3 Fundamental Activities of Mindfulness

“People suffer because they are caught in their views. As soon as we release those views, we are free and we don’t suffer anymore.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

What activities come to mind when you picture mindfulness?  How do you “know” when you are truly practicing mindfulness?  Many people experience mindfulness as a quiet sense of connection to the present moment coupled with a heightened sense of awareness.  Mindfulness allows you to notice your life in new ways… seeing the familiar and unfamiliar with a fresh pair of eyes.  There is less fear and reactivity.  There is more acceptance and curiosity.

Mindfulness is an attitude that promotes openness to experience and acceptance of reality.  When you make the choice to begin to see your life and the world around you precisely as it is, there is less and less of a need to defend and protect what you perceive to be your fragile sense of self that cannot “handle” the truth.  You are far stronger than you are likely to believe.

It is the false belief that reality is too difficult, too confusing, and to painful to bear that keeps us away from our lives, disconnected from our true experience, and emotionally distant from others.  Through practicing mindfulness, you can begin to open yourself up to your life precisely as it is and welcome each unfolding moment of your lived experience.


Gunaratana (1996) discusses 3 fundamental activities of mindfulness that provide functional definitions of the term:

Mindfulness Reminds You of What You Are Supposed to Be Doing

During meditation, your focus is directed toward only one thing at a time… one thought, one feeling, or one sensation.  When attention becomes scattered or unfocused, you gently apply mindfulness to redirect your attention to the present moment.  It is completely natural for your mind to wander, your emotions to fluctuate, and for your bodily sensations to become uncomfortable or distracting.  It is what you do with your mental and emotional state during these moments that makes all the difference.

Mindfulness allows you to recognize that your mind is wandering, that your anxiety is overwhelming, or that the pain in your back is uncomfortable.  Rather than becoming fused, or caught up in those experiences, mindfulness allows you to notice them.  In this way, mindfulness constantly brings your mind back to the present moment, free from your internal dialogue and judgment of the “goodness” or “badness” or any of your thoughts, emotions, or sensations.  It is pure awareness.

Consider how persistently distracting some of your thoughts, emotions, and sensations may be.  Reflect for a moment upon how convincing they can be about what is “true” or “how it is.”  Mindfulness allows you to detangle yourself from the grip of this false sense of reality, step back and detach from your fusion to your concept of self, and observe reality with greater openness and acceptance.  Focus your mindful awareness with as much persistence and practice as those thoughts, feelings, and sensations have with convincing you of their messages.

Consider how long it has taken you in the years of your life to become thoroughly convinced of the inherent validity to your thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they arise.  Begin to embark upon a new journey toward viewing your lived experience with openness, curiosity, and acceptance… and without judgment.  Rather than assuming that thoughts are “true” as they arise in your mind, notice them, observe all parts of them, and question them.  Notice how different it begins to feel as you remove yourself from the paralysis of being fused to your experience.

Mindfulness Sees Things As They Really Are

Mindfulness does not need to add, change, or take away any aspects of experience.  No matter how joyous, painful, or neutral your current experience may be, with mindfulness you become more capable of tolerating reality precisely as it is… without fear or judgment.  When you begin to view yourself, others, and the world more fully, seeing those things that you would “rather not see,” you begin to slowly realize how much of reality you have been missing.

You may begin to notice how many qualities of your own experience and aspects of events in your life you have been blind to for all these years.  It may feel as if a whole new world is opening up.  In a way… it is.  Mindfulness allows you to become open and alert to the world that has been there all along – the reality that you have chosen at various times in your life to run from, try to change, or deny.

When you begin to cultivate a mindful attitude toward your life, there is no need to fear seeing things precisely as they are.  You may begin to realize that it is the fear itself that has been paralyzing you and keeping you stuck, not the reality of how things truly are.  No matter how painful or bleak reality is, once you open your eyes to all that is true, you are better equipped to make decisions in your best interest.

With full mindful awareness to your world, you can begin to see new patterns and connections between things, make greater sense of your life, and make choices with greater confidence.  This quiet confidence comes from knowing that you are able to face all that is before you, choose the best options available to you at the time, and accept painful truths that cannot be changed.  There is freedom in this acceptance.

Mindfulness Sees the True Nature of All Phenomena

Somewhat similar to seeing things as they really are, the idea behind seeing the true nature of all phenomena takes this awareness a step further.  Gunaratana (1996) explains that “mindfulness and only mindfulness can perceive that the three prime characteristics that Buddhism teaches are the deepest truths of existence.  In Pali these three are called anicca (impermanence), dukkha (unsatisfactoriness), and anatta (selflessness – the absence of a permanent, unchanging entity that we call Soul or Self).”

In Buddhism, these teachings are not presented as dogmas that require blind faith.  Rather, they are considered universal truths that are readily self-evident to anyone who takes the time and care to investigate in a proper way. Mindfulness is an investigatory tool that allows you to uncover these deeper truths through persistent, curious, and open-minded observation.  Through mindfulness, you have the ability to reach these deepest layers of reality available to human observation.

Gunaratana (1996) continues to explain that as you observe reality at this level of inspection, the following truths will become apparent to you:

  • All conditioned things are inherently transitory… temporary and fleeting.
  • Every worldly thing is unsatisfying in the end.
  • There are no true entities that are unchanging or permanent… only processes.

How do you believe that your own experience can change or has been changed through beginning to view reality through the focused lens of mindfulness?  How do you believe your life and experience in this world will continue to change as you view your experience in this new way?  Mindfulness allows you to view your internal and external world in a new way.  While it may feel unfamiliar and difficult, observing reality with openness and in its entirety is the first step on the path toward acceptance of all that is true.  Inner peace rests in the knowledge that you are able to face all that reality brings.

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Gunaratana, B.H. (1996). Mindfulness in plain English. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications.

Featured image: Tranquility by Sean Rogers1 / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

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