we read we don’t attend to the feeling of contact, touch or pressure that is present as we sit on a chair or on a bed. Of course that is because we would be attending to the reading.

But just to point it out and get a better idea of “attending to”, you can take a moment and attend to or become aware of aspects besides reading in the present moment.

We can selectively attend to or become aware of each of sensory inputs. We can become aware of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and tasting. More importantly, we can also become aware of thinking. That is one of the reasons, some of the ancient traditions like Buddhism considers thinking as a sense just like seeing or hearing.

As already summarized, awareness is “attending to” or “be conscious of”. You become “aware” of what you “attend to”.

Is then awareness same as thinking?

Not at all. Thinking and awareness are very different as pointed out while talking about awareness. It is not difficult to figure this out through  first hand experience.

Awareness comes before thought. We can also become aware of thinking, i.e. awareness can hold all of the thinking. It is also possible to think about awareness, but only a posteriori, that is, only as an afterthought.

Whenever any external stimuli comes in contact with out sense organ, we register sense perception. Or in other words, we come to know about the external stimuli. We also refer to this as felt sensation. We can feel a sense of touch, we can feel a smell, we can feel a visual image, we can feel a sound or we can feel a taste. And we can feel a thought as well.

We also call this felt sensation as ‘knowing awareness’.

For example, when you see a red ball, first you feel certain color and you feel a certain shape. You first know that you felt a certain color and a shape. Subsequently, our brain automatically taps into our conceptual framework and we pull out the appropriate labels for the felt stimuli.

We pull out the label ‘red’ to describe the color that was felt and we also pull out ‘ball’ (or ’round’) to describe the felt shape.

Having known about (or felt) certain color and shape, now we can think about it in our mind and verbalize and do more things with it.

Let’s take one more example to get a better idea.

When you take a bite of a juicy peach, you feel a certain taste and possibly aroma. There is a certain, direct, felt experience. Having taken this bite, later on, you can describe it to someone else. You may use terms like, “juicy”, “sweet”, “sumptuous”, “really good”, “yummy” and so on.

But describing what it feels like taking a bite of juicy peach, is very different compared to the actual first hand experience of taking a bite of a juicy peach.

When you actually take a bite, there is a direct felt experience. This direct experience is same as ‘knowing awareness’. You know first hand  what it tastes and feels like to take a bite.

When you are describing your experience to someone else, you are using your conceptual framework to describe your experience. When you use your conceptual framework, you use memory, cognitive and analytical abilities. When you are actually taking a bite yourself, you do not use memory, neither you use cognitive or analytical abilities.

Before thought, there is knowing awareness, which lies at the heart of mindfulness.

Is awareness same as being in the present moment? Where does being in the present moment fit in here?

If you are at all familiar with meditation, you may have heard that it is all about being in the present moment. You may wonder where does being in the present moment fit within the context of awareness or the mindfulness.

We already said that awareness is same as “attending to” or “be conscious of”. But what can you ever become aware of? You can only become aware of the present moment.

Yes, you can become aware of memories from the past, but this remembering of the past can only happen in the present moment. You can think about the past, but this thinking can only happen in the present moment. You cannot actually attend to or become aware of the past, you can only remember the past and this remembering happens in the present moment.

Similarly, you can become aware of thinking about the future, but this thinking can only happen in the present moment. You cannot actually go and live in the future, you can only be alive in the present moment. You can only attend to thinking about the future and not the future itself.

As you can see, you can neither attend to the actual past, or actual future. You can only attend to the present moment, which means you can only become aware of the present moment.

Mindfulness has also been thought of as the art of being in the present moment.

What is non-judgmental awareness?

Awareness as we know is usually not objective by its very nature. This goes back to how our brain has evolved over a very  long period of time.

For us it is very easy to become aware. For example, if I ask you to become aware of right hand. You will have no problem becoming aware of your right hand.

But usually as soon as you become aware of your right hand, you will start thinking…. “My right hand is not as good as it should be”…..”My right hand should be thinner than it is” …. “I don’t like the complexion of the skin of hands”….. etc...

As soon as you experience something, your brain likes to attach a judgment value to that experience as either “good” or “bad”. At times it may not attach any value.

This attachment of value seems to be very elemental phenomena. In other words, it seems to happen automatically with pretty much everything you experience.

More importantly, you have a scant awareness of these judgmental valuations or thoughts.

With mindfulness, THE LONG TERM AIM is to cultivate awareness that doesn’t carry automatic judgments. Here I would sound a word of caution!

Deeply ingrained in the mindfulness is the attitude of kindness, compassion and acceptance. This is why sometimes mindfulness is also called heartfulness.

When we talk about achieving goals, a specific attitude may accompany the notion of goal achievement. A sense of striving may arise when we think about goals.

