Reflections on what mindfulness is and isn't

Since I know that there is a huge range of experience with mindfulness among those who have signed up for the blog posts, I want to focus on three fundamental ideas about what mindfulness is and isn't that many people have found helpful.

What is mindfulness?

While there are clinical definitions, I offer that mindfulness is bringing the intention to be interested (curious) and non-judgmental (accepting) of the information that is coming in through your senses in the present moment. It is not getting the mind to stop (one of the biggest misconceptions). It is encouraging the mind to be aware of its relationship to the present moment.

Automatic pilot

We spend a lot of our lives on automatic pilot, not really paying attention to what is coming The result is that we miss a lot of important information.

One of the most powerful stories about the power of recognizing automatic pilot comes from a story by Rachel Naomi Remen (in about an emergency room doctor:

"Suddenly, the baby opened her eyes and looked directly at him. In that instant, Harry stepped past all of his training and realized a very simple thing: that he was the first human being this baby girl had ever seen. He felt his heart go out to her in welcome from all people everywhere, and tears came to his eyes. Harry has delivered hundreds of babies...but he says that he had never let himself experience the meaning of what he was doing before...

He feels now that, in a certain sense, this was the first baby he ever delivered...He had been there many times as an expert, but never before as a human being. He wonders how many other such moments of connection to life he has missed. He suspects there have been many."

Such a powerful invitation to all of us. What moments of connection of wonder have we missed, are we missing? This commitment, also known as "beginner's mind" is so simple and so available: noticing the beauty of a flower, seeing your partner or a friend as if for the first time...

Mindfulness is really heartfulness

In many Asian languages the word for mind and heart is the same. Several American meditation teachers have noted that it might have been more helpful if the term "heartfulness" had been used instead of "mindfulness" as a translation of the Buddha's word "sati."

We might remind ourselves to touch our hearts when we talk about mindfulness or to use the word heartfulness more often. I asked one of my teachers about the loving-kindness practice. His response was that all of one's practice should be held in the attitude of loving-kindness and goodwill--toward others and toward ourselves.

There are so many simple practices of the heart that support "mindfulness." Meister Eckhart, a mystic from the 1200s said "If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough." Pausing occasionally to remember what you are grateful for, practicing small acts of kindness or generosity. Remembering to do so.

Paying attention to the internal weather

Taking notice of my internal weather system is a metaphor that came to me last year. This has ben helpful in two ways. First, it can be dangerous to ignore the weather, for example hiking or camping during hot summer weather or in the bitter cold. Second, you may have noticed that when you hate the weather, that judgment actually makes you more unhappy. When you realize that you can’t make the weather different and just accept today’s snowstorm or heat wave, you’re not as miserable. You still have to deal with it, but it’s not forever. Much of what life presents to us is written in sand, not on concrete.

Most of us lead very busy lives which often feels like being caught in wild weather. We may wake up sunny, the clouds might darken once we get to work, there might be a storm, a flood, or a tornado, and that can all happen before lunch! So we can check in on our internal weather whenever we sense it changing, especially to stormy weather.

We check in simply by noticing our breath and then noticing our body—sensations, tension, aches, etc. Then by recognizing and acknowledging our emotions and thoughts. When we pause, even if only for 10 seconds, to bring mindfulness to our breath and/or to our body, we remember that we are human beings, not human doings. Over time this can become a practice. It is one that I do every day, because I so easily forget!

I invite, encourage, recommend, exhort each person to try any of these three as a daily practice for the next week: catching oneself on automatic pilot, practices of the heart, bringing mindfulness to the internal weather. If you are willing, share what you notice in the Comments section. Hearing different insights and perspectives benefits us all. Thank you.