What Mindfulness Means
Take a look at each concept that makes up the following definition of mindfulness: intentionally paying attention to your present moment experiences with compassion, curiosity, acceptance and openness.
Intention: The process of being mindful requires an intention. Your intention is your reason to practice — this may be to reduce your stress, to manage your emotions or develop wisdom. Being clear about what you hope to get from mindfulness in the long term shapes the quality of your mindfulness experience.
For example, if you go to your local supermarket with a clear intention to get milk, bread and eggs, you’ll probably achieve it. But if you turn up not really sure what you’re after, you may end up buying anything on special offer, even if you don’t need it.
Paying attention: Attention can be narrow or wide. Traditionally mindfulness is about developing a wide, open awareness, but most mindfulness exercises begin with a narrow, focused attention on something — for example, focusing your attention on your breath or a part of your body. Most meditations move on to encompass a wide, open attention too.
Present moment: The here and now — whatever is happening in this moment. If you’re paying attention to whatever is happening now, and you’re aware that you’re paying attention, you’re in the now. Much of the time, your mind is focused on events of the past or concerns about the future.
Mindfulness values experiences in the present moment, which ironically leads to a better future! Ultimately, the only moment that exists is the present moment — everything else just exists in your own mind.
Your present moment experiences can be internal (such as thoughts or emotions) or external (such as whatever you perceive through your senses).
Compassion: Kindness to yourself is the key here. When practicing mindfulness, you’re invited to be nice to yourself. Whenever you notice yourself judging yourself in a harsh way, mindfulness encourages you to be aware of this process and let the judgment go.
You probably have an inner critic within your mind that’s often criticizing you or others. Most people do. Mindfulness is about noticing this aspect of yourself and stepping back from it, rather than feeding or encouraging more criticism.
In the ancient Indian Pali language, the words for mind and heart are the same. And the Chinese character for mindfulness is a combination of two characters. One part means now and the other means mind or heart. So, when you hear the word mindfulness you can also consider it to mean heartfulness.
Curiosity: Mindfulness is quite natural for children because they’re naturally inquisitive and constantly asking ‘why?’. Mindfulness is about rekindling your inner curiosity. If you’re more curious about the world around you, you’re immediately more mindful instead of behaving habitually and reacting to situations automatically. Even children can benefit from mindfulness though.
This dimension of curiosity is especially helpful when dealing with difficult thoughts and emotions. Instead of automatically trying to fight or run away from unhelpful thoughts or emotions, mindfulness encourages you to become curious about them. This in turn creates a different mind state and is more likely to allow your difficult inner experience to pass away.
Acceptance: One of the most important and poorly understood attitudes in mindfulness. In fact, mindfulness is sometimes referred to as an acceptance-based therapy because this attitude is so important. Acceptance for some people has negative connotations of passivity, giving up or allowing someone to do wrong without taking action — acting like a doormat. But this isn’t at all what acceptance means in mindfulness.
Acceptance is an active process of acknowledging your present-moment experience and is particularly important when dealing with emotions. This example may help. Imagine that you’re travelling from London to Manchester. Before you can get to Manchester, you need to accept that you’re in London. That makes sense.
If you don’t accept that you’re in London, you’re never going to get to Manchester. You need to begin where you are. In the same way, if you’re feeling sad, you need to accept it. Pretending, denying, fighting or running from your feeling doesn’t help — in fact, you’re inadvertently giving the feeling more attention and so are more likely to strengthen it.
Openness: Mindfulness encourages you to open up to your inner and outer experiences, as best you can. Openness means a sense of stepping back from your experiences, but not avoiding or running away from them. This stepping back is tremendously helpful when you’re having relentless thoughts or difficult emotions.
Mindfulness enables you to watch the thoughts arising and passing away without the need to cling or attach to them. You don’t need to believe everything you think. A sense of detached openness also enables you to watch emotions come and go from a safe distance instead of being overwhelmed by your feelings. In this way, instead of suppressing emotions you deal with them.
For example, say you’re nervous about an upcoming exam. You can watch your thoughts, such as ‘I hate exams’ or ‘What if I fail?’, as just thoughts and let them go.
You can also be aware of the feeling of anxiety in your stomach with a sense of distance or perspective. You may then center yourself by taking a few deep, slow breaths, feeling the sensation of your breath in your body. You then feel more effectively prepared to study for your exam.