With mindfulness, awareness is much more important than achieving the actual goal. With mindfulness, we meet with things as they are, or where they stand. It doesn’t come as a surprise that mind’s tendency to attach judgmental labels is deeply rooted and highly conditioned. It is a daunting task if one were to even attempt to get rid of these labels.

Mindfulness approach is to fully accept this nature of mind as it is. We bring kindness to the workings of our mind. We bring compassion to its judgmental nature. We don’t try to suppress what habitually arises in our minds, but we bring awareness to what is arising.

If we were to scold ourselves when the mind judges, it won’t be any good. In that case we would just be purporting the habit of being judgmental. Rather than scolding or beating up ourselves when mind judges, we bring kindness and acceptance.

This is by no means a fatalistic acceptance. It is primarily awareness. It is primarily the acceptance of what just took place. If mind judged, we notice that it judged. This doesn’t mean we give up on our mind’s potential to not judge.

But we keep working with our minds with kindness. It is like the puppy training. One wouldn’t be harsh with the puppy when puppy strays. And the puppy will stray. Whenever puppy strays, we bring the puppy back with kindness and over the period of time, puppy gets trained to not stray with kindness.

Non judgmental awareness primarily is the awareness that is aware of judgments that may be present at any given moment.

So what really is mindfulness?

We already saw that mindfulness is a type of awareness, and it is non-judgmental in nature.

We also saw that awareness is same as “attending to”, or paying attention. Hence awareness is also a way of paying attention.

Many scholars also use “bare attention” to describe mindfulness. Here “bare” referring very likely to the absence of usual judgments while paying attention.

There are few technical definitions of mindfulness that are around. There is no single definition of mindfulness that all scholars agree upon. There is still some debate as to what mindfulness precisely means.

There is one important aspect of mindfulness, which is relevant to remembering, recollection or memory. As you can see, so far it has not been mentioned explicitly.

At this stage, some clarification is warranted. It was just mentioned that mindfulness involves some type of recollection or memory.

This may not sit well with the notion of mindfulness as the art of being in the present moment. You may wonder, all along it is emphasized that mindfulness is all about being in the present moment. It has been alluded that it helps to be anchored in the present moment and not be lost remembering or recollecting the past. Especially it doesn’t help to brood over past events.

How is it, then the important aspect of mindfulness is relevant to remembering or memory? This is a valid objection and can cause a lot of confusion for someone who is trying to comprehend the whole notion of mindfulness.

Hopefully we can resolve any doubts  that may be present. So far the awareness and attention has been emphasized. It is mainly present centered awareness. We are not doing away with the emphasis on being in the present moment.

The key still is to not be lost in thoughts of past or present. Not to be lost in memories. But be aware of whatever is happening in the  present moment.

One may be fully present in the moment without any thoughts. That is great. One can also be thinking about past or future with awareness and that is equally great as well. Awareness is the key.

But important caveat is that one has to remember and re-remember to be aware. This is where the memory reference comes into picture while trying to understand mindfulness.

Mindfulness is about being aware, but one has to remember to be aware. And when one is lost in thought, one eventually has to recollect or remember to be aware.

Because of the potential for confusion, many scholars avoid the memory reference. But even if it is not explicitly mentioned this remembering or re-remembering to be aware or be present is implied in the definition of mindfulness.

Something has to be said about remembering the right (ethical) conduct along with the present centered awareness as well. This topic will be addressed at length in a separate answer. Its context will become more clear when we talk about the origins of mindfulness.

You may find  that the definition of mindfulness is increasingly becoming complex. And that is totally understandable, as we have been gradually uncovering new facets of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is not really a technique. It really is a way of life and hence, entails a set of attitudes and values. These attitudes and values are radically different compared to the default attitudes and values of human mind sculpted by the evolutionary forces over the eons.

So far we have already covered pretty much all facets of mindfulness, namely non judgmental awareness, memory, right conduct and right attitude or values. In a sense there isn’t anything left to be uncovered about it.

You may disagree, but mindfulness is a relatively simple concept or a way of being. Although it is simple, it is not at all easy. In fact, it is very difficult, exactly for the reasons just described above.

Coming back to the formal definition of mindfulness, we will explore mindfulness defined by some of the well known scholars.

One of the prominent Buddhist scholar and monk puts forward following definitions mindfulness.

He says, mindfulness is “remembering HOW to observe mind’s attention as it moves moment-to-moment and remembering what to do with any arising phenomena.”

In the context of MBSR, Jon Kabat-Zinn has provided the operational definition of mindfulness. This definition has a widespread adoption. Following is the operational definition.

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way:  on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.”

A slightly fuller definition from Bishop et al. 2004:

“A kind of nonelaborative, non-judgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is. ”

What does it mean to become mindful?

