Mindfulness is a much-used term currently, maybe a much overused one. It has its origins as an integral part of Buddhist practice, within the eightfold path; it has been taken into western psychology most notably by Jon Kabat-Zinn and in the UK as a treatment listed on the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, and it has also become something of a pop culture subject, as seen with such objects as mindful colouring books and a multitude of apps. It also, of course, has generally meanings outside of these contexts.
With all its current popularity, it is however, difficult to find a single consensus of exactly what it is. One of the more common western ‘definitions’ used is that put forward by Jon Kabat-Zinn who has been working with this in a clinical setting since the late 1970’s. He generally defines mindfulness as:
Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.
Whilst this defines what it is, there is still the question of what this means in practice. To aid practice and teaching of mindfulness it is useful to have more of a working model. Here is a general and overarching view of this, open to discussion, validation and refinement.
An Approach to Life
Overall Mindfulness practice could be viewed as an approach to life. Not a technique or a process to be applied in the correct way, but an approach to be experienced, and which, through experience, develops overtime.
At the core of a mindful approach is an awareness of our current thoughts, feeling and emotions, our body and senses, and our environment, as they are now. This is an awareness of, rather than thinking about, these things. In this way:
Mindfulness is a characteristic of mental states that emphasizes observing and attending to current experiences, including inner experiences, such as thoughts and emotions, with a non-judgmental attitude and with acceptance.
(Hill and Updegraff 2012; 81)
This means that we are, as far as possible, being fully present and engaged with the here and now of our mind, body or environment. We aim to experience life as it is rather than through filters of comparison, extrapolation, judgement, rules or any other thinking or analysis about what is here. This is sometimes known as a the ‘Being mode’.
This approach differs to a ‘Doing mode”, which is generally our default way of dealing with our world and circumstances. In this mode we think about what our senses present us with, recalling similar past events, analyse what is here, try to solve problems, identify the gap between where we are and where we want to be. Sometimes we do this without any specific sensory input and go off into thoughts and reverie.
A lot of the time this is a very powerful and effective approach. It involves our amazing abilities to recall past situations, compare them to now, to plan various scenarios for the future; to not only imagine them but to live them in our head. We do this often without even consciously thinking about it and come up with a way to move forward, something to do next. We do this in such a relaxed way sometimes that our minds just wander off into another place and time; sometimes we do this repeatedly, ruminating on either past events of possible future happenings. Most of us spend quite a lot of time living in this world created by our thoughts and thinking.
However, doing this all the time may not be helpful and can lead to overthinking life with the potential for unneeded or unrealistic stress, worry, or depression. There are times when we do not have to solve or fix things, we do not have to compare and contrast with the past, there is not the need to try and judge situations, and there may be no need to consider the implications for the future. These sorts of situations may be more common than we think, it’s often just that we automatically drop into an analytical and solving state of mind.
An approach of mindful awareness, can often be more effective, experiencing a situation as it is rather than through these filters of comparison, extrapolation, judgement, rules or any other thinking about what is there. In many situations there is no need to compare or plan.
Sometimes experiencing clearly with full awareness is all that’s needed and ‘thinking about’ something detracts from what is there; a beautiful view, the sound of wonderful music, the taste of fresh food, the emotions of deep rapport with another person, or being aware of all sides in a conflict situation. Analysing and planning may come later, being deeply aware of what is here and now can often give a clear basis on which to do so. Being present without judging and stepping back a little, enables us to respond to something rather than react without due consideration. In our modern, rapid, information filled society this mindful approach to life is often over-ridden by analysis, thinking and planning, and a sense of a need for speed.
Williams et al refer, who refer to these two approaches as the ‘doing mode’ and the ‘being mode’, highlight some comparisons of how each approach can work:
- Automatic pilot v conscious choice
- Analysing v sensing
- Striving v accepting
- Seeing thoughts as solid and real v treating them as mental constructs
- Avoiding v approaching
- Mental time travel v remaining in the present monument
- Depleting v nourishing activities
(Williams and Penman 2011; 36 – 43 )
Whilst the two approaches are not mutually exclusive, there may be a benefit for most of us to be able to restore more of a balance between them. We could even go further and regard a mindful approach as a better starting point most of the time, bringing in the doing mind when it is appropriate.
At its core, then, mindfulness is about being present and aware. It is about approaching life being open to what is there, not immediately judging what occurs, being curious, accepting what is as is, not striving to make things to different, or wishing they were not as they are.
In this way mindfulness is a state of being, rather than an act of doing.
However, do not think this is a passive state. This is about active awareness of what is, not passively putting up with things or being resigned to them. It is about being engaged with what is there. This applies to our thoughts (they will still be there), our body and senses (which are directly relate to thoughts and ways of thinking) and our environment.
The practice of mindfulness is about growing this approach daily. In practicing and using a mindfulness approach in everyday life, we are also going through a process of self-discovery and growth, of constantly coming back to being more present and aware of what is here and now. Of being aware when we are living in the past or the future and coming back to the present.
A Mindful approach helps to remove barriers that we naturally put in place between us and the world; the filters, rules, analysis and thinking about, etc. This gives us the opportunity to experience the world in a different way, and to interact with it in a different way. By being aware in this way we can pause some of our automatic, reactive reactions, and choose our response to an event, consciously, based on what is present. So we might respond to a communication based on what was said, rather than when we though was implied, or deal with a physical pain as experienced, rather than not only suffering the physical pain but also the added suffering of an emotional response to it.
This practice consists of formal meditations, micro meditations, and daily habits and behaviours. The formal meditations could be seen as similar to carrying out physical exercises to keep the body healthy. The micro meditations, or pauses, and behaviours are the equivalent of leading a healthier lifestyle on a daily basis. It is through these ongoing practices that you become more aware of what is happening both internally and in your external environment, and more aware of the interaction between the internal and external worlds. And like physical exercise and lifestyle choices they need to be continued to give benefit.
In all, this is a way of approaching life, and the practices are part of that ongoing approach. They are not something which is carried out until it is ‘right’, or something you can stop because you have now ‘got it’. Your practice will continue in whatever way is right for you, here and now, as you go through your daily life.
Hill, C.L.M. and Updegraff, J.A. (2012) ‘Mindfulness and Its Relationship to Emotional Regulation.’ Emotion.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994) Wherever You Go, There You Are. Kindle. London: Piatkus
Williams, M. and Penman, D. (2011) Mindfulness a Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World. Kindle. Hachette Digital