What is mindfulness?

What is mindfulness?

“Mindfulness is the awareness that arises by paying attention; on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally” Jon Kabat Zinn (1994)

This is a very popular definition of mindfulness because it deconstructs mindfulness into its 4 primary components.

To be mindful is to be aware and it is cultivated by paying attention.  We have all had the experience of driving somewhere only to arrive at your destination without remembering how you got there or to find yourself at the fridge door eating snacks when you are not hungry. These are examples of mindlessness, a state of not being in conscious awareness moment-by-moment but rather acting unconsciously or on ‘auto-pilot’ and our mind is simply somewhere else. Research by Matt Killingsworth of Harvard University has shown that the average person is in autopilot 47% of the time, that is, they are not consciously present and paying attention half of the time, and that people are least happy when their minds are wandering and most happy when their minds are present[1]. According to Eckhart Tolle (2017), 80-90% of most thinking is in fact repetitive, useless and harmful because of its often dysfunctional and negative nature.[2] He goes on to say that this kind of thinking is like an addiction because it gives a false sense of pleasure (that invariably causes pain and suffering) and due to its compulsive nature, we do not have a choice to stop it.  Living in this way, we do not ‘smell the roses’ so to speak, we lose access to the ’joy of being’ in the present moment.

Mindfulness involves the conscious and deliberate direction of our attention to the present moment, on purpose. It is stopping and being present. Our attention is much like a torch, and we can choose where to place our attention. We awake out of the dream like state of the mind, and consciously and with intent choose where we place our attention. In this way, we are living more consciously, more intentionally, more productively and more fully ourselves.

The present moment is the only moment that exists, in which we exist, an ever-present now. Living in the now is the only point of contact with life. Every thought, of past or future, can only ever be experienced now. The past is only a memory trace. The future only an imagined projection based on the past. There is only the ever present now. Therefore, to be mindful, is to be present, moment by moment, in the here and now.

In the practice of mindfulness, the aim is not to control or suppress our thoughts but rather to simply notice our thoughts as they arise, accept them non-judgementally and do not attach to the beliefs. It involves a process of openness and acceptance towards all experience, apparently pleasant and unpleasant, without judgement. This stance is often referred to as the ’watcher’ of your internal experience allowing a sense of detachment and freedom rather than being mind-identified and caught up in the drama of the mind.

How to practice

Essentially, there are two forms of mindfulness practice in trying to achieve an inner alert stillness and spaciousness.

The formal practices of mindfulness, most commonly known as mediation, usually involves sitting with eyes closed, but can also be done lying down or during walking or via contemplation (such as loving forgiveness). Some meditation practices involve the use of mantras or movement (tai chi) or yoga.

The informal practice refers to practices of mindful living which can be applied to virtually any aspect of your daily life. Any routine activity can be made into a mindful activity when you bring your full attention to the doing of the activity. There is mindful walking, along with eating mindfully and holding a conversation mindfully. The practice involves maintaining your full attention, moment by moment, on the activity. If your mind wanders then as soon as you notice, you return your attention back to the activity. The idea also includes performing the activity with full acceptance and without judgement (to thereby fully embrace the activity as if you had chosen it). In this way there is a joy of being that flows into the activity and the activity is performed with quality.

Mindfulness is about the ‘how’ you do it and not the ‘what’ it is you are doing, the activity. When you are able to perform activities mindfully your body and mind are aligned and in a state of relaxed non-resistance, which is nourishing for both your mental and physical well-being. You still use your mind as a tool for thinking when needed and mostly for practical purposes, but you are free of the compulsive and involuntary internal dialogue. There is an inner stillness present in the background, and you move between inner stillness (the state of not thinking or no-mind) and thinking (mind). The mind becomes a tool that serves us rather than us being at the mercy of our thoughts that control, carry us away and often torture us.


[1] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-rock/mental-autopilot_b_783386.html

[2] https://upliftconnect.com/eckhart-tolle-how-to-rise-above-thoughts/