What The Heck is Mindfulness?
One person says it’s a passing fad that’s harming our kids, the next it’s a revolution that’s going to change the world. What is mindfulness really?
What is mindfulness?
“Ahhhh, mindfulness! Yes! Mindfulness is what we need to save the world!”
Might say someone who follows the Dalai Lama on Twitter.
“Mindfulness is about feeling your feet on the floor and your bum on the seat.”
Might say someone who teaches mindfulness to kids.
“Mindfulness! Omg, like, I just freaking love mindfulness. It’s all about, like, just feeling your body and, like, getting in touch with the present moment.”
Might say someone who went on a one-weekend mindfulness retreat ten years ago and now lives by it.
For something that’s meant to be all about sitting quietly and shutting up, people seem to have an awful lot to say about mindfulness.
Go to any party or gathering and the word will somehow manage to come up.
Turn on the radio or browse the news and there’ll be at least one story about how it’s being used in universities or in prisons or veterinary practices to help intellectually-challenged gerbils find some calm and joy in their lives.
And if you want to find out even more about it, then heck, there’s an ever-growing mass of books and courses and luxury retreats that describe in ever greater detail and ever flowerier language what it’s all about and all the reasons why you need to do it right now to improve your crappy little life.
If you haven’t guessed already, I’m pretty sick of hearing about mindfulness.
And I’ve got a feeling I’m not the only one.
The problem is, you can’t say anything too loud or too critical about mindfulness as you know what will happen if you do…
“Omg, you clearly, like, just need to give yourself more self-compassion and start practicing mindfulness.”
Mindfulness is the 21st-century solution for everything
No matter what your problem, mindfulness can solve it.
Want to smooth out the wrinkles on your face? Here’s some mindful body scan practices for reducing stress. Want to more accurately snipe immigrants who’re illegally crossing the border? Here’s some mindfulness exercises for improving focus.
Or maybe you want to find a way to cope with your alcoholic mother-in-law or avoid dealing with your sixteen-doughnut-a week habit. Here, discover the practice of acceptance and learn how to be okay with things exactly how they are.
Lightyears away from its ancient and sense-of-self expanding Buddhist roots, mindfulness in the Modern West is being converted into a self-improvement pill that serves two purposes:
To help you get more of what you want.
To help you get less of what you don’t want.
Mindfulness is often used as a way to get something or to avoid something. Turning a practice that’s about letting go of ideas and concepts into an intellectual discussion, a method of feeling okay with yourself and uncomfortable experiences into a self-help and entertainment trope, and a philosophy for developing a deeper knowledge and understanding of reality into a cheap productivity skill.
The fact that this has happened to mindfulness on its journey from East to West is far from a little ironic.
With all these mixed-up and contradictory ideas about what mindfulness is today, it’s no wonder that no one seems to have a real clue about what it actually is.
At its core, though, what mindfulness teaches is incredibly simple. As Vietnamese monk and all-around badass Thich Nhat Hahn says:
“Mindfulness is the capacity to be aware of what’s going on”.
With this in mind, to really understand mindfulness, it’s not just enough to hear more about what it is, how it should be practiced, and all the amazing things it has to offer you. Rather, you have to become aware of and unlearn much of what you’ve already been led to believe it is.
The aim of this article is to start clearing away some of the ideas and misconceptions that have built up around mindfulness so that you can, like The Buddha suggested, find out what it is for yourself. We’ll specifically look at the meaning of mindfulness across four key areas: mindfulness as a word, mindfulness as a type of awareness, mindfulness as a fad, and mindfulness as a skill.
1. Mindfulness as a word
The word mindfulness came into English in the 19th century from Pali, the ancient Indian language spoken around the time of the guy we know today as the historical Buddha.
It was a translation of the word Sati, which meant “to remember” or “to recollect” using your memory.
And before the modern mindfulness movement kicked off in the 70s, mindfulness meant simply that:
“the capacity to remember someone or something, especially when you’re in the act of doing something else.”
We still use the word in this way all the time. When many people hear the word “mindfulness”, it’s this meaning that often comes to mind first.
For instance, you could demonstrate “mindfulness” when washing the dishes by not smashing them together. Trump could say he’s being “mindful” of the concerns of the people (ha!).
You could be mindful of how not mindful you are about all this mindfulness stuff.
Following the 60s and 70s, when Westerners began going over to Southeast Asia to find their true selves on the cheap, the word mindfulness expanded to mean everything from a particular type of awareness, a set of practices, and a revolution, to a form of spiritual-based entertainment, a therapeutic intervention, and something that makes you sound like you’re in touch with your spiritual side at parties.
The point is, the word is now used to mean many different things. But its main use is related to its original meaning as “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something”, albeit with a little extra pizzazz.