To become mindful means to become more aware. Not only becoming more aware of what we see, hear, taste, smell and touch, but more aware of the mind’s reactions to what we perceive. Because with everything we experience our mind is continually judging what we perceive.

To become mindful means to pay attention to the workings of our mind and more importantly pay attention to its habitual tendency to judge everything and react to situations in a certain way.

When someone criticizes you or tells you harsh words, the mind reacts angrily even if it’s your fault.  When your sibling or buddy gets rewarded for something and if you don’t, the mind becomes jealous, even if the other person deserves the reward and you haven’t done anything at that point to get rewarded. These are the mind’s deeply ingrained and habitual reactions.

To be mindful, means to be able to see mind’s habitual reactions. If not all, more of them.

How does one become mindful?

One becomes mindful by practicing different meditation techniques. As we saw earlier, mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment on purpose and non-judgmentally.

Or it is becoming aware, on purpose. Now we can pay attention in the present moment and we can also become aware at times. But this tends to happen by accident. It isn’t usually on purpose.

Meditation is nothing but attention training. When we practice meditation we are improving our attention and concentration skills. Practicing meditation techniques help us improve our skill of being in the present moment.

It helps us to maintain our attention in the present moment, when we happen to come to the present moment. It helps us maintain awareness of our present experience.

Thus meditation practices help us sustain and thus bring intentionality to our ability to be in the present moment, or to become aware.

Is mindfulness for me?

As long as you are breathing, mindfulness can very well be for you. But you won’t know until you give it a genuine try. Attend a FREE session offered by Portland Mindfulness Programs to find it out for yourself.

What are the origins of mindfulness?

Mindfulness used in the context of MBSR and as taught at Portland Mindfulness Programs, is completely secular and has nothing to do with religion.

It would really be unfair not to properly attribute mindfulness to its original sources. The whole notion of mindfulness originated in Buddhism.

Because mindfulness is currently taught in a completely secular context, a certain amount of tension may be felt in revealing the religious roots. Either way, the truth has to be laid out. If anything, this is one of the lessons to be learned in the kind of attitude to be cultivated with mindfulness.

One can really be open to possibilities. One doesn’t have to wed to a whole philosophy in order to pick out a few practical and useful nuggets from that philosophy.

Buddhism offers a prescription to alleviate human suffering and Mindfulness is central to this prescription. It makes up the core of the Buddha’s teachings.

Satipatthana or Maha-Satipatthana is a great discourses attributed to the Buddha. The name ‘Satipatthana’ is made up of two words, ‘sati‘ and ‘upatthana‘. Mindfulness is a largely consensus, modern, western translation of a Pali (Ancient Indic language) word ‘Sati’.

But there is an important caveat here. In Pali, ‘sati‘ is a noun and related verb is ‘sarati‘, and its meaning is to keep in mind or to remember. Pali is a now extinct ancient Indian language, very close to Sanskrit. Sanskrit word equivalent to Pali ‘sati‘, is ‘smriti‘. It also means memory or recollection.

Buddhist scriptures are found in total 9 languages. They are Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Mongolian, Thai, Burmese and Tibetan. All of these languages translate mindfulness as memory or recollection!!

Quite often in Buddhist scripture ‘sati’ and ‘sampajana’ are used together. ‘Sampajana’ means clear comprehension or clear perception. You can say that modern translation of mindfulness is really reflective of this combination of ‘sati’, which connotes memory and ‘sampajana’ which means clear comprehension or clear perception or awareness.

In his teaching Buddha used term mindfulness to mean keeping something in mind. We use mindfulness as a type of awareness or type of attention. We don’t necessarily think of memory or keeping in mind when we think of mindfulness, although as mentioned earlier the memory reference is implicit in the definition of mindfulness.

You would think that ‘sati‘ would mean attention. But it doesn’t. The Pali word for simple attention is ‘manasikara‘. A more elaborate term that most closely describes the mindful attention is ‘anupassana‘.

Translation of mindfulness was chosen with a western audience in mind. In some ways it’s a simplified close approximation for someone who doesn’t have extensive knowledge of Buddhism or Eastern religious philosophies. It is a fairly good starting point for someone wanting to start practicing and benefiting right away.

Does Mindfulness mean becoming more passive?

Becoming more mindful means being able to notice the workings of our mind. We become the scientists of our own mind. We learn how we react to people and the world around us. When we do this investigation, we realize that we usually have more choices than we think we have.

This realization opens up more options for us in dealing with people and the world around us. This realization helps us with self-regulation because of more choices that we see.

With the cultivation of mindfulness, you may choose to respond to a specific situation with a response that is not obvious to others who haven’t cultivated mindfulness. Your response may come across as something that is not normal, slow, passive or something else.

But in reality becoming mindful doesn’t mean becoming passive, slow or any other way.


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