Defining Mindfulness


It’s hard to imagine the topic of mediation being discussed these days without the term ‘mindfulness’ being introduced into the conversation. It wasn’t always so and if you go back twenty or thirty years there’s a good chance a lot of people were not practising mindfulness when they first tried meditation. Even in it’s traditional context, buddhist meditation, mindfulness takes it’s place amongst many other meditation practises and techniques. Why then has it become so prominent a topic?

One possible answer is it’s effectiveness in addressing some of the existential issues of contemporary life – distraction, alienation, emotional trauma, and even plain old boredom or as the french defined it ‘ennui’. Mindfulness gives us a method to address some of these issues and as a ‘therapy’ seems to work quite well. But, what is mindfulness and how do we go about defining it in a way that people can really make it a useful tool in their lives?

Here’s a clip of Louis CK, the American comedian, describing a mindful moment. He doesn’t define it as such (he may not even mean to) but it perfectly captures the ‘mechanics’ of how it can be used to live a more fulfilling life…(contains some NSFW language)….

So we can take from his description of his own experience that being open to the present moment means accepting that moment as it is without trying to reach for some form of distraction. Mindfulness doesn’t push away or alternatively crave something other than whatever is happening right now – even if it is potentially painful. It gives us space to experience the world (including ourselves) without immediate judgement. And when we do come to judge our experience, as we may need to, at least we have had the experience and embraced it in it’s entirety and most importantly, learnt from it.

John Kabat-Zinn defined mindfulness as ‘…moment, to moment non- judgemental awareness’ but maybe more interestingly in his great book Full Catastrophe Living he suggested mindfulness is about creating a relationship with our experience that isn’t dysfunctional. Mindfulness as practised on the cushion is one thing but mindfulness carried into every aspect of our lives has the potential to transform us completely. This was the promise of the Buddha when he said that mindfulness was part of the path that leads from suffering and brings peace and happiness to our lives.

Of course mindfulness cannot work unless we create the right context for it to operate in. Our actions, our intentions, our speech and our efforts are all important in supporting a mindful life. Once we recognise the holistic nature of this we are on the road to transformation.

As Louis says, let’s not be ‘…just satisfied with our products, and then we die’ – there’s more to life than that.

Jay Roche

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