Google defines this new version of mindfulness as:
“a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.”
Okay… That’s all well and good. But wait a minute, tell me, now what is “one’s awareness”? And what exactly is this “present moment”? And what the heck does “acceptance” look like?
Exactly how all the above is understood can depend on everything from your religion, lineage, training, age, and state of mind, to your beliefs, biases, goals, and your basic interpretation of the above words.
This above point isn’t something that’s to be brushed over as a feature of being an ignorant Westerner. Rather, it’s the inevitable outcome of transmuting one English word to try and describe an ancient Eastern concept that has multiple different meanings, interpretations, and uses, and which, in fact, Buddhist and Hindu scholars have been—and still are—disagreeing about the meaning of for millennia.
We simply don’t have the words in English or any other language to describe what mindfulness is trying to get at.
It’s why teachers often resort to the next best thing and using Pali and Sanskrit to get their messages across, a strategy which has the unfortunate consequences of sounding pretentious and limiting teachings to people who have the patience to learn words from two-thousand-year-old languages that no one today understands.
But more than that, there hasn’t yet been a time in history when there was one universal agreement for what “mindfulness” actually means. And because of its nature, the likelihood is, there never will be.
The good news is there are some insanely bright people who speak English and get what mindfulness is all about, and so we modern Westerners are starting to build up a better vocabulary to talk about it in a common way whilst actually making some sense.
2. Mindfulness as a type of awareness
If you’ve been mindfully reading this article, you’ll know that so far we’ve discovered mindfulness has two meanings:
“the capacity to remember something…”
“a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, yadda yadda….”
We can call this first meaning “Plain Old Mindfulness”. Depending on the context, Plain Old Mindfulness can mean everything from being mindful of the whereabouts of the sixteen tiny people you’re looking after as a nursery assistant to being mindful that you’ve had one too many gins to finish the article you’re writing whilst still managing to create sense…
As you can see, I am enjoying a few gins, but also, Plain Old Mindfulness is a faculty that we all possess. However, in order for it to become a practice, it has to be used in a very specific way. This is when it turns into the other meaning, which we can call “Mindful Awareness”.
Mindful Awareness is all the rage. And engaging in practices like walking and sitting meditation (“Mindfulness Practices”) are the most common ways you can practice it.
The thing is, though, many people’s understanding of mindfulness stops right here. They believe that by taking Plain Old Mindfulness, adding a bit of sugar by, say, being less judgemental, and directing it toward their big toe or a random idea like the “Present Moment”, then that is essentially what all this mindfulness stuff is all about.
This is perhaps the biggest misunderstanding about mindfulness that exists today. It’s so widespread that it was in the clinical definition of the word until not too long ago, and tonnes of teachers still teach mindfulness without, ironically, being fully mindful of the fact they’re not actually teaching it right.
This is because we’re still missing one crucial meaning from our understanding of mindfulness.
So far, we’ve only talked about mindfulness as a training exercise. As “Mindful Awareness”, or paying attention in a particular way through doing various kinds of practices or “meditations”.
However, when you do meditation and “mindfulness as a practice” you also get “mindfulness as an outcome”. This result is something we can call, borrowed from mindfulness teacher Shinzen Young, “Baseline Mindful Awareness.”
Despite how it’s often thought about, mindfulness is both something you can actively practice, i.e. by using Mindful Awareness to do Mindfulness Meditation, as well as something that comes about as a result or outcome of doing that practice.
Any Tom, Dick, or Harry can “be mindful” by simply paying extra attention to the feeling in their buttcheeks while driving or noticing the impatience they’re feeling when having a conversation with a friend and are waiting to talk about themselves. This is not mindfulness. They are merely specific aspects or specific ways of practicing mindfulness.
Practicing Mindful Awareness is often confused as the goal or outcome of mindfulness practice. In this way, you can become really good at being aware of what’s right in front of you and feeling your little toes, but all the while remaining unable to remember where you left your keys, not have a clue about what emotions you feel, and unaware that you’ve just eaten a whole pack of doughnuts—again.
Recap: The three types of mindfulness:
Plain Old Mindfulness (Innate Skill)
“The quality or state of being conscious or aware of something”.
Using your attention to not step in the milk you’ve just spilled everywhere or to remember that your grandma is still alive and you should probably go visit.
Mindful Awareness (Used in Practice)
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Using your attention in a particular way to notice thoughts, feelings, sensations, and anything else that arises. Most often used in mindfulness meditation, otherwise known as Vipassana or Insight meditation, and practices like the body scan and walking meditation, with the aim of attentional training, emotional regulation, and insight.
Baseline Mindfulness (The Outcome)
“Mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally.”
