What is mindfulness?
Perhaps another way to think about mindfulness is to ask yourself: WHAT FILLS MY MND UP? OR WHAT IS MY MIND FULL OF?
Maybe its stressful thinking filling your mind, like worrying about what others think of me, or fearful and doubting thoughts, like I’m going to fail my exam tomorrow, or maybe I’m really messing up at raising my kids, depending on your age. Maybe your mind is inundated and filled with images, sound bites from your last blast of internet browsing. Maybe your thoughts have turned towards wishing things were different in your life, or wishing you could avoid a difficult situation or relationship issue. Maybe you’ve been asked to keep secret for a friend, and you secretly told someone. Everyday, if you pause and notice your mind, it is constantly commenting about itself–busy comparing, criticizing, planning, judging, and so on. All of these fill up your mind. Some of these thoughts lead to you to good or positive states, but most of them lead to neutral, indifferent, or to uncomfortable feelings and negative emotions that can lead to unhappiness and even neurosis.
MINDFULNESS is not about filling your life up with more stuff; shopping does that.
Mindfulness practice is about learning to be with what is in more open and curious way, without all the ruminating or fearful, doubtful and stressful thinking. Notice how these states end in ‘ful,’ which is exactly what they do: they fill us up with fear or stress or avoidance. But mindfulness is different. It’s about letting go of what fills up your mind, and then seeing what else appears.
I remember my early meditation practices, when, forty years ago, books were the easiest way to learn. New York psychologist and meditation guru, Richard Alpert, a.k.a., Ram Dass, had several books out then, including, Be Here Now and Journey of Awakening. I was hungry and devoured them both, as well as experimenting with the meditation instructions. One day, as I had laid out a towel along the bottom of the door to make sure the exotic incense smell didn’t escape from my room, I began meditating. Of course, the incense smell escaped, and from the background one of my brothers yells out, “Mom, he’s at his yogi thing again.” It was true in a teenager’s vision of exploring a mystical practice. The eastern yogic teachings and stories about Siddhartha I discovered about a spiritual seeker who became known as the Buddha, all intrigued me.
That day, I was focussing on a chanting the Sanskrit seed syllable, “OM.” All I really knew was it had spiritual meaning. The ancient texts explain that one its meanings is “the sound of the Universe.” Little did I know that was literal. In my best half lotus sitting posture, I began chanted AAAAUUUMMM, over and over again. With its sound resonating in my head and body, I had been chanting for maybe 15-20 minutes. Bringing all my attention to the chanting, I was concentrating and focussed my awareness inwardly. Then something happened. My awareness changed suddenly. Like all I was, was the me that existed in this body, in my head, or maybe me extended a foot beyond me, but suddenly I got much bigger. My awareness become vast as the universe itself, everything had become like space and I had disappeared. Then “self awareness” thoughts kicked in. What is happening to me, this is very weird, mixed with, this is what OM means, becoming one with the universe. Finally, finally a fear of the unknown washed through me, and this sense of vastness brought me immediately back, WHOMP!, I was inside familiar me again.
That was the day, I realized there was something “real” about meditation. There was something happening when I practiced and I realized that I needed to find an experienced teacher to instruct and guide me. In the summer of 1980, that search lead me to Naropa Institute in Boulder Colorado, the first Buddhist university in the West. There, I studied Buddhist psychology, in a system called Maitri, and I practiced an approach, called Shambala meditation practice, developed by the university’s founder, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. I also attended my first teachings with H.H. the Dalai Lama. It was a remarkable time of discovery and my training had begun. Today, my favorite activity is teaching people to how to practice and how make the practice meaningful in work and personal life. Once we have our first experience of the practice, something happens in us. And while it may not be an experience like mine, but we begin to feel more ease, space and freedom within.
As our mindfulness practice grows, that space that grows and helps us with difficult emotions and challenging states. We learn how taking in a breath, then relaxing as we exhale, relaxes the mind, rather than filling it up. Maybe 3, 4 or 5 breaths later, you notice things have changed. The mind and body are less tight or preoccupied. What’s important is that you are noticing the moment, and remembering to bring your attention back from its wandering. And gradually, the mind has more space with less things in it. You are practicing an important skill of mindfulness that neuroscientist’s call “focussed attention” or in Buddhism it is called “shamatha” or Abiding Calmly.
So what happens as the mind becomes quieter…
MINDFULNESS is not about blankness. Are you actually emptying yourself out of thoughts?
Many people think that mindfulness is going blank, but that’s impossible. But what you are doing is shifting into a new brain circuitry that leads to more positive states. What you are doing is redirecting your attention to something ‘neutral’, like noticing five sounds happening in the moment.
Your awarneess becomes more present and more concentrated as you learn to focus in the moment. Here is what Jon Kabbat Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR) says:
Sometimes you might hear mindfulness described as “here and now awareness,” which is what happens when we practice it. Some have written that mindfulness is a kind of panacea or “penicillin” for our crazy, multi-tasking world, which isn’t true. What was written in the old Buddhist psychology texts explains that mindfulness is remembering to come back to the present moment; it’s function is non distraction.
The practice teaches us to refocus your thoughts to a specific object of focus, like your breath, and that brings you, or at least your mind back, after you have drifted off. Your attention on your breath and your body posture are very useful tools because there always available and very accessible; so are sounds, feelings, thoughts, etc., but they are less reliable as they can pull us away into patterns or analyzing or into memory or into future-forward thinking You can use many “things” to focus on, like the sensation of your feet touching the ground as you walk, gazing into the blue of a vast sky, a waterfall’s song, or you can focus your attention on a specific contemplative theme, such as sending healing compassion out into the world, or reciting a powerful prayer for world peace. What is important about mindfulness is that it brings you back from wherever the mind has travelled– fear or anger or attachment–and helps us return to an inner place of ease and spaciousness.
Here a few definitions from some well known mindfulness teachers:
SYLVIA BOORSTEIN, “Awaken attention to what is happening inside and outside so we can respond from a place of wisdom.”
ZEN TEACHER, THICH NHAT HAHN, “I like to define mindfulness as the energy that helps us to be there 100%.”
JON KABAT-ZINN, “The awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” (abridged)
Today, I see the potential of mindfulness practice as a means to slow our world down and to necessitate important self reflection and pausing that we need in order to make healthier decisions. In my work as an educator, sharing these practices in hospital and hospice settings, I witness directly how these skills bring relief at a personal level and how they awaken a deeper presence and listening that touches patients, families, and coworkers alike. We are all propelled by habits and patterns that become our familiar, “go to” places. Realizing that some of these patterns are not healthy, mindfulness opens our awareness to new possibilities where compassion and new found insights lead us to greater harmony, well-being and ease.