What is Mindfulness?

by Nalinda Karunaratna on December 5, 2012

It all started when we were very young our parents started saying to us “pay attention” or “please concentrate”. Then we heard it again at the school, when teachers started chanting the same mantra “pay attention”, perhaps a million times. Then we started working. At work, our bosses started saying the same thing, may be they used a bit more politically correct terms, but essentially the same thing, “pay attention”. Now we chant the same mantra to our own children, “pay attention”. Do we really know, what it truly means? We may use different terms at different times “pay attention”, “concentrate”, “focus” and so on, but they all point to just one thing, that is being mindful or being totally present at this moment. What is Mindfulness? you may ask!

Jon Kabat-Zinn is a well known American scholar who greatly contributed to spread the mindful living and meditation to western countries since 1979. He is the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. I love the way he explains the mindfulness,

Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; On purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally

Let us listen to what he has to say about mindfulness.

What is paying attention on purpose?

Mindfulness encourages having a purpose in everything we do or think. As you know, we do exactly the opposite. We tend to think and do millions of things at the same time. Since we can get more things done, we tend to think multitasking will lead us to happiness. This is a mere illusion. It only creates more tasks. This leads us to exhaustion and we feel restless most of the time. On the other hand we never give the required space to each task, therefore not only we miss the important tasks, but also we never truly experience anything fully. Jumping from one task to another seems more important. In order to experience the life fully we need to bring purpose into our life, into every thought we think, into every word we say, into every action we do. Therefore having a purpose is of primary importance when practicing mindfulness. In fact mindfulness allows us to be on purpose.

For example think about how you take your meals. Most of us habitually tend to do many things while we eat. We may watch TV, read a news paper, talk to your partner, or think about the next thing you have to do etc. Therefore the primary task is forgotten and it is in the background. We are subconsciously aware that we are eating but our attention is elsewhere. Therefore there is no purpose.

How do we bring the purposefulness into every action we do? Let’s take the same example. When we eat we can be both aware and be focused, which means we give our full attention to the present task. In this state of mind there is no room for background noise or any other physical activity. We feel the texture of the food in our mouth, various flavours and aromas. When you chew the food do it fully without thinking about the next bite. Observe the sensations and feelings, do not think about it.

Likewise if you align all your daily tasks with purposefulness you are aligning your mind to be purposeful in every aspect of your life. In this state there is no time, nor space, for wandering and day dreaming. You are fully present. Whenever you loose your attention you will notice it (Initially it may take some time but with the practice you get the hang out of it), so you can bring your attention back to the task you are doing at the present moment.

What is present moment?

Buddha said “The past is already gone; the future is not yet here. There’s only one moment for you to live, and that is the present moment”. It means that the present moment is the only thing we ever have, but we live our life thinking the opposite is true, that the past and the future are more important to us than the precious moment, right here.

We spend hours thinking about things that happened in the past, or thinking about the incidents that will happen in the future. The emotions that are attached to the past, or future, generate the thoughts that we think; and we reiterate those emotions & thoughts over and over again, but then do not realise that this is governing our whole existence. Anger, craving, depression, revenge, negativity, self-pity, boredom, restlessness are all part of this phenomena. We never feel free or at peace as we are just running from our past, or running towards our future.

Think about this. What we perceive to be past and future are nothing but illusions. I am not saying that they are not important, nor relevant, but we are denying the present moment. The only moment we can truly live. Therefore in mindfulness we bring our attention to the moment right here right now.

But in order to do this you need to practice, as habitually, we are hard wired to live in the past and the future. Good news is that there is a method you can use to jump start present-moment living. It is called meditation. Meditation need not be a deep long, hours of quiet sitting. What I am just referring to, is a simple practice which you can spare 10 to 15 minutes daily to see what is happening inside you. This will give you a tremendous boost in your day to be in the present moment or least to be aware that you are not in the present moment, which is a great achievement in itself.

What does it mean by “non-judgmentally”?