The outcome of practices like mindfulness meditation. Talked about as everything from a type of open, non-judgemental awareness, to a state of non-attachment and oneness with everyone and everything.
It takes much more time, work, energy, commitment [enter anything else people typically don’t want to do] to develop a more general and effortless Baseline Mindful Awareness.
Like for any sport you would spend some time practicing for, cultivating this type of awareness is a case of using Mindful Awareness to do Mindfulness Practices and facing some pretty rough shit you really don’t want to go through and would rather not deal with.
But like being able to run out onto the pitch, forget everything you’ve practiced, and letting the game simply play itself, or going on stage to perform and letting everything just effortlessly take place, Baseline Mindful Awareness is the fruit of putting in the time and effort and the whole point of doing the practice in the first place.
We find this type of mindfulness a little more tricky to grasp as it’s not something we can consciously or actively do. Baseline Mindfulness is not about being in the world whilst being able to notice all the different textures of the cracks you’re walking on and remembering to interrupt conversations every few moments to take a few deep breaths and remind the person your speaking with to “be more present”. That’s like doing tot ups in the middle of a World Cup match or practicing scales while playing in front of a packed crowd. You need to do the practice, but the outcome of mindfulness is when you can finally settle back and forget the practice so you can enjoy your life and relationships with a greater sense of openness and acceptance.
3. Mindfulness as a fad
Now we’ve gotten “mindfulness the word” and “mindfulness the awareness” out of the way, we need to address “mindfulness the fad”.
Mindfulness the fad is any idea that suggests practicing mindfulness can, no, WILL make your life better in every single way you can possibly imagine.
Among other things, it will:
- Give you superhuman focus
- Eliminate all difficulty and stress
- Make you uber productive
- Improve all your relationships
- Make you unbelievable in the bedroom
- Probably make you super slim and desirable
- And do anything else that’s not on this list
Individually, these things are pretty great. And together, well, let’s just say they can have such an enormous and life-changing impact on your life that your head might explode because you’re so filled with love and happiness and at one with the world.
This is how mindfulness is sold. And it is this panacea marketing manifesto that’s making it become the subject of much recent debate and criticism, particularly in what’s becoming known as the “McMindfulness” industry.
The McMindfulness industry is the argument that mindfulness and its practices are being exploited to create what Miles Neale, Buddhist teacher, psychotherapist, and the person who coined the term, calls “a feeding frenzy of spiritual practices that provide immediate nutrition but no long-term sustenance”.
Like meat and the fast-food industry, surprise surprise, it turns out mindfulness is not immune to being sold for quick and selfish gains.
In the same way that fast food franchising commoditizes a product and strips it of any personalization or substance, i.e. the “Big Mac” or “The Whopper”, the McMindfulness industry turns mindfulness into something that’s generic, superficial, and void of any real nourishment or value.
Once again, with the help of mindfulness teacher and super-nerd Shinzen Young, we can give this type of mindfulness a name: “Mindfulness Lite”.
Mindfulness Lite is a two-minute guided meditation on an app recorded by George the accountant. Mindfulness Lite is a weekend course on “Mindfulness for Reducing Your Golfing Handicap”. Mindfulness Lite is a mindfulness productivity seminar to help you get every last ounce of energy and profit out of your already overworked and burnt-out staff.
Like a Big Mac or a Whopper, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Mindfulness Lite. It can taste good and even make you feel better for a while. But more often than not, it will do little if anything to bring lasting and profound changes to your life.
What’s more, like the fast-food industry, Mindfulness Lite can quickly turn into a much bigger problem when it gets a taste of profits and disregards itself of any social responsibility or connection to the surrounding world.
One of the big reasons Mindfulness Lite is so successful is that mindfulness practices can help people reach calm and concentrated states of mind through absorptive meditation practices.
This is how you can become a spiritual cult leader without being aware of the irony of it all, or how you meditate for two hours every day for twenty years and still never remember where your keys are.
Such absorptive practices were never meant to be practiced in isolation, in terms of both the support of other people and the support of other practices. It goes without saying that the reason all this other stuff has been cast aside is that it’s often trickier to grasp, disruptive to your life, and takes a bit longer to digest than a few minutes in between office meetings.
In contrast to Mindfulness Lite, thanks to Shinzen, we can call the full-blown unadulterated version of mindfulness “Mindfulness Classic”. Mindfulness Classic can lead to all the benefits of Mindfulness Lite that are listed above, but with one small but pretty key difference:
It’s not about you.
Whereas Mindfulness Lite is typically about minimizing what you don’t want (to feel bad, to lose status, to not be poor) and maximizing what you do want (to feel good, to get status, to get money), Mindfulness Classic is about getting used to what you don’t want and learning to be okay without the things you want.
