What is Mindfulness?

What is Mindfulness?

mindfulnessMindfulness is an offshoot of Taoist and Buddhist practice which focuses on putting yourself in the present moment. While there is no one accepted definition of Mindfulness, one common one (and the one we will be using in here) is this:

Mindfulness is being completely and utterly in the present moment, in a non-judgmental way.

Now what exactly does this mean? For the most part, this is a pretty straight-forward sentence. Be in the present moment, and be non-judgmental while you do it. Still, when you get down to it, this isn’t so clear anymore.

Let’s start with the first part of the sentence, being completely and utterly in the present moment. Can someone be completely and utterly in any moment, let alone the present moment (which needs more defining, but we’ll get to that later). In today’s society, where we have constant distractions and things vying for our attention, does anything get all of our attention? It’s not likely. The practice of “mindfulness” is really the pursuit of bringing all your attention to one moment, the current moment.

At any given moment you might notice that you have a lot of things competing for your attention. When your phone is buzzing in your pocket and you are wondering who is calling, the people around you are making noise and conversation, your own worries about what is happening later in the day…it can be hard to attend to the present moment. The practice of mindfulness is a path to finding a calmness and a sense of inner peace as it pertains to this moment…instead of the past or the future or the current distraction. This means, noticing that in this moment…your phone is buzzing. That in this moment, there is noise and conversation. That in the moment, you are pulled to think about the past, or the future. The reality is…in this moment, maybe you’re taking a walk. Maybe there are birds chirping, or great architecture to see. Maybe you’re frustrated, or angry, or happy, or sad. And all of those distractions, events, feelings, and thoughts are happening in this moment. Your job is to sit with all of that, notice it all, and then let it pass, so that you can then experience the next moment.

How on earth do you “stay in the moment”? By first accepting that we can’t “stay” anywhere. Our physical, mental and environmental states are changing constantly…whether we like it or not. In accepting that things change constantly, it can be helpful to know when you are “stuck”.

Imagine wearing a shirt made of velcro, and that all your thoughts/feelings/interactions/etc are tennis balls that are flung at you all the time. Some (most, in fact) hit you in the legs, or just glance off of you, and you move on. You notice them, but they don’t stick with you. Then, others hit you directly on the velcro shirt and they stick to you. No matter where you go, or what you do, they are stuck on you and can go nowhere. That bad conversation you had with your mother, or the guy in the street who was nasty to you, or that time in third grade when you were super embarrassed in front of the whole school…you might find that these painful moments are travelling with you from moment to moment! Even though they were in the past! Instead of enjoying a nice afternoon, or getting your work done and going home, or playing with your kids, you are reliving things that already happened (and, usually, that you aren’t really psyched about reliving!).

Mindfulness is the act of taking off the velcro shirt. Yes, you might get pelted by a tennis ball or two (or ten), but if you are mindfully in the present moment you won’t carry those tennis balls with you wherever you go. And, while they might hurt where they hit you…there may be some value in feeling the hurt. Mindfulness isn’t about making you into a “feeling-less robot!”…and there is likely something to learn from the hurt. Mindfulness is about letting you experience a moment for what it is, and nothing more.

The second part of mindfulness is “non-judgmental”. Let’s go back to that velcro shirt. People typically have a hard time letting the tennis balls glance off of them when they are judging their experience. For example, let’s say you got into a fight with your mother, and now you notice yourself feeling sad and guilty for things you said and did. You might not be too pleased that you are reacting to this fight by feeling sad or guilty. After all, your mom was (clearly!) wrong and you’re really frustrated with her!!! And, you often feel like you’re too guilt ridden, which is something you’re working on. So, you start to think, “I hate that I feel guilty! I hate that I feel sad! What’s wrong with me for having those feelings. I should be angry and pissed off! Ugh!” Then, those feelings of sadness and guilt (and those judgmental feelings you have that you shouldn’t have felt that way to begin with) travel with you from moment to moment. They are stuck to you, and now, even potentially nice moments are tainted by this fight that happened earlier.

This sounds like a pretty typical fight, the kind that everyone has. And, it is! But let’s take a look at how this might be different if you’re really implementing mindfulness in the moment. Same fight, same sadness, same guilt, and same frustration with the sadness and guilt. So, how exactly does mindfulness change things? Instead of wearing a velcro shirt, you’re wearing a silk shirt (that nothing will stick to). You notice that you’re feeling sad, and you say, “OK. I feel sad. What else am I feeling?” You notice the guilt and again, you let it pass. Notice the frustration, and let it slide. Nothing disappears, and nothing goes unnoticed or dismissed. Rather, it just passes, and you move on. Then you are free to notice other things, like the flowers at the corner store that you hadn’t noticed yet. Or the way that your friends can be supportive and make you laugh. Or that the food you’re eating is surprisingly tasty! Maybe you’re still feeling sad, guilty, and frustrated, mindfulness can’t get rid of that (nor does it claim to). However, while you are feeling those feelings, you are also feeling happy about the flowers, and supported and loved by your friends. And you’re feeling grateful about the food. Your day goes from being a complete nightmare to being much more complex (in a good way!).

The non-judgmental part is what allows you to take off the velcro and put on the silk shirt. When you put them both together, you end up being able to be fully present in each moment. We all know that some moments might not be that nice, or fun, or they may even be painful. At the same time, they are transient moments that can change. You are not stuck in any situations or moments, or with any feelings! You’re free to experience anything and everything that life has to offer you.

If you’re still not quite sold on mindfulness being a beneficial thing for you, then think about some of the following points. These are scientifically validated benefits to mindfulness. Some of them might be relevant to you, some of them might not be. At the same time, all of them have benefits!

  • Mindfulness reduces physical pain.
  • Mindfulness enhances sexual performance.
  • Mindfulness improves mood.
  • Mindfulness improves decision making and memory.
  • Mindfulness improves your ability for empathy.
  • Mindfulness boosts attention.
  • Mindfulness increases resilience.
  • Mindfulness slows neurological degenerative diseases (like dementia and Alzheimer’s).
  • Mindfulness enhances creativity
  • Mindfulness reduces loneliness.
  • Mindfulness reduces anxiety.

Need more? How about this infosheet:

  • Thank you Dr. Josh King ! – This is awesome, helpful and very timely as I’m pursuing healing therapy using this technique with CBT. Exciting times when the frontiers of nueroscience converge with ancient eastern mind-practices. I especially like your Mindfulness-Infographic that puts important points into an easier to digest visual format. Great work & very appreciated !

    • Thanks Scott! I’m really glad that you liked this post! I can’t take credit for the infographic though, that comes from the wonderful website informationisbeautiful.net.