What is Mindfulness?

First, what is mindfulness? Mindfulness is very close in meaning to awareness and also to attention. As in paying attention. You turn your attention to someone and just look at them and watch them and listen to them. Hear what they are saying. Take notice of what they are doing. Pay attention to them. To pay attention in that way is to be mindful. Just that. It is that simple!


There is also a bit more to it. Mindfulness includes certain qualities. Still it is a good starting point in your understanding of mindfulness to think of it as simply paying attention to what is happening right now. That is a start. . . and there is more to it.


When you do pay attention to something, how do you know you are paying attention? This is a tricky question, but just the same, try to answer it. . .


What makes it tricky is that to know you are paying attention you must do something extra: you must notice that you are paying attention. This is an important first characteristic to mindfulness. When being aware, someone who is being mindful knows they are being aware. Think of it this way: When driving a car you know you are driving a car. When washing the dishes you know you are washing the dishes. When brushing your teeth you know you are brushing your teeth. That would be mindfulness.


The second characteristic you should know about in order to understand mindfulness is that to be mindful you must be accepting. To be accepting is to notice something yet leave it alone. You are to leave the thing you are noticing alone and not try to do anything to it, but leave it alone in an open-hearted way. No resistance. This is different from what we usually do; usually we don’t simply accept something, we both notice it and then immediately evaluate its goodness or badness in relation to ourself.


For example, a cup of ice cream is sitting on the table. Think of all of the evaluations that go along with the perception: “Let’s have some now.” “Better not have any, I’m on a diet.” Or, “Too cold to eat ice cream.” All of these are implicitly evaluative and self oriented and add something to the simple act of noticing that there is a cup of ice cream on the table. The point is that when being mindful we notice, we know we are noticing, and we do not try to change anything. Mindfulness is a constant stream of noticing with acceptance.


Acceptance is of particular importance when it comes to internal experiences such as feelings or thoughts or emotions. When practicing mindfulness we accept these internal experiences too and don’t try to make them stay or go away.


The next characteristic of mindfulness is relaxation. Relaxation is particularly important when it comes to stress management. I won’t say much about stress right now, but know that our nervous system has two basic settings, one is heightened and a bit revved up and the other is lower and slower.


Next, we approach mindfulness with efficiency. By efficiency, what I mean is that we only work as hard as needed. No strain. For example, when you are sitting still, you do not need to work hard. Maybe you need to use the muscles along your spine to sit up straight, but not the muscles of your neck and shoulders, hands and arms.


So how do you relax? To relax is to release or let go of holding. Very often a person holds tension in their shoulders, tension that is not needed. The first thing a person who wants to relax needs to do is to notice the tension and then the second thing is to know how to let it go. Letting go is a physical process, like letting go of a clenched fist. You just let go.


Moment to moment awareness, that would be another characteristic of mindfulness. The way it works is that you notice what is happening in this very moment, and then you notice what is happening in this next very moment, and the next, and the next. Now many things are happening in every moment, far more than you could possibly notice. So we need to make a choice: what we generally do in mindfulness meditation practice, for example, is to notice the sensations of breathing. When breathing in you notice you are breathing in, when breathing out you notice you are breathing out. We use the breath as the anchor for our mindfulness and when our mind wanders we bring it back to the breath. But you could also notice the dishes if you are washing the dishes, or your driving when driving, or your footfalls when walking. That would also be mindfulness.


That is a start in your understanding of mindfulness

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