“Do you have patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?” – Lao Tzu
What does it really mean to practice mindfulness? In many ways, mindfulness is such a simple concept that it becomes puzzlingly difficult to truly comprehend, let alone practice. People who learn to become more mindful in their everyday lives typically report feeling more present, accepting, and aware of their moment to moment experience. There is often a sense of getting less “caught up” in one’s thoughts, feelings, and sensations, and cultivating an attitude of greater equanimity.
Gunaratana (1996) suggests 8 basic characteristics of mindfulness:
(1) Nonjudgmental Observation
Mindfulness involves the ability to observe your own experience without getting caught up in assigning judgment to any of it. It is about cultivating an attitude of taking an active and curious interest in things precisely as they are, with no efforts to change or deny any of it. There is no fear of what may arise in one’s experience, nor is there agitated surprise by the unexpected.
There is a sense of noticing thoughts, feelings, sensations, people, and events just as they are – noticing them fully. Through this balanced observation comes an increased awareness of impermanence, intricacies, and nuance. There is no need to reject things that are unpleasant, because the judgments of “good” and “bad” are set aside in favor of openminded, curious observation.
If we are unable to accept all of our qualities fully, it is quite difficult to observe them with nonjudgmental curiosity. This form of acceptance involves noticing when we are experiencing unpleasant or difficult thoughts, feelings, and sensations, and practicing taking an active stance of acceptance toward them. In order to become more mindful, we must be willing to accept the fact that we will not always experience pleasant states of being.
Mindfulness allows us to sit with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings with a greater sense of calm… less fear and resistance. No matter what our internal experience is, mindfulness involves taking an actively accepting stance. There is no pride and there is no shame as a result of our internal state – purely acceptance of all that “is.”
(3) Impartial Watchfulness
Mindfulness does not take sides or get stuck on “needing” to perceive situations in particular ways. Because mindfulness involves not being so “attached” to the need for certain viewpoints, we are more free to see reality precisely as it is. This openminded attitude allows greater possibility for coming up with solutions and ideas that are creative and truly in our best interest. Through viewing reality in this open and impartial manner, we have a greater wealth of potential directions at our disposal, as opposed to becoming latched on to a particular direction that the ego has decided is “best.”
Consider how very difficult it generally is to be impartial regarding our own experience. It is often far easier to view things “objectively” when reflecting upon a friend or coworker’s situation. When it becomes about “us,” objectivity usually goes right out the window. Mindfulness allows us to become more in tune with the internal observing self that we all possess. It allows us to view our own thoughts, feelings, and personal dilemmas with as much clarity and openness as we may be able to experience for another person.
(4) Nonconceptual Awareness
Another English term for the Pali word sati (which means mindfulness) is “bare attention.” There is no thinking or involvement with cognitive processes in the way that most of us are used to. Mindfulness simply looks and observes. It does not get caught up in ideas and memories, nor does it feel the need to label or categorize them. It is free from assigning meaning and fusing with thoughts and feelings – it is pure awareness.
Through mindfulness, we have the opportunity to experience what it is like to observe all things as if for the very first time. It allows us to look upon the familiar and unfamiliar with a pair of fresh eyes, wonder, and curiosity. It is not “trying” to see or not see anything at all. It is not attached to what it “needs” to notice or not notice because it has no agenda. Imagine what it might be like to be able to untangle yourself from your entrenched patterns of thinking and feeling in this way. What might you see that you have never even noticed before?
(5) Present-Moment Awareness
Mindfulness rests in the here-and-now… this very moment. This pure awareness lives only in the current moment when you are aware of your breath, the sensations in your body, and your experience as you read the lines on this page. Through mindful awareness, we have the opportunity to reconnect with the present moment in a whole new way.
This choice to become more present to our lives is a wonderful way to snap out of the sense of being on “automatic pilot” that many people in our fast-paced Western society experience. Rather than living in a mental dream of the past or future, mindfulness is a tool to bring you to back to this moment – back to your life.
To illustrate the difference between present-moment mindful awareness and being mentally or emotionally distant/removed, choose a memory from your past to reflect upon. Imagine the qualities of that time in your life… what you were feeling, thinking, and experiencing. Can you picture it fully? Now… become aware that you are remembering it. This awareness is happening in the present. This ability to notice your thoughts as they are happening is what it means to engage in present-moment awareness.
(6) Nonegotistic Alertness
Look around the room for the moment. What do you see? Check in with your internal state. What are you thinking, feeling, and sensing? It is quite likely that you are perceiving the room and your internal state through the lens of self. This is natural. We have learned to understand the world and the people in it as they relate to us. After all, we learned to get our needs met as an infant and young child through making demands. We learned what people were helpful and harmful based upon how they treated us.
Mindfulness involves taking a completely different observational stance to reality and your experience in it. It involves letting go of the drama of self… of me, my, mine, and I. It means noticing things just as they are, not as they are in relation to you. For example, imagine that you have a pain in your leg. Ordinarily, you might react with “I have a pain.” Through mindfulness, you can learn to notice sensations without attaching them to yourself in this way.
There is no need to enhance or emphasize anything… no need to make things more “dramatic” simply because they are affecting “you.” Instead of “my pain,” with mindfulness you simply notice “pain.” This is not meant to invalidate or deny that you are experiencing this pain, but rather to observe it in a different way. Notice how you are likely to be less reactive to your experience when you begin to notice it more fully with nonegotistic awareness.
(7) Awareness of Change
Even though mindfulness rests only in the present moment (which is all that “is”) and does not assign judgment to experience, it still notices the inevitability of change as it occurs. Mindfulness involves watching the natural change of experience and all life as it flows along in the present moment.
This can be particularly useful as you begin to notice how your own thoughts, feelings, and sensations naturally change. There is less need to become fused to your internal experience once you recognize that it is all temporary. Perhaps you are feeling quite happy, angry, sad, anxious, guilty, or fearful today. No matter what that emotion may be or how intense it may feel, it is temporary.
With mindfulness, we become aware of how our thoughts and feelings can change our experience and perception of reality – like putting on colored glasses. We are able to notice how our own mood affects the moods of those around us – noticing and embracing these changes with less reactivity and resistance. This increased awareness allows us to become more sensitively attuned to our own experience as it changes and how we affect others.
(8) Participatory Observation
It may seem as if mindfulness is some form of passive observation… it is not passive. In fact, mindfulness requires the meditator to be both the participant and the observer simultaneously. In this way, you are the observer of your experience at the same time as you are the experience itself. As thoughts, feelings, and sensations naturally arise, they arise within the same vessel that observes them.
As you watch your feelings arise within, you are feeling them at the same time. Mindfulness is not a denial of your experience and a retreat into nothing but detached observation. It is a type of open observation that is experiencing that which it is observing. Gunaratana (1996) explains, “Mindfulness is objective, but it is not cold or unfeeling. It is the wakeful experience of life, an alert participation in the ongoing process of living.”
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Gunaratana, B.H. (1996). Mindfulness in plain English. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications.
Featured image: swampland by mindfulness / CC BY 2.0