What is Mindfulness?
9 Points to Ponder.
Published: April 24, 2012
We often hear mindfulness talked about in connection with meditation practice. The difficulty is that mindfulness is an experience rather than a concept. Here are a few words that might begin to offer you a flavor of mindfulness. Don’t analyze them too much, or worry if they don’t seem to make sense right now—remember, these descriptions are just like fingers pointing at the moon and not the moon itself! They may help you recognize mindfulness when you experience it, but they can never replace the experience itself.
- Mindfulness means observing things just as they are—our thoughts, emotions, body sensations, and what’s happening in the world around us. It shows us the world just as a mirror reflects images: clearly, openly, and without bias. It’s what happens when the mind watches and engages consciously with life, rather than being blindly caught up in what’s going on.
- Mindfulness is a way of experiencing the world through our senses, intuitively, rather than through the filter of thought. It connects us to experiential understanding, penetrating into the heart of things, beyond the stories we spin about our lives.
- Mindfulness is intentional, energetic, careful, and precise. It is also accepting, gentle, spacious, and kind.
- Mindfulness is an ABC skill: it helps us train in becoming more aware (A), and in “being with” our experience (B), rather than reacting to it impulsively. This gives us more choice (C) about how we relate with situations in our lives.
- Mindfulness brings the mind and body together, in balance and flow. In some Eastern philosophies, the mind is said to be located not in the head but in the heart—mindfulness can thus be thought of as “heartfulness.” It is an attitude of warmth, friendliness, and compassion, to oneself and to others.
- Mindfulness means leaning into life (even when it’s painful), approaching experiences with interest, curiosity, and courage. It also means relating to experience with equanimity, as it’s from this ground of acceptance that we can act consciously and decisively, unfettered by our habitual patterns of judging, labeling, and reacting.
- Mindfulness is coming to know yourself, inside out, outside in. It is knowing what you are doing, when you’re doing it. Mindfulness is being awake to life, rather than sleepwalking through it.
- Mindfulness is the act of remembering to pay attention—it’s the opposite of automatic pilot, the mode in which we just blindly follow our habits, not fully present to what’s going on. When we’re on automatic pilot, we might drive down the highway and miss our turn because we’re caught up thinking about something else. When we are driving mindfully, we’re fully present to the experience of driving—aware of the road, the car, our thoughts and feeling about the journey, other drivers, and so on.
- In mindfulness, we view our thoughts as just thoughts, our feelings as just feelings, our actions as just actions—they are not the whole of who we are. Mindfulness comes from a deeper awareness that is not caught up in our thoughts and feelings, although it can see them and work with them effectively. Mindfulness means relating to our experience rather than just from our experience.
Mindfulness is simple to learn, and yet it can help with so many different problems. It can be used on the bus, in the supermarket, at your desk, or in bed. You don’t need any special equipment—just your mind and body. And while proficiency takes practice, you don’t need to spend years meditating in an ashram or monastery to make a difference. From the smallest daily quibbles to the largest global problems, there probably isn’t any circumstance where more mindfulness wouldn’t be beneficial.
Dr. Jonty Heaversedge is a family doctor in a large practice in South East London. He completed a degree in psychology and then a Masters in Mental Health Studies, and continues to pursue a particular interest in the psychological health and well-being of his patients. Jonty is a regular contributor to television and radio, and has become an increasingly familiar face on the BBC.
Ed Halliwell is a writer and mindfulness teacher. He is the author of the Mental Health Foundation’s Mindfulness Report, and writes regularly for The Guardian and Mindful.org on meditation and well-being. He leads mindfulness courses in London and Sussex, and is a faculty member at the School of Life, which offers a variety of programs on how to live wisely.