What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is clear awareness of the present moment. It is bringing a quality of attention to all the experiences of life starting with observation of the breath in the body. In mindfulness practice, the breath is felt in the belly, chest, or nostrils without changing the natural rhythm of breathing. Mindfulness is also noticing the feeling of the body walking, standing, sitting, and lying down.
Mindfulness is clear awareness of pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral physical sensations in the body. It is bringing attention to the warmth of the sun on the face, the softness of a sweater, hunger in the belly, or an ache in the back.
Mindfulness is clear awareness of sounds such as guitar music playing or a car alarm blaring. Mindfulness is bringing attention to the start and ending of sounds in the environment. It is awareness of mechanical sounds such as trucks passing by on the road or natural sounds such as the leaves rustling gently in the forest. Mindfulness is noticing bodily noises such as a loud swallow in the throat.
Mindfulness is clear awareness of the mind planning into the future, returning to the past, telling stories, and creating fantasies. Mindfulness is bringing attention to the inner critic harshly judging the self and others. It is also bringing attention to moments of kindness, compassion, and generosity. Mindfulness is awareness that thoughts arise and pass through consciousness like clouds floating by in the sky.
Mindfulness is clear awareness of emotions arising and passing through the body. Mindfulness is bringing attention to feelings such as happiness warming the face and anger constricting the throat. Mindfulness is noticing that positive and difficult emotions are transient and a natural part of the human experience.
Mindfulness is clear awareness of challenges that arise in the mind blocking happiness. Mindfulness is bringing attention to difficult mind states such as desire, aversion, sluggishness, dullness, restlessness, and doubt. In mindfulness practice, meditators learn to observe and accept them all.
Mindfulness is clear awareness of the natural world experience. It is bringing attention to the body sensing the Earth. Bringing mindfulness to seeing allows observation of a sunset without mentally comparing it to one from vacation. Mindfulness of hearing allows observation of a bird song without the need to label the bird. Bringing awareness to smelling allows observation of the salty, ocean air without wishing it was less strong. Mindfulness of tasting allows noticing the sour wild berry flavor without judging the self for picking the unripe fruit. Bringing awareness to feeling allows observation of the texture of the grass without simultaneously planning dinner in the mind.
Mindfulness is clear awareness of others. It is bringing attention to a person speaking in a conversation without planning your own response. Mindfulness is allowing another human to be seen and heard without interruption.
Mindfulness or “Sati” in the ancient Pali language used at the time of the Buddha 2600 years ago means, “to remember.” Through repeatedly remembering to pay attention to the present moment experience ofthe body, heart, mind, and environment, freedom from mental suffering emerges.
Mindfulness is the practice of entering into the present moment and directly observing the experience with curiosity, kindness, and acceptance. With curiosity, one shifts out of autopilot and the busyness of everyday life to bring awareness to the true nature of the human experience in the body. With kindness, one brings gentleness to the self when observing thoughts that plan into the future or ruminate in the past. With acceptance, one allows all thoughts, physical sensations, and feelings to be as they are without judgment and without trying to change the reality of experience. People practice mindfulness for the purpose of gaining awareness, clarity, understanding, and wisdom.
Mindfulness helps to establish direct contact with life, including the pleasant and unpleasant parts. Contact is made by feeling physical sensations and emotions in the body instead of conceptualizing them in the mind. For example, instead of following the mind’s judgmental story about a demanding boss, anger can be observed and felt in a clenched jaw. This awareness develops a direct, visceral understanding of sensations and emotions. It also helps to facilitate learning of their changing nature. For example, through genuine interest and observation of the jaw clenching and releasing, meditators can then learn to observe the changing nature of all pleasant and unpleasant parts of life in the outer world.
Through mindfulness practice, meditators also develop understanding of the transitory nature of thoughts. Knowing thoughts appear and disappear in the inner world carries over to a direct understanding that life’s positive and challenging experiences appear and disappear in the outer world. From the internal comprehension of change, an awareness of the natural flow of life is born. Life is constantly changing and with practice, meditators learn how to allow life’s pleasures and pains to arise and fade away without attachment or reactivity.
When entering into presence, it is common to notice the thinking mind clouding the sensory experience of life. During mindfulness practice, meditators learn to feel life in an embodied, visceral way when observing the human tendency to think and create stories. For example, when walking on the beach the mind may start to produce a story about a recent vacation in Mexico instead of feeling the sand between the toes. Thoughts arise pulling the awareness away from sensing the present moment in the body and often change the perception of reality.
Thoughts are a natural part of the human experience, and it is estimated humans have approximately 50,000-70,000 thoughts per day. While the thinking mind helps people successfully navigate life, frequent thoughts about the future or the past pull humans away from feeling the present moment. This creates mental stress and unnecessary suffering. In mindfulness meditation practice, skillfully working with thoughts cultivates more ease and acceptance of one’s basic humanness.
