What is Mindfulness?

There are probably dozens of legitimate definitions of mindfulness. My favorite one is that mindfulness is kind and curious awareness. I think I first heard it phrased this way from Ram Dass. I also like a definition I heard from long time meditation teacher Guy Armstrong:  “Mindfulness is understanding what our experience is in the moment.” Joseph Goldstein says, “Mindfulness means being aware of what is arising, without attachment, without aversion and without identification of what’s happening.” These imply there is a certain wisdom inherit in the awareness with mindfulness. So maybe a combination of these two would be mindfulness is a wise and kind attention.

Neuroscientists have also confirmed that mindfulness has an empathetic quality to it as it comes from the parts of the brain–the prefrontal cortex and insular cortex–that are responsible for empathy. This quality of kind listening, as Zen Buddhists often call meditation can make mindfulness very powerful and even healing. Sometimes all we really need is some empathy, some kind listening. When we are mindful, when we sit quietly on the cushion and observe our inner life, we can give that to ourselves. As soon as we add some judgment or expectation, we lose that empathy, and we are no longer being mindful.

In being mindful of our needs, we are including the energies of needs into our awareness. We may also notice what our thoughts and actions are telling us. Sometimes we try to get something, or achieve something without knowing why. When we are mindful, we ask ourselves with a kind curiosity, why do I want that? Why I am pursuing that? From there we can dig down and discover what needs we are trying to meet. In other words, sometimes our strategies can lead us to our needs.

I noticed this one day around vacation. My partner had been working hard and was looking forward to a 3 week long break with lots of ease and maybe a sandy beach somewhere. I wanted to split the time up and include a 9 day Nonviolent Communication Intensive. If not that, I wanted to stay home longer and continue to go to school and work. From these strategies I was able to see that my needs for purpose, learning and challenge were very alive and my need for ease and rest was not calling me as much as it was for her. Once I realized that, we were able to come to a compromise that worked for both us. I believe this was as a result of my being mindful of thoughts and actions as well as my needs.

Like everything, mindfulness takes practice. Almost without exception, our mindfulness will go in and out as thoughts push their way forward or other energies distract us. This is normal. And like in meditation, the practice is to gently guide our attention back to a state of mindfulness, back to a state of kind curious awareness.