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Are You Mindful?

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Are You Mindful?

Learning to be in the here and now.
Dr. Jonty  Heaversedge
Dr. Jonty Heaversedge More by this author
Apr 23, 2012 at 10:00 AM

Trying to define mindfulness is tricky. Definitions can be helpful, but they can also be somewhat misleading. Take the ideas of mindfulness that have long been used in the English language: we talk about being mindful of someone else’s feelings, of pedestrians crossing a busy road, or the step as we get off the train. While mindfulness in this sense has something to do with paying attention, and of taking care, it isn’t the whole of what we mean here.

The definition often used in courses which teach mindfulness is “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” In this case, mindfulness seems to refer not just to generally being careful, but to a deliberate, unbiased quality of awareness that connects us to the here and now. But this still doesn’t really show us how to foster this kind of attention, or what it might be like to experience it.

At other times, we might hear mindfulness talked about in terms of meditation practice—in this instance it seems to involve sitting or lying down and resting our attention on our breathing, a particular phrase, or our thoughts. So is that what mindfulness is?

The problem with approaching mindfulness as a concept to be defined is that we inevitably end up thinking about it, and while we’re doing that, it remains just an idea, rather than an experience. As one traditional image has it, words are like “fingers pointing at the moon”—guiding us where to look, but not something we should mistake for the moon itself.

Visualize a “banana”—would the description “yellow, mushy fruit” give you much of a sense of “banana” if you had never come across one before? A little perhaps, but certainly not as much as seeing and tasting a banana for yourself—you might assume it was similar to another fruit that fit that description and which you had come across—a mango, perhaps. Your idea of “banana” would be inaccurate, based on your preconceptions, until you came into direct contact with one. Even then, it would only be that banana, in that moment. Our idea of “banana” is based on all our previous experiences of bananas—it can never fully describe the experience of sensing each unique fruit when we encounter it. The words and concepts are a poor substitute for the experience.

It’s the same with mindfulness—our ideas are bound to be inaccurate unless we experience it for ourselves. This is perhaps especially pertinent with mindfulness because the word actually refers to the direct experience of things, free from our preconceived ideas about them. The word mindfulness is a concept about transcending our tendency to conceptualize—no wonder trying to describe it is confusing! If we really want to understand mindfulness, we have to try it out, to engage in it, to practice it. Words can’t do it justice.

Perhaps another useful analogy would be learning to play the piano—we can read as many books about piano-playing as we like, but until we actually sit down in front of a keyboard and start playing, preferably under the guidance of a good teacher, we won’t know what sounds we can produce. Similarly with mindfulness, we can read about “being” all we like, but until we actually practice it, our realization of how it can help us is likely to be limited.

Attempting to “be” isn’t easy. Like sitting down in front of a piano without having had any lessons, the result might not be all that harmonious. Fortunately, over thousands of years, simple means have been developed to help us connect with being, and to train our awareness. This is meditation practice, and it works on mindfulness just like taking lessons in a musical instrument helps us play.

About Author
Dr. Jonty  Heaversedge
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-bei Continue reading