Experiencing frequent thoughts about the future can create anxiety. Experiencing frequent thoughts about the past can create depression or avoidance. Through mindfulness practice, meditators intimately know true thought patterns. Bringing kindness and acceptance to the observation, instead of judgment from the inner critic, allows a neutral, detached view of the moment. For example, each time a planning thought enters the mind, such as making a grocery list, meditators neutrally notice and choose to return to the present moment. Over time, developing awareness of the thoughts cultivates an intimacy that allows love and self-compassion to grow. From this intimate understanding of the inner self through mindfulness, one then learns to bring awareness, clarity, acceptance, and understanding to the outer world.
In mindfulness practice, it is important to return to the body in the present moment using a point of attention, which is often the breath. For example during a sitting meditation, a meditator is invited to continually remember to feel the breath each time a thought arises. The breath is often an anchor because it is always present in the body, regardless of what is happening in the inner and outer landscapes of life. There is an invitation to return back to the present moment every time the mind wanders through neutrally sensing breath in the stomach, chest, or nostrils.
By observing and remembering to come back to the breath, the mind clears and calms allowing the cultivation of concentration. As one practices mindfulness meditation, patterns of thinking become clear. From understanding, unnecessary and harmful patterns of thought are noticed and released. From a focused mind, stories and habits that shape or distort the truth of the moment are abandoned. Furthermore, the inner critic and judgment begins to dissolve when kindness and acceptance are brought to the natural human thoughts. For example, a meditator may notice the tendency to replay a difficult conversation, chose to kindly acknowledge anger, and then return to the breath instead of following the story again. Mindfulness brings detachment from the habits of the mind, which then can result in wise action and speech.
Mindfulness is also a tool used to observe and investigate emotions. With practice, meditators recognize both positive and difficult emotional states as they arise in the body. When investigating and feeling into the physical sensations of emotions, meditators learn that pleasant and unpleasant states change. Instead of denying or reacting to the emotions, they are felt in the body and then let go. For example, if anger arises in a heated conversation, mindfulness brings an understanding of a clenched belly. With practice, instead of reacting from the thinking mind, the feeling of clenching coming and going is observed and felt. When remembering to come into the body, space develops between feeling the emotion and reaction, allowing a pause to skillfully respond. From this pause, wise action and speech emerge. Actions arise from a place of kindness and compassion causing less harm to the self and to others.
Over time, mindful awareness flows into daily life experiences. A quality of presence arises when making direct contact with everyday activities such as eating, walking, waiting in line, or even brushing the teeth. In the moment, sensory information is felt in the body allowing detachment from thoughts and stories. For example, observing the toothbrush touch each tooth replaces anxious thoughts about the upcoming workday.
Through mindfulness practices, humans reengage with life in a direct, visceral way without manipulating the actual moment. The true nature of the self reemerges and cultivation of curiosity, presence, and acceptance occurs during even the most mundane daily activities. Through the practice, happiness can surface when disconnecting from habitual stories and patterns. Practicing mindfulness off the meditation cushion brings awareness to conditioned responses in daily life that may have caused emotional stress, which in turn improves interactions with the world. Decreased reactivity improves well –being because from a greater connection to the self, a deeper connection to people, nature, and a global community develops by allowing the truth instead of controlling life. Mindfulness increases connection to the inner nature and the outer world by removing a sense of separateness between humans and the Earth.
Mindfulness leads to increased presence and an embodied understanding of the world. With regular meditation practice many skills are learned including: sensing an anchor such as the breath, observing pleasant and unpleasant states, and feeling emotions arise and pass as transient states. Thereby, a freedom from harmful mental habits unfolds. Through open observation of the bodily experiences, space arises between feelings, thoughts, and actions. Freedom occurs in the moment of pause as one learns to react skillfully with love and compassion instead of from habitual conditioning. The meditation practice often flows into one’s outer world allowing observation all of life’s pleasures and pains with kindness, curiosity, and acceptance. Without attachment and clinging, suffering softens creating space for happiness. Through mindfulness, knowledge and wisdom grow, as well as an embodied relationship with all of life resulting in a felt understanding of the world through the senses.
From the continued practice of mindfulness, of remembering, health and well-being improves as the body is influenced positively by the changes in the circuitry of the brain. Research shows that the benefits of a mindfulness practice include reduced stress, anxiety, and depression as well as improved working memory, concentration, mental and physical health, sleeping patterns, emotional regulation, communication, relationships, empathy, compassion, and intuition.
Overall, mindfulness, or clear awareness of the truth of the moment, is the foundation for developing freedom from mental suffering and improving well-being. When remembering to bring attention to the body, heart, mind, and environment, an intimate and embodied understanding of all the parts of life begins to unfold. From this true understanding and wisdom, happiness and inner peace flows into life.
Written By: Melanie Pensak