Today, in the West, “mindfulness” has become an accepted term in mainstream media and in the disciplines of health/medicine, science, education, and business. In K-12 education, mindfulness and/or social emotional learning is increasingly being integrated as an essential part of educating the young. Mindfulness has been accepted into mental health (Mindfulness based cognitive behavior therapy and others) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) of the US began funding research in a big way since 2009. As a result, many studies are showing the positive benefits of mindfulness, including changes in the brain itself. The corporate world is rapidly incorporating both mindfulness and emotional skills into the training and development of their leadership.
Clearly the research from science is helping to persuade more people to look at and even practice mindfulness, strengthen their emotional skills and even practice yoga or tai chi. Neuroscience is indicating that these practices actually change the brain and its very functioning, particularly in these areas: the frontopolar cortex, the sensory cortices and insula, the hippocampus, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), mid-cingulate cortex, orbitofrontal cotex and the caudate nucleus. In addition, mind-body practices and deep breathing strengthen the vagus nerves- which play a key role in regulating the effects of stress.
So, what is mindfulness?
The meaning of mindfulness can be seen at two levels:
In the West, the term “mindfulness” was made popular largely through the efforts of Jon Kabat-Zinn through its therapeutic application to stress reduction or MBSR at the University of Massachusetts Hospital in 1979. The current meaning of mindfulness as in “mindfulness based stress reduction” or MBSR, has been shaped by him, and some people actually believe that his interpretation is the real meaning of mindfulness, calling him the father of “mindfulness”.
The current popular meaning of mindfulness as articulated by Kabat-Zinn is “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment to moment” (1994, Where you go, there you are). It is to pay attention to one’s body sensations, breath, thoughts, and feelings with acceptance and without making any judgment. This is what I am calling level one meaning of mindfulness. Recently, Kabat-Zinn has said mindfulness includes compassion and how we relate to others.
Interestingly enough, Kabat-Zinn in his first book, “Full Catastrophe Living” (1990) acknowledges the linkages to Buddhist theory and practices of mindfulness, even though many in the US are reluctant to do so. In 2014, he went to publicly admit that when it comes to mindfulness, the East is far more developed than the West, and has added to the role of mindfulness of kindness, compassion and relational skills as being part of mindfulness.
In the late 19th century, a British scholar translated the Pali Buddhist term, “sati”, as mindfulness. However, most Buddhist scholars would add another Pali term, “sampajana” to illustrate the concept and practice of mindfulness beyond the MBSR therapeutic meaning. Sampajana indicates clear comprehension and is associated with a certain kind of vigilant attention and discernment on the nature of our experiences.
The word “meditation” actually has a Christian lineage, even if it is not widely taught today as a spiritual practice in the Christian tradition. So, the historical roots and meaning of meditation has to be juxtaposed with the Asian (Hindu/Buddhist/Taoists) traditions, where it was developed as a mind-body practice to gain “liberation” from the negative patterns of one’s mind and heart and to achieve positive states of be-ing.
An important historical perspective to keep in mind is that the predominant paradigm in the West still believes in the separation of mind, body and emotions going back to Rene Descartes in the late 17th century. Unlike the rational, intellectual tradition passed down in the West, the transformative practices of the East works with the whole human being -- mind-emotions-body.
Level 2: What is the nature of thinking, feeling and awareness?
In level two:
Mindfulness includes, not just paying attention to what is happening in the present moment, but also examining the very nature of our thinking and feeling with regard to our moment-to-moment experiences. It is to focus our attention on the nature of our perceptions, analysis, interpretations, internal filters, feelings and what caused or triggered them. Finally, mindfulness also includes working with to eliminate unwholesome patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving and adopting more wholesome patterns.
From a deeper perspective, mindfulness is really an embodied practice or way-of-being aware of and paying attention to our present experience, moment-to-moment. It is to observe with clarity, acceptance, spaciousness, care and kindness, our various experiences as constituted by/through the five senses, our body sensations, our thoughts, perceptions, interpretations, images, memories and our feelings and emotions. The practice is to notice and pay attention to the present experience as it is unfolding – without judging, commenting, liking/disliking, suppressing or following any particular experience. So, focused awareness with vigilance is essential to understanding the nature of our experiences.
In level two meaning of mindfulness, we have to focus on shifting and transforming unhealthy patterns, increase positive patterns of well being of mind-emotions-body. So, mindfulness is really disruptive at first – at a fundamental level, not just about being calm and peaceful. Addressing the underlying causes and conditions of stress and suffering in our lives demands a very hard look at one’s self and way of being – or our patterns of mind-emotions-body, how we perceive, think, analyze, make decisions; how we react emotionally and relate to our self and others; how we take care of our bodies and how we live in this world day to day, year in year out.
Two metaphors I find very helpful in guiding my practice are: a mirror and the sky.
