Since mindfulness is central to the practice of Buddhism, and a key meditation practice from the tradition, it’s bound to feature in the interview I’ll soon be doing with senior meditation teacher from the Triratna Order and author of ‘Buddhist Meditation‘ Kamalashila. So I thought I’d write a ‘prequel’ to the interview itself, looking at the question ‘What is mindfulness?’
What is mindfulness
The word ‘mindfulness’ seems to have entered mainstream culture these days. I hear it fairly regularly. But what does it actually mean?
Different Buddhist schools have some different ideas about the nuances, but for general purposes, mindfulness means:
- maintaining awareness of right here, right now (i.e. not drifting off into memories, or the imagined future)
- not being on auto-pilot, and therefore being harder to manipulate and influence subconsciously
- a kind of contented watchfulness of our experience – the posture we are in, the senses we are experiencing, how we feel about those experiences, and what we are thinking
- relaxed and alert – an easy concentration (like when you are enjoying being in nature, or listening to some gentle music)
- a ‘platform’ that supports experiences that naturally arise based on it – many people practising mindfulness meditation experience spontaneous feelings of bliss and tranquility
- remembering clearly, without distortion – this is more of a consequence of mindfulness than mindfulness itself
- a ‘heedfulness’ (the opposite of intoxication) which makes it harder for us to act unwisely, or unethically – we are less likely to act out of negative emotions, even when we are experiencing them
Kabat-Zinn (developer of the mindfulness-based stress reduction course and author of Full Catastrophe Living) describes mindfulness as
…the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose in the present moment, and non-judgementally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.
How to practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is something you practice in daily life. It’s also something you practice in formal meditation.
There are a whole bunch of meditation practices for developing mindfulness, and a whole bunch more that require a level of mindfulness in order to practise them effectively.
One of the best known is the mindfulness of breathing. I talked about this recently in a mail-out. If you’re seriously interested in establishing a successful meditation practice, sign up. You get an email every 2 weeks. Here’s an extract:
Sitting comfortably, allow your eyes to close and become aware of your body. Notice the different sensations, the sounds around you, the weight of your body on the floor/cushion/chair and how your body is supported, without you needing to make much effort. With your inner awareness, scan the body, from the base of your posture to the top of your head for about 5 minutes. Try to ‘inhabit’ each part of the body, and let it become soft and quiet. You only need a minimal amount of muscle tone to support your posture.
When you’ve done that, notice how you’re feeling – don’t judge it – whatever it is is fine.
Then become aware of the tone (not particularly the content) of your thoughts.
Then allow your awareness to ‘rest’ on your breath.
You don’t need to force the breath at all – just notice how it is. Notice the flow. Notice the depth or shallowness of it. Notice where you are noticing it – at the nose? In the belly? The whole process?
You’re now set up for the practice.
The practice happens in 4 stages, of equal duration. To start with, about 5 minutes for each stage will be fine.
- Notice the breath. At the end of the out-breath, count one. Then at the end of the next one, count two. And so on, up to ten. Then start at one again.
- Do the same, but this time, count at the start of the in-breath. It’s a subtle difference, but it encourages a little more focus and requires a little more attention.
- Let the counting fall away. Just watch/listen to the breath (with your awareness).
- Move your attention to the place where the breath enters and leaves the body. Perhaps the tip of the nose. Now you’re not even watching the breath – you are experiencing the sensation the breath makes on your nose as it enters and leaves the body. By now your attention should be pretty refined.
If/when you notice your attention has wandered, gently and kindly let it come back to the breath. Don’t judge, just come back to the breath. If you’re particularly distracted, come back to the body first, then the breath. When you come to the end of the practice, slowly relax your attention and broaden it out to the whole of the breathing process, then the whole body, then the sounds around you. When you’re ready, open your eyes. See if you can leave the meditation as mindfully as you were in it. Take the mindfulness out to the rest of your day. But don’t act too freaky or people will think you’re weird 😉
I hope that gives you a sense of what mindfulness is about. Now give it a try! And remember – if you want to learn about meditation, come back soon to read my interview with Kamalashila – author of ‘Buddhist Meditation‘.