1. What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is attention to the present moment. It is being fully aware through your five senses of what is happening around you and inside your own head right now, not yesterday or tomorrow. If you stop to think about it, for most people life is experienced as a series of thoughts floating through your head. Those thoughts often involve an internal dialogue, images, sensations, or emotions playing out in your brain. Those thoughts often have no relationship with the events at that moment happening immediately around or inside you. And most people are not even completely observant of this relentless chain of thoughts, except perhaps superficially. How many times in the last week have you been day dreaming, or worrying about a problem, or thinking about the future, just to find that you have totally missed present events happening right in front of you? What did that person just say? Was that a red light? What did that meal really taste like? Why am I so upset right now? Similarly, how often do you find yourself so wrapped up in your own emotions that you “can’t even think straight”? Unless you already practice mindfulness, your “normal” storm of thoughts obscures your true understanding of the world, your own thoughts, and your own emotional cycles.
Mindfulness is being more aware and having your mental capabilities fully available at any given moment. It is engaging in and accepting experiences non-judgmentally, whether they may seem to be pleasant, unpleasant, or simply neutral. This is a wonderful approach to everyday life. If you are suddenly confronted with a problem, do you want to have 50% of your mental capacity to solve that problem or the full 100%? Similarly, if you are going to manage your money and successfully invest for the future, do you want to make and execute those plans in a cloud of mental distraction and emotional turmoil or not? Which approach is likely to be more successful?
Mindfulness, or being fully “present” as some authors describe it, originates most directly from Buddhist teachings, but it also arises in various other ancient contemplative arts and philosophies. But mindfulness, as it is discussed here, is not about religion, mysticism, or the spiritual. Religion has its place outside this discussion, and many branches of Buddhism practiced around the world have spiritual or religious elements. However, Buddhism does not involve faith in or worship of any supernatural being or God, and I believe the portions of Buddhism relevant to mindfulness are more appropriately regarded as a philosophy. (By the way, I am certainly no expert in Buddhism. If any one feels my description of Buddhism is clumsy, this is just my personal view, and I have no intention of offending anyone’s faith.) Regardless of the origins of mindfulness, the discussions on this website are entirely about the tangible and observable, and you can completely forget the origins of mindfulness if you like. Don’t take anything I say here on faith. I am only asking you to consider the information on this website, and make your own judgements about what seems valid and invalid.
A great deal has been said about mindfulness in the modern world. My brief description above probably leaves you with many unanswered questions. There are many books and resources on the web defining mindfulness in great detail. For books I recommend:
- The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh
- Full Catastrophe Living, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D.
- A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle
Each of these books approaches the subject in slightly different ways, but they all describe the same basic concept. Eckhart Tolle, in particular, has a more expansive way of discussing presence in the “now” and the distractions of negative thoughts and emotions, but his writings are still fundamentally about mindfulness.
If you don’t like reading books, there are heaps of YouTube videos about various aspects of mindfulness and meditation. (I discuss the relationship between mindfulness and meditation in Article 1.1 on how to become more mindful.) A good starting place is this video by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
I find that just concentrating on this talk (or some of his other videos) in a quiet non-distracting environment is quite calming in itself.