What is mindfulness in plain English?
A lot of people talk about mindfulness, but often people are not clear on what mindfulness is or is not. People have asked me, “What is mindfulness in plain English?” There is even a book by that title:
The concept of mindfulness is quite straightforward, but it takes practice to learn and master it. According to the founder of mindfulness based stress reduction, Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulnes can be defined as “the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment non-judgmentally.” But, what does that mean? It is both an incredibly simple concept and can be hard to grasp at the same time. For some people, the poem, “The Guest House” by Rumi helps to clarify what mindfulness is. Some people are confused by the fact that mindfulness is both a practice (as in mindful meditation) and an outcome (the mindful awareness that comes from regular meditation).
“Mindfulness as a practice refers to the conscious intention to be present in every moment of your life. Without requiring any particular beliefs or traditions, mindfulness is simply a way to notice thoughts, physical sensations, sights, sounds, smells, and reactions. As human beings, we are wired to continuously scan our thoughts and our environment for worries or threats. Through the use of mindfulness, we can shift from this routine to a consciousness in which we are observing our perceptions rather than merely reacting to them. This altered way of thinking and interacting with our environment may seem simple, yet it’s a radical shift that can have powerful consequences.” — Elisha Goldstein’s definition of mindfulness in Mindfulness Made Simple: An Introduction to Finding Calm Through Mindfulness & Meditation
Essentially, you can consider it this way: your life is like a movie and you are a character in that movie. In mindfulness, you are still a character in the movie, but you become aware that it is a movie. For example, if I am very angry with someone, on one level, I am the person who is very angry. On another level, I can observe that I am very angry. I can observe how that anger feels in different parts of my body. I can see how I am behaving because of my anger. I am still angry, but I am angry with awareness. This is the heart of mindfulness.
We have only this moment, sparkling like a star in our hand, and melting like a snowflake. —Sir Francis Bacon, Sr.
Another way to describe it is that you are bringing full attention to the present moment, whatever that moment is. You might have been carrying stress or irritation that you were unaware of. Sometimes that comes out when we take things out on other people or objects around us. Mindfulness is bringing awareness to ourselves, even if the awareness is that we are in pain, restless, irritated, feeling stressed. It is being fully present and aware of the sensations that we are feeling.
In Mindfulness Made Simple, it is pointed out that the two main aspects of mindfulness are attention and acceptance. Attention involves being fully aware of what is happening in your mind in the present moment: your thoughts, emotions, and sensations. Acceptance involves being able to perceive your own experiences clearly without judging them.
The Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, is very good at explaining mindfulness in ways that make it easy to understand for people who were not raised in the Buddhist tradition. I highly recommend his books and audible books (OFFER: try Audible and get two free audiobooks), especially, “Peace is Every Step“.
In “Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life”, Jon Kabat-Zinn says, about mindfulness:
“This kind of attention nurtures greater awareness, clarity, and acceptance of present-moment reality. It wakes us up to the fact that our lives unfold only in moments. If we are not fully present for many of those moments, we may not only miss what is most valuable in our lives but also fail to realize the richness and the depth of our possibilities for growth and transformation.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life”
So, what is mindfulness in plain English? It is a non-judgmental way of paying attention to what is happening in our minds and our lives as it is happening. There are many ways to attain mindfulness — through various types of meditation, through yoga, etc.. Also, there are many reasons why achieving mindfulness is desirable. The simplest reason, which is at the heart of all other reasons is that by attaining mindfulness, we can reduce or even overcome our suffering. It is our wandering minds, and the judgments we attach to those wandering thoughts, after all, that are truly at the heart of all suffering.