What is Mindfulness?


Mindfulness can be thought of as a special way of working with attention and awareness. Jon Kabat-Zin popularized mindfulness in the West during the 1970s and he defines mindfulness as:

  • Paying attention on purpose,
  • to something in the present,
  • non-judgmentally.

Although mindfulness may sound like a simple activity, in practice it can be challenging. This is primairly because mindfulness asks us to stop our reflexive ways of being. Although we may not realize it, our minds typically wander away from what we're doing to focus on other things (in a recent study particippants minds were found to be wandering 47% of the time). During the course of our evolution having a mind thats prone to wandering may have conferred benefits by encouraging us to scan for physical threats, or to think about problems and work on them in our head. The cost of this system is that when we imagine something (such as threats/losses/rejection/etc) we start experiencing those events as if they’re really happening right now. This wouldn't be so bad except that many of our modern stressors are chronic and pervasive, which can cause us to continually feel stressed or unhappy. So basically our mind can be thought of as a portable virtual reality machine, one that’s programed in a well intentioned but often ineffective way to make you experience upsetting feelings in an effor to protect you from them. But when we’re developing the capacity for mindfulness we’re developing our mind in a way where we become more capable of recognizing when the machine is on and then pulling ourselves out of it to so we can deal with or enjoy the task at hand. A great way to think about our mind while practicing mindfulness is illustrated in the Puppy Mind exercise.

Ways of Practicing Mindfulness

Since mindfulness is a state of mind it can be put into practice in a variety of different ways. One type of way to practice mindfulness is termed Concentration Meditations. In concentration meditations you pick one thing to focus your attention on for a given period of time. Concentration meditations build the capacity to notice when our attention has wandered and to observe our experience nonjudgmentally. They're often helpful for managing stress and typically involve focusing on a simple physical sensation such as their breath. It is often recommended that people interested in mindfulness start by practicing with concentration meditations as a way of building the core skills needed for other meditation.

A second form of mindfulness exercise is termed Mindful Meditation. In these exercises you’re asking yourself to just observe the comings and goings of your experiences. This could be noticing bodily sensations as they arise then pass, the same can be done for thoughts, feelings, or even any combination of experiences that you’re having. What makes this a mindfulness exercise as opposed to day dreaming is that all of this is being done with a mindset where you are watching your experiences almost as if they’re on TV, where your aware of whats going on but your seperate from the content of your thoughts. When we daydream we lose our mindset of being an observing viewer and instead get pulled into the program and become a character in the show. 

Mindfulness can be be done by setting aside time to listen to a mindfulness exercises, attend a group meditation. These are sometimes called Formal Practice. Since mindfulness is a state of mind it can also be practiced duing anyother activities provided that we are being present, aware, and non-judgmental. This is often called Informal Practice and examples include mindful walking, eating, or listening.