Saturday, September 10, 2011

What Is Mindfulness?

Inspired by Gil Fronsdal's wonderful presentation earlier this week about, 'Making a Difference:  a Vision for the Role of Mindfulness in Society', I started thinking some more about one of the questions raised by Gil: what is mindfulness? And looked around for definitions.

First the definitions shared by Gil during his presentation:

Mindfulness is a type of meditation

Mindfulness is paying attention to daily life.

Mindfulness is the combination of particular approaches and attitudes for paying attention.

Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.  Kabat-Zinn, 1994

Mindfulness is the universal dharma that is so co-extensive if not identical with the teachings of the Buddha. Jon Kabat-Zinn (recent definition)

Mindfulness is the art of observing your physical, emotional and mental experiences with deliberate, open, and curious attention. 

Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose in the present moment with compassion and open hearted curiosity.

Mindfulness is a way of life.

Next, other contemporary definitions I found on the Web:

Mindfulness is bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis.  Mariatt and Kristeller, 1999

Mindfulness is a kind of nonelaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is.  Bishop et al, 2004

The first component [of mindfulness] involves the self-regulation of attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience, thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment. The second component involves adopting a particular orientation toward one’s experiences in the present moment, an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance. Bishop, Lau et al, 2007

I asked my followers on Twitter to help, and got these two great answers:

Debra McCrea (@debraZERO) likes this definition from Thich Nat Hanh: Feelings, whether of compassion or irritation, should be welcomed, recognized, and treated on an absolutely equal basis; because both are ourselves. The tangerine I am eating is me. The mustard greens I am planting are me. I plant with all my heart and mind. I clean this teapot with the kind of attention I would have were I giving the baby Buddha or Jesus a bath. Nothing should be treated more carefully than anything else. In mindfulness, compassion, irritation, mustard green plant, and teapot are all sacred. Thich Nhat Hanh (The Miracle of Mindfulness)

And from Toni Bernhard (@howtobesick), the author of How To Be Sick, I got this, straight from the Buddha's mouth: In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself - Bahiya Sutta.

I also turned to three of my favorite teachers:

It’s cultivating good qualities in the mind. It’s making conditions right so good qualities can arise. If, while sitting, you’re dreaming up things the mind can feel greedy about, I don’t call that meditation. That’s why I say that the mind working to do the meditation is more important than the posture. But people associate the word “meditation” with “sitting.” The two words have become synonymous, but this is a mistake. There are two kinds of meditation. In samatha [calm abiding], you need to sit and be still. My emphasis is Vipassana [insight meditation]. For Vipassana practice, sitting is not necessary. The purpose of practicing Vipassana is to cultivate wisdom. U Tejaniya

It refers to a plain and impartial attentiveness to the object of observation, free from conceptual thinking. Mindfulness restricts itself to having that penetrative attentiveness of noting the occurrence and disappearance of a mental or bodily object (nâma-rupa) as it is. For instance, when there is the awareness of hearing, it is immediately noted as such. When the knowledge arises of what is heard, the mind marks just the fact of knowing and drops further interest because another process is already in the making. This, `letting go', not paying further interest is essential for the establishing of a sharp mindfulness. It enables one to follow precisely the arising and disappearing of all these processes. To understand what is mindfulness and to be able to apply it in the right way, one must make a clear distinction between the function of mindfulness and the normal attention people have, in their various activities. Mindfulness is not just a little bit more attention than one usually has . . .  Mindfulness is only facing what is in the present moment without giving a specific emotional value to the object. Mindfulness deals only with the present moment, here and now. Ayya Khema

That which "looks over" the various factors which arise in meditation is 'sati', mindfulness. Ajahn Chah

Many views, all pointing to the same stance.

For me, I like the image of choosing to dwell in awareness, one step removed from our habitual reality of being lost in thoughts, emotions, sensations, etc. This is where the freedom is to be found, and the ensuing joy. I am no longer prisoner of the capricious nature of thoughts, and of my reactions to the ever changing, and therefore highly unsatisfactory nature of life. 

What is your experience of mindfulness, and how would you put it into words?


  1. breaking the habitual cycle of stimulus and reaction?

  2. Thank you for this wonderful collection of jewels! It's hard to add anything to such wisdom. I like your image of choosing to dwell in awareness not lost in thoughts. If there is compassionate mindfulness and dispassionate mindfulness, even if it isn't 'pure' mindfulness, I choose the first.

  3. Yes, responding instead of our usual tendency to react is definitely a part (or a positive outcome?) of mindfulness practice.

  4. David, thank you for adding compassion into the mix! This is where loving kindness practice can be such a powerful antidote to our Western self-critical ways . . .

  5. Thanks for this interesting post. An operational definition that I found helpful in practice, it was offered by my teacher : mindfulness = body relaxed and mind quiet.

  6. Hummm . . .

    What happens then when awareness finds tensions in the body, and chattering mind? :)

  7. My apologies, I was not very clear. The idea as i understand it is that deepening mindfulness can be achieved by working at deepening body and mind relaxation (by letting go of tensions affecting both). So one would try to relax in presence of tensions or mental noise. Which means that you would have to stay at ease when their presence is noticed, but also have to work at resolving/dissolving them (using wisdom and compassion). Incidentally, and with practice, it can make you more accepting of anything that comes up, more skillful at dealing with it and thus more present for it, without aversion or greed. And in a sense when awareness notices those tensions it's good, it means that mindfulness is probably there already. Sorry, that's a lot of information, I hope it can be of some benefit. :)

  8. Agree, Nicolas, that relaxing body and quieting the mind are part of mindfulness practice. Do you know the teacher U Tejaniya? He is very big on cultivating a relaxed attitude.