In the mindfulness state you stop being clingy to emotions, which mean you see the thoughts and then you see the emotions arising with the thoughts; but you don’t cling to it, or allow them to cling to you. How do we do that? We observe them. This is called being non-judgmental. For an example, when we have a conversation with someone, the conversation can lead to a thought which triggers an emotion, say, anger. Under normal circumstances we let the anger take over us and let it dictate our actions or reactions. But in a mindful state, we observe the thought and the attached emotions, as someone outside witnessing a scene without being attached to the outcome. When observing your state, letting go of feelings and emotions comes automatically. You don’t have to do anything special to let go. The more we practice, the more we experience the changes happening within us. You will create a space between the emotion and the “clinging”, and you will see them separate, this will give you a choice; which means you are in control. You are no longer the victim. You are in the driving seat. You will become alert, poised and mindful, and you will see the stillness and will feel the balance arises within.

To shed more light on this topic I would like to conclude this by extracting a few paragraphs from “Mindfulness in Plain English” by Bhante Gunaratana, one of the best books you can read on the mindfulness and practicing mindfulness meditation.

“We train ourselves to see reality exactly as it is, and we call this special mode of perception ‘mindfulness.’ This process of mindfulness is really quite different from what we usually do. We usually do not look into what is really there in front of us. We see life through a screen of thoughts and concepts, and we mistake those mental objects for the reality. We get so caught up in this endless thought stream that reality flows by unnoticed. We spend our time engrossed in activity, caught up in an eternal pursuit of pleasure and gratification and an eternal flight from pain and unpleasantness. We spend all of our energies trying to make ourselves feel better, trying to bury our fears. We are endlessly seeking security. Meanwhile, the world of real experience flows by untouched and untasted”

“Our human perceptual habits are remarkably stupid in some ways. We tune out 99% of all the sensory stimuli we actually receive, and we solidify the remainder into discrete mental objects. Then we react to those mental objects in programmed habitual ways. An example: There you are, sitting alone in the stillness of a peaceful night. A dog barks in the distance. The perception itself is indescribably beautiful if you bother to examine it. Up out of that sea of silence come surging waves of sonic vibration. You start to hear the lovely complex patterns, and they are turned into scintillating electronic stimulation within the nervous system. The process is beautiful and fulfilling in itself. We humans tend to ignore it totally. Instead, we solidify that perception into a mental object. We paste a mental picture on it and we launch into a series of emotional and conceptual reactions to it. “There is that dog again. He is always barking at night. What a nuisance. Every night he is a real bother. Somebody should do something. Maybe I should call a cop. No, a dog catcher. So, I’ll call the pound. No, maybe I’ll just write a real nasty letter to the guy who owns that dog. No, too much trouble. I’ll just get an ear plug.” They are just perceptual and mental habits. You learn to respond this way as a child by copying the perceptual habits of those around you. These perceptual responses are not inherent in the structure of the nervous system. The circuits are there. But this is not the only way that our mental machinery can be used. That which has been learned can be unlearned. The first step is to realize what you are doing, as you are doing it, and stand back and quietly watch”

“What we face every day is unpredictable. Things happen due to multiple causes and conditions, as we are living in a conditional and impermanent world. Mindfulness is our emergency kit, readily available at our service at any time. When we face a situation where we feel indignation, if we mindfully investigate our own mind, we will discover bitter truths in ourselves. That is we are selfish; we are egocentric; we are attached to our ego; we hold on to our opinions; we think we are right and everybody else is wrong; we are prejudiced; we are biased; and at the bottom of all of this, we do not really love ourselves. This discovery, though bitter, is a most rewarding experience.”

Image courtesy – Master isolated images, Steve A Johnson

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Entrepreneur, Blogger, Speaker and an avid believer in human Mind which can solve any problem and achieve success and happiness!

  • MIles

    Oh man! That’s great and just wanted I needed to read this morning. I’m starting to be more aware of my body and my mind and it’s really good. It’s the reminding and getting into that habit, and out of the distraction habit, that’s tough. But I think today I’ll be fine after reading this. Thanks again Nalinda. Great piece and really nice to read. Cheers,
    Miles.

    • Thank you miles for your kind words. As I have mentioned in the post practice is the key, the more we practice the better we get. Also I am currently writing more posts about mindfulness and mindfulness meditation. Stay tuned. Wish you all the best. Thanks.

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