Literally we have mindfulness when we are being mindful of the present moment – we aware of and present to what is occurring in and around us, from breathing to the fluttering of the leaves on the trees.
The word Mindfulness also can refer to a set of practices, such as meditation on one’s breath, that help to cultivate this way of approaching and being in the world. The contemporary “Mindfulness Movement” has deep roots in ancient spiritual traditions, most notably Buddhism.
Practicing mindfulness has caught on because this involves a depth and quality of awareness and being that is different from the prevailing everyday state of mind in contemporary society. Ordinarily we are occupied with our thoughts, or with sensations, lost in them – and often without self-conscious awareness of them even though they entirely occupy us. Our thoughts jump from place to place. Mindfulness involves creating perspective, truly attending to what is happening.
Cultivating mindfulness involves becoming aware of ourselves and our thoughts whilst remaining with them. Metaphors help: mindfulness is the state where we can watch our thoughts wander across our minds like clouds across a sky. Or, that our minds are like a glass of water with sediment. If you keep shaking the glass the sediment is churned up and the water is muddy and opaque. If you allow the glass to become still then the sediment can settle allowing the water to become clear. So mindfulness and meditation allow our minds to settle, bringing clarity and equanimity.
At its most profound, being mindful enables us to realise – and experience – important truths: that we are not our thoughts, that we are all interconnected(interbeing), that there is no permanent self.
The most essential mindfulness practice is meditation. Meditation is both a way to create mindfulness in the moment and to develop our capacity for mindfulness.
Mindfulness is not intellectual, it is not thought, in fact it involves us seeing that we are not (only) our thoughts, they arise and pass away in the mind but are not the mind.
Mindfulness practices can be traced back millenia into ancient Buddhism – and beyond. However, the word’s recent usage in English and the West can be traced to the last few decades where it has been used as a term for secularized version of these traditional practices. Major promoters of mindfulness have intentionally sought to distance mindfulness from its origins in Buddhism in order to keep it separate from religion. This allows for it to be seen as neutral and more scientific. This, in turn, enables broader adoption both in specific sectors such as healthcare and education and also societally where its neutrality makes it acceptable to all groups whether devout or anti-religious.
In this context, mindfulness becomes a practice done for its near-term (mental) health benefits without any deeper spiritual context. This is similar to the way in which yoga has become a fitness and exercise practice, shorn of its original spiritual purpose and context.
Whilst this can be valuable, we think it is important to remain aware of the broader context of mindfulness. Buddhism does have to be a religion, many forms of it are more a philosophy or way of being – especially Zen, which has found great popularity in the west. Additionally it has often been remarked that those testing the edges of rationality in the west converge on many of the issues that Buddhism is concerned with.
- Awareness of the breath and body
- Sitting meditation
- Walking meditation
- Deep listening: attending and listening to others without your thoughts, judgments and filters interposing themselves (as much). A way of hearing in which we are fully present with what is happening in the moment without trying to control it or judge it.
Meditation is possible in any circumstance. However, it is much easier in some circumstances than others: for example, in quiet surroundings rather than noisy ones. It also requires practice, in keeping with this, tradition highlights 3 most common ways of doing meditation: sitting, walking, eating.
Traditionally, Buddhist adherents refrain from killing, stealing, adultery, lying, using immoral language, gossiping, slandering, giving vent to anger, and avoid holding wrong views (ten evil deeds)
Buddhism emphasises non-attachment above all else, even around ethics. Of course, avoid doing those things which are prohibited. At the same time, do not get attached to these things and certainly avoid judging others.
The story of 2 monks who come to a river. There is a beautiful woman who cannot cross. The older monk carries her across and puts her down on the other side. The two monks walk on. An hour later the young one bursts out: you broke our precepts by carrying that young woman. The older one says: I put her down an hour ago but you are still carrying her.
Recommended Reading & Watching
- Three Pillars of Zen – really solid introduction on the practical side. Oriented to Japanese Rinzai zen so emphasis on zazen (sitting meditation), koans, satori (enlightenment, self realization), sesshin (intensive retreats), dokusan (private encounter with a teacher)
- Thich Nhat Hanh (??)
- 4m video – What is > Mindfulness
- 1h video – the art of mindful > living
- Mindful living techniques – > http://www.lionsroar.com/mindful-living-thich-nhat-hanh-on-the-practice-of-mindfulness-march-2010/
- Wonders of Natural Mind, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche
- Great article on mindful eating – http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/08/dining/mindful-eating-as-food-for-thought.html