What is mindfulness anyway?

Mindfulness is a westernized term for formal meditation, derived from ancient Buddhist practices.  Mindfulness has also been coined “awake meditation.” Before we fully define and explore this, let’s start with the origin of mindfulness meditation, how, and why this powerful practice has been adopted by our western culture and specifically, within the field of psychology. 

Buddhism begins with the story of the Buddha or Indian prince Siddhartha Gautama.  Raised in a family of wealth, he desired to seek the cause of human suffering and thus, renounced his privilege by leaving the kingdom.  He chose to live a life of solitude and traveled throughout India.  At times, he engaged in rigid practices that led to malnutrition while studying with great Hindu teachers.  Throughout his internal and geographical journey, he discovered the “middle path” between overindulgence and complete aversion.  He meditated until he realized his ultimate goal: the path to Enlightenment.  He spent the rest of his life teaching and spreading his insights throughout the country.  I encourage you to pursue additional reading if this history interest you! There is fascinating information regarding how Buddhism spread to Tibet and the threat Chinese communism had upon the sustainability of the spiritual texts and teachings.

Buddhism is primarily divided into the schools of Mahayana and Hinayana.  There is not much variation in the material, though various philosophers and teachers tend to focus upon different principles, which I will highlight below.  Our first primary concept is non-attachment.  The idea is that our mind, or Ego, is constantly trying to ascribe meaning to a sensory experience.  We often place a “good” or “bad” label, or judgement, upon our own internal experiences or behavior, others, circumstances or ideas.  This tendency creates suffering or “samsara”, a repeated cycle of habitual responses that do not serve our highest good and instead, create a kind of energetic karma that leads to ongoing suffering.  Karma means “action” and is simply the notion of cause and effect.  Our actions today will impact the condition of tomorrow.  How strongly we attach negative judgements to various stimuli today will create decisions or behaviors that will likely impact the rest of our week. 

Both Mahayana and Hinayana schools of Buddhism center around achieving the cessation of suffering for the individual by engaging in meditation and practicing various concepts inherent within the Buddha’s teachings.  Mahayana specifically focuses upon achieving Enlightenment for the greater good of all beings.  The premise is that one works to obtain a peace of mind that will positively impact the collective.  The Buddhist principle of demonstrating compassion or loving kindness toward others, even those that test one’s tolerance, is included in this objective.  In this exercise, practitioners focus upon withholding judgement or a sense of attachment to the idea that a person “should” present any differently. The reasoning is that an unconscious person, unaware of destructive habits, will act accordingly.  In other words, there are going to be aspects of reality that simply “make sense” given the unconscious nature of a person, past learning, environmental context, etc.  This shifts perception away from ineffective judgement and anger and instead helps one engage in nonviolent communication, which may absolutely include holding a person, entity, or culture accountable to their behavior.  The primary principles of non-attachment and loving kindness are used in meditation or mindfulness practice.

We’ve established that the terms mindfulness and meditation can generally be used interchangeably.  Mindfulness is a formal or informal meditation practice without the spiritual context, which has made the concepts accessible to western cultures that are predominantly Christian. My favorite definition is from Jon Kabat-Zinn: “The awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” John Kabat-Zinn is an American professor credited for bringing the art of mindfulness into western medicine. In 1979, he created a world renown mindfulness program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). The research findings demonstrated the efficacy of MBSR for chronic pain and mood disorders specifically. It also paved the way for other psychological pioneers to incorporate mindfulness-based strategies into their work.   Another significant contribution was by Dr. Marsha Linehan, who spent 30 years personally and professionally studying Zen Buddhism before developing the model of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), which is largely comprised of mindfulness meditation exercises and concepts. I believe her ability to specifically outline the practice into a tangible set of skills is how millions of people, both as clinicians and clients, have discovered and adopted ideas that would otherwise remain on the fringe of mainstream society. Linehan teaches mindfulness as being comprised of three separate tasks, which you will see relate to what we’ve uncovered within our identified Buddhist principles.

  1. Observe: watching your breath, inner experience, or external environment with curiosity and non-judgment like you would observe clouds passing in the sky (what do you notice in personal physical sensations, feelings/emotions, or thoughts?)
  2. Describe: naming what you just observed in a factual way without labeling or judging the experience (“I notice my shoulders are tense” or “I notice that I’m judging myself as incapable”)
  3. Participate: throwing yourself into the flow of an experience (any activity that you can “lose” yourself in, such as a game, gardening, sport, art, time with loved ones)

Mindfulness practice allows us to begin un-attaching from our constant inner chatter so that we have less reactive, impulsive, and emotional responses. This includes describing our responses without inducing shame or judgement (don’t judge your judging!), but simply noting with curiosity how we respond to difficulty or even how we relate to pleasure. The ultimate goal of mindfulness is to be present in-the-moment because often this moment is much more tolerable than if we look ahead to the future or ruminate upon the past. Mindfulness is accessible to all of us and requires a lot of patience. I offer specific mindfulness training as well as weave the practice into the work of everyone I sit with. Stay tuned for more blog posts, articles, and discussions about mindfulness meditation. There is so much to say and a variety of ways to practice!

Below is recommended reading to specifically dive further into the concepts of Buddhism to include mindful awareness, non-attachment, non-judgement, and loving kindness:

Live In a Better Way: Reflections on Truth, Love, & Happiness

Dharma Road by Brian Haycock

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki

Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh

The Buddha Walks Into a Bar by Lodro Rinzler

The Beginner’s Guide To Zen Buddhism by Jean Smith

Not Always So: Practicing the True Spirit of Zen by Shunryu Suzuki