Paradoxically, Mindfulness Classic leads to the same results that are offered by Mindfulness Lite—and in a more deeper and meaningful way—but it’s a much harder sell. For this reason, it’s often only what people turn to when all else has finally failed them, as Shinzen says: “when nothing but the Big Guns can save you.”
Mindfulness Lite is a Happy Meal to Mindfulness Classic’s twelve-course Michelin star dining experience. There’s simply no comparison. And yet, whether it’s due to deception, habit, lack of access to quality teaching, or just putting it off until the right time comes (which, you guessed it, never does), many people still go through life convinced that the former is the healthier and tastiest option.
4. Mindfulness as a skill or practice
Although Baseline Mindful Awareness is something that is developed or brought about through practice, it’s not to be confused with any other type of skill.
Rather, it is the skill.
Baseline Mindful Awareness is the basis for your whole experience, from reading this awesome article to studying a Ph.D. in Astrophysics. It is, therefore, the foundation upon which all other skills are built.
In other words, Baseline Mindful Awareness is not just another arrow you can add to your bow, it is the bow itself.
This means in order to develop it, it needs a much different approach than we’re used to.
To use the bow and arrow analogy in a more general way, normally we go through life trigger-happily firing arrows with the hope of landing something good and avoiding anything unpleasant. They come out in such a flurry that we end up mistaking the arrows for what we are, spending much of our lives caught up and distracted by whatever glorious goodies or sticky messes they happen to land us in.
What this can look like in real terms is that our attention is fleeting and scattered, our emotions are all over the place, and our actions in the world have no real meaning or direction—often leading us to suffer much more than we need to.
Usually, our approach to dealing with this is to attain more, better arrows and to learn how to fire them in a way so that we can get less of the negatives and more of the positives. But typically, this just makes things more complicated and often a whole lot messier.
When taking the crazy archer approach to mindfulness, it can appear like the practice is about acquiring more and more skills that you didn’t have and going on some sort of journey of evolving into a super spiritual and enlightened being that will only ever hit the center of the target.
But this would be to miss the point entirely.
As mindfulness is the not an arrow but the bow itself, there is nothing new you need to find, attain, develop, or achieve to “develop” it. In fact, what you need to do is recognize such processes, that typically happen automatically and habitually, that draw you away from being able to see the bow and being content with what you already have.
This shift is the difference between being stuck in a constant mode of “doing”—i.e. seeking, judging, analyzing, and thinking—and moving toward a mode of “being”—opening, sensing, non-judging, accepting.
To offer a similar analogy, practicing mindfulness is like recognizing in every situation we’re hit with two darts. The first dart is the event itself, and the second dart is our resistance or reaction to the event.
Instead of immediately and often without realizing jumping at the first dart and engaging in the futile game of stabbing ourselves with another by resisting it, mindfulness gets you to become more aware of when the first dart hits, what it actually is, and how it’s actually not as much of a big deal as you thought.
Another way of putting it would be to compare how we experience the world to looking through a pair of binoculars. Whereas we normally act within the world with a somewhat shaky and blurred view of things, practicing mindfulness teaches you to first steady your grip, figure out where and when to aim the binoculars, and how to increase your wide-angle view and zoom power so you can clearly and effortlessly see what’s going on in any given situation.
Many of us find mindfulness difficult to understand because the fact is, it is different from anything else we do in life.
Instead of messing around with the “contents of experience”, for instance, by identifying and questioning irrational beliefs in CBT, mindfulness is about getting us to notice the “processes of experience”, for instance, by recognizing how certain feelings color our mood and are connected to certain flavors of thought.
In other words, mindfulness is not about changing your experience in any way, it is about changing your relationship to your experience.
Traditional interventions like psychotherapy and CBT are more what aim to help people with their contents of experience, i.e. their individual, personal, and circumstantial issues that come about as a result of living in the world.
Mindfulness, on the other hand, aims to give people insight into universal transpersonal principles that come about by simply being alive.
The two go hand in hand. One isn’t better than the other. Mindfulness isn’t a fix-all that will turn your mother-in-law into a saint and save you thousands on sorting out your daddy issues. It can, however, do what even thousands of hours of therapy may not even touch: help you figure out how to deal with an incessantly chattering mind, find contentment and peace outside of praise, fleeting rewards, and changing conditions, and come to terms with a few pesky fundamental facts of life like suffering, purpose, identity, and death.
Mindfulness means many different things to many different people. But the practice itself is about getting out of your head and recognizing that ideas and concepts do not often accurately represent reality. So where better to start with mindfulness than by dropping everything you’ve learned, been told, or read about it and to go find out what it is for yourself?
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