Through my mindfulness practice I wake up to all there is to be known in my life. That sounds pretty amazing, right? But as long as I’ve been writing, I haven’t written about what mindfulness is. Let’s rectify that, shall we? Jon Kabat-Zinn famously defined mindfulness as paying attention to the present moment as it is without judgment. Being mindful means being aware of our feelings, bodily sensations and thoughts. While that sound so basic, time and time again, I hear people say how they discover their bodies, sometimes for the very first time, during their practice. While it takes practice to strengthen this particular capacity, Jon Kabat-Zinn says through our practice we befriend our experience and ourselves, so building up this muscle doesn’t take brute force, just persistence.
Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already.”
So what does mindfulness look like in everyday life?
This is what it looked like for me over the last few days. Springtime has arrived early this year; despite the warmer days and blue skies, I’m actually feeling a little blue and homesick. Being aware of the emotions is mindfulness of feelings. I’ve been working out. Although subtle, I already feel stronger. More surprisingly, if I sit very still I can feel a very slight ache in my joints. Perceiving both the strength and the ache is mindfulness of bodily sensation. A woman I knew and admired passed away. I remember thinking I wish I could have been there for her. But under the circumstances it was impossible. Recognizing the fleeting musing is mindfulness of thought. As I step back and observe each moment, I say to myself, “Yes, that’s how it is, this time.” No judgment. Zero mockery. No self-reference. Only friendship and compassion.
Why do we practice mindfulness?
As I practice paying attention to my feeling, sensations and thought during my meditation practice, it becomes second nature and the capacity to be present for all of my experience has followed me when I’m not practicing. So just as we can exercise the body for better performance, the mind too can be trained, honed and sharpened, so it is as easy to be present as anything else we do with out brains. This is important because we have wandering minds. Studies suggest that us we spend over 45% of our time engaged in unintentional mind wandering! That is to say, often our minds drift away without any real end game in mind (not pun intended).
But not all mind wandering is created equal. There is a difference between deliberate and spontaneous mind wandering. Have you been engaged in a task that was so boring you could think about other things without compromised what you were doing? If you chose to zone out, that was intentional mind wandering. No problem. In fact scientists suggest that we are most creative when our minds wander intentionally. On the other hand, have you ever missed your exit or metro stop because the car was driving you or your mind was just elsewhere? That’s unintentional wandering mind in action! Not only are we missing exits and metro stops, we are missing jokes, laugher and moments to bond over tears. We are missing out on our own lives. That 45% is why genuine mindfulness takes practice, so we can train ourselves to stay here.
What are the pros of mindfulness?
Through our mindfulness practice, we connect with out feelings, sensations and thoughts. As we come face to face with our fears, self-doubt, lapses in focus, hopes, dreams and assumptions we become more resilient. During practice, we also learn to back off if direct confrontation with feelings, sensations or thoughts starts to lead to overwhelm and gently return as we are better able to cope; that is to say we learn to self-calibrate. And we learn to engage with our established set of attitudes and beliefs, so we can make choices the support us here and now.
We get out of the habit of resorting to habituated reactions, which may have served us in the past, but that no longer support us. Not only does mindfulness practice help us connect with our feelings, sensations and thoughts and become more resilient, research has shown it to be effective in helping to treat plethora of medical conditions (from asthma, cancer and chronic pain to diabetes, fibromyalgia and heart disease).
What are the cons of mindfulness?
“Mindfulness is not about being happy, calm or any particular way for that matter. When I’m sad or upset people often say to me that I’m not “being mindful” as if mindfulness will bring us peace and calm and relaxation all the time. Being in a constant state of glee may be what we want, but that’s not real life. So during our mindfulness practice we welcome the full spectrum of feeling, sensations and thoughts because we experience this full spectrum everyday in real life—and yes this includes both the wanted and unwanted.
I don’t have a meditation practice because it is fun.
I do not practice awareness because it is relaxing (it often is not!) or because it makes me smarter or more efficient.
(I have no evidence for either). I practice paying attention because it builds my skill in exercising the choices…
Mindfulness is about noticing what we’re experience, without judging if it’s good or bad. Just for the record “non-judgment” does not mean agreement or complacency or demotivation. Quite to the contrary, it means acknowledging whatever’s going on, which enable me to take appropriate action for myself and those I love. So, no, I don’t practice mindfulness to escape life; I practice so I am ready to engage with life. And in my ability to sit next to all that I feel sense and think, I’ve built the capacity to both recover quicker from difficulties and appreciate good times more than ever before. My life is fuller. It has more depth and meaning because of my practice. A gentle waking up to all there is, is the result of my practice.