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Mindfulness Explained

Written by: INDEAL Cares Guest Blogger David B. Bryan.

This is the third blog post in a series on Meditation and Mindfulness. To view the full series, see:

  1. Introduction to Meditation and Mindfulness

  2. A One-Minute Experiment with Simple Meditation

One challenge many people have in trying to understand mindfulness is that they never hear a clear definition of exactly what mindfulness is. Different people seem to mean different things by it, and the concept can seem so fuzzy and imprecise that it’s hard to know exactly what it is.

Let’s clear that problem up now. Here is a useful definition of mindfulness, from the author Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the pioneers in bringing mindfulness to the forefront of healthcare.

Mindfulness is the awareness that arises from:

· paying attention

· on purpose

· in the present moment,

· non-judgementally.

This definition is clear enough and precise enough to be useful. It means that mindfulness is a particular kind of awareness, that arises when we approach our experience of life in a particular way, which has four inter-related components.

Paying Attention: this means that we are deliberately paying attention to both our outer environment and our inner experience and are intending to not have our attention pulled away by distractions. Distractions can cause us to lose connection with our inner experience, or pull our attention away, into the past or the future.

On Purpose: the practice of mindfulness is an act of deliberate intention, which includes holding our attention on mindful awareness as well as we can, as often and for as long as we can. It means that mindfulness calls for intention, focus, discipline, and persistence.

In the Present Moment: in our busy society, with our overflowing schedules, it is quite common that our minds are preoccupied with our to-do list of what we feel we must get done later today. This mental habit can become so strong that we rarely experience this present moment fully, with all our attention. Mindful awareness rests attention fully in this present moment, undistracted by concerns of the past or future. One benefit of a formal meditation practice is that it gives us opportunity to “practice” the skill of resting our attention undistracted in the present moment.

Non-judgementally: this aspect offers powerful benefits while also being challenging to our existing habits. This can be difficult, in part because one of the basic functions of our neurology is survival; we habitually, and often automatically, judge things as being either “good” or “bad”. While this is useful in many situations, it is also useful to sometimes experiment with “hitting the pause button” on this habit, and trying something different. We can experiment sometimes with simply observing things as they are, without taking the extra step of trying to make a judgement about it.

Many people find that if they observe their experience without “good” or “bad” labels, their experience becomes interesting in a new way; this different perspective can stimulate our curiosity in engaging ways. Many people also find this perspective to be less stressful, which allows them to be calmer. And sometimes, people find they can make better decisions, because their mind remains open longer, and they see more options and choices than they had seen previously. We will discuss the numerous benefits of the mindful perspective more fully in future articles.

I hope that you find this definition of mindfulness to be clear and useful. It allows us to form a clear idea of what is meant by “mindfulness” and gives us a guide as to what to focus on to give it a try.

Skill, Practice, and Application

In an earlier article we used the analogy of a basketball team who sometimes practices, and sometimes plays games, as a metaphor for the relationship between meditation and mindfulness. We can take that analogy a little further now that we have a clear definition of what mindfulness is.

We can think of three things: a skill, practice, and application.

The skill (mindfulness) is the ability to pay attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally. Formal meditation can be thought of as “practice sessions” in which the skill is developed. And the skill (mindfulness) is applied when we deliberately bring mindful awareness into our regular life as we go about our usual daily activities.

I hope this definition of mindfulness brings some useful clarity to you. In future articles, we will discuss more fully some of the benefits that the perspective of mindfulness can bring. For now, I would encourage you to try a few practice sessions to try it out for yourself.