There is a lot of misunderstanding around what mindfulness means. No doubt we all give meaning to what it means to us in our lives. But as a way of life and how it is taught in the tradition of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program it has a certain meaning. As a teacher and more importantly as a person who has benefited from understanding the relevance and impact of this practice, I would like to share my understanding of mindfulness.
A very common misunderstanding of mindfulness is to limit it to mean being focused or being present. A recent article in the New York Times exemplifies this misunderstanding:
“The trick is knowing when mindfulness is called for and when it’s not. “When you’re staring out the window, you may well be coming up with your next great idea,” he said. “But you’re not paying attention to the teacher. So the challenge is finding the balance between mindfulness and mind wandering. If you’re driving in a difficult situation, if you’re operating machinery, if you’re having a conversation, it’s useful to hold that focus. But that could be taken to an extreme, where one always holds their attention in the present and never lets it wander.”
The author of the article assumes that mindfulness and mind wandering are mutually exclusive. Ironically, cultivating the ability to make a conscious choice is mindfulness. So choosing to be present or allowing the mind to wander is mindfulness. Choosing between being focused on a single task or multi-tasking is mindfulness. Making these choices with kindness and a gentle curiosity is mindfulness.
Research suggests that we make almost 95% of our daily decisions unconsciously or habitually. What this means is that we are not conscious or intentional in making decisions and live on autopilot most of our day. Research also shows that non-meditators are not aware when their minds wander. On the contrary, mindfulness practitioners cultivate meta-awareness, which is an awareness of our thoughts and thinking processes. The same study also demonstrated that meditators are aware when their minds have wandered and can choose between being present and mind wandering.
So in essence, mindfulness entails cultivating choice, awareness, along with a gentle curiosity. Let me explain this with an example. My husband and I have started going for a walk in the morning, rain or shine. My husband introduced a component of silent walking (partly because I talk too much during our time together). So during the part of the walk when we are in a non-residential area with only trees we maintain silence and when we re-enter the residential area we can talk.
So what is mindfulness in the context of our silent walking together? There are three mindfulness components to this activity:
1) Making a Conscious Choice/ Waking up from living on autopilot: Rather than just waking up and going for a walk and doing what we normally do, we have chosen to stay silent for a part of the walk. During this time we can connect with our breath, the sounds of birds, the swaying trees, the smells of spring, or whatever is arising for us. So mindfulness is not necessarily that we are silent but that we have chosen to be silent. There are days when we have chosen to talk because there were decisions to be made and we knew we wouldn’t get time during the day to discuss those decisions.
Mindfulness doesn’t mean you have to or should do something in a particular way or follow a dogma. Rather mindfulness is waking up to the dogmas in your life and choosing what works for you in that situation. Since every situation and person is different there is no one way that is right for all under all conditions. Mindfulness is learning to attend with full care and attention to what is arising within and around us so we can make the best choices in that moment
2) A Gentle Curiosity/Inquiry: Along with making conscious decisions is the idea of cultivating a gentle curiosity. How is this decision making you feel? How do you work with discomfort and challenges that may be arising? What are the possibilities in any given moment?
Holding what ever is arising for you with kindness and open awareness to possibilities is an important aspect of mindfulness. In our walks, I am noticing what the silence is doing for me. How is my mind responding to walking in silence? How does my body feel after walking in a way that is connected with my breath and surroundings? Even though I may have resisted the idea initially, I am noticing that the silence leaves me more nurtured and I am now enjoying it.
Rather than doing what you should do, mindfulness is cultivating a gentle inquiry into how your choices make you feel and what is needed. For example, instead of thinking that I should not eat sugar, cultivating the practice of gentle inquiry of how you feel when you have sugar and when you don’t have sugar but an apple for instance, will allow you to find your own answers. This point is also connected with the third aspect of mindfulness, which is awareness.
3) Awareness of Thoughts, Body Sensations, and Emotions: Most of us live in our minds and are disconnected from our bodies and even emotions, which we have learned to cleverly hide or avoid. Mindfulness is intimately connecting with our thoughts, emotions, and body sensations.
In our silent walks, I connect with my breath and feel the direct sensation of breathing in the fresh early morning air. My mind wanders but I bring it back and notice the quality of my mind. Some days it is busier than others. Like when I was opening Downtown Mindfulness, I noticed all the thoughts and ideas jumping up. I chose to stay with my breath and not entertain the excitement. From past observations I have found too much excitement to burn me out very quickly. So I chose to use this time to nourish myself rather than be consumed by thoughts. Was somewhat successful and that’s ok. Mindfulness is not concerned about the outcome but our intention to making wholesome choices with kindness and openness.
I hope this post clarifies some questions you may have about what is mindfulness and what it is not.
Mindfulness is more than just being present; it is waking up from autopilot to make choices with awareness and a gently curiosity.
Please post your questions, agreements, or disagreements here.
If you are curious about mindfulness and live in the Western Mass area come for one of the free intro classes in Downtown Mindfulness to experience the science and practice of mindfulness. You can also check out other teachers in your area using the search box above.