A mirror reflects what is in front of it – fully, clearly just as it is without adding any comments. The sky is vast and spacious, accommodating whatever arises – clouds, rain, thunderstorms, lightning or sunshine– yet remains unchanged, undisturbed and unattached.
So, likewise, in our practice, we want to observe and see clearly like a mirror and be spacious and unperturbed like the sky – but with awareness, attention and without attachment or entanglement.
Mindfulness is not an intellectual or purely cognitive process; it requires the whole person, the whole be-ing to be engaged in the process. And practice does require learning, proper guidance, effort, determination and a fundamental trust in one’s one basic potential for goodness and wisdom.
Practicing mindfulness is an embodied process – where the mind, emotions and body are experienced as a whole system – and this “system” is what is strengthened – in terms of clarity, acceptance, spaciousness, kindness, and insights into its own nature. It is a way of being which is focused on investigating and reducing the habits of being overwhelmed by greed/selfishness, jealousy, pride/arrogance, hatred/anger and other unwholesome patterns of mind-emotions-body. It is a way of being attentive to more fully showing genuine kindness, love, self-less compassion and equanimity in our day-to-day life.
Mindfulness is not a belief of any particular tradition; it is the natural capacity of human consciousness that each one of us is born with.
A footnote on “present moment” and a “beginner’s mind”.
1. What does present moment mean?
One scholar, Jack Petranker offered the following views on present moment, which are consistent with different traditions going back centuries (The Present Moment, Tricycle, Winter 2014)
In this view, the past is over and future has not yet arrived and we only have the present moment. However, most of us are entangled in our ruminations of the past or caught up with speculations about the future.
Marcus Aurelius wrote, “If you separate from . . . everything you have done in the past, everything that disturbs you about the future . . . and apply yourself to living the life that you are living—that is to say, the present—you can live all the time that remains to you until your death in calm, benevolence, and serenity
It is also the view accepted in the current meaning of mindfulness.
Echoing Epicurean philosophy, joyful presence is to appreciate the moment and being happy with what you have, where you are, and what you are experiencing. The motto of “seize the day” captures this view. So, in mindfulness practice, we learn to appreciate and be grateful for our present moment experience, no matter where we are in life. It is also exemplified in the classic Zen story about the monk, who as he was falling down a cliff, picked a strawberry and enjoyed it as he went down.
Mindful presence includes paying attention to what it really means to live in the present moment, and hence to one’s one mortality and the transient, impermanent nature of all life. Marcus Aurelius (2rd century Roman Emperor) writes: “Let your every deed and word and thought be those of one who might depart from this life this very moment.” (Meditations by Aurelius). At the same time, mindful presence also shows us that there is a certain tension between not clinging to the past nor the future and the temporal reality of our present experience and self-identity. What we choose to focus, recollect or reflect on is very much shaped and influenced by memories of the past and imagination of the future.
According to the Stoics , “We can only act in the present, not the past or the future.” When we practice active presence, choosing how to act in this moment, we also choose who and what we will be. Active presence—choosing how to act in this moment—takes mindfulness out of the range of sitting meditation and inserts it into daily life. This falls within the meaning of mindfulness at level two. (The Stoics believed in the development of clear thinking, self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions.)
In this sense, active presence includes the other three forms of present-moment attention already identified here. When I am actively present, I choose the whole: what values I will enact, what commitments I will make, what understanding I will bring to bear. It puts everything into play. What is my relationship to the objects I encounter in the world, or to other beings? How do my moods and emotions affect the ways I engage the world? What happens when thought carries me away from direct experience? Can I be attentive within thought?
2. A beginner’s mind
A key instruction in the practice of mindfulness is to sit with a beginner’s mind – open, curious, suspend judgment, without being overwhelmed by our preconceptions and opinions. It is a
child-like mind, exploring the world with amazement, wonder and appreciation.
In mindfulness, we cultivate such a beginner’s mind when we observe our minds
and its fixed views, preconceptions and interpretations and create a space for
us to let go and not be overtaken by them. To quote Suzuki Roshi ““In the
beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s, there are few.”
(Zen Mind, Beginner’s mind)
So, there is a seeming paradox in the practice of mindfulness: we focus on the present moment, we pay attention to the nature of our thinking and feelings as they are unfolding and yet we also see our experiences with a beginner’s mind, we let go off them and remain spacious like the sky. As we go deeper into mindfulness, we begin to clarify this seeming paradox and directly experience the reality of our experiences with regards to our senses, our thoughts and feelings and eventually to the nature our self identify, and of awareness itself.
To be continued…
In part two, I will illustrate the key techniques and practices to gain a practical understanding of the level 2 meaning of mindfulness, at least in the initial stages.
Ravi Pradhan is the founder of Karuna Management and has over two decades of experience as an international consultant and trainer in management and organizational effectiveness. His current focus is on change management and leadership as well as on introducing mindfulness based emotional intelligence. He lives in Nepal andÂ Vietnam where he is working on a similar mission.
Other articles by same author: