I’ve been writing about mindful living for a few weeks since I launched Mindful Memory Keeping. I confess that prior to last year, I had never heard of it. This is what I’ve learned about the definition of mindfulness since I first heard the word and started my own practice.
Mindfulness is often defined as the intentional, non-judgmental awareness of the present moment.
A short enough definition, but each of these words holds a much greater meaning. Let’s dive deeper into the language of this definition.
Intentional = on purpose; in a purposeful way. To me this means consciously or a conscious decision or choice.
Non-judgmental = without judgment. To me this means being an observer, not placing judgment, being compassionate.
Awareness = the ability to perceive, to feel, or to be conscious of events, objects, thoughts, emotions, or sensory patterns.  So this is a long one but to me this means paying attention to the things around us and the feelings inside us.
Present = now; not in the future and not in the past.
Moment = a short period of time; an instant.
As we look at each of these words, that short definition translates into so much more. When we put these individual definitions together into long form, we get:
The conscious paying attention, as an observer and without judgment, to the things around us and the feelings inside us, in each instant of now.
While this explanation is more descriptive it is definitely too long. The short definition works much better for those who are just discovering mindfulness.
There are so many things that happen throughout the day that we are don’t have to think too much about. Walking, eating, breathing, sitting are all examples of rote tasks that either our body takes care of for us or that we do in such an automatic way that it requires almost no thought to make it happen. We therefore almost never pay attention to the details of those activities.
The intentional part of mindfulness leads us to be conscious or to pay attention when we’re doing any activity throughout the day. It leads us to be “checked in” rather than “checked out”, to be aware. Though there is a difference in noticing what you’re doing and really being purposeful about it.
Wildmind illustrates this point with the example of eating:
When we are purposefully aware of eating, we are consciously being aware of the process of eating. We’re deliberately noticing the sensations and our responses to those sensations. We’re noticing the mind wandering, and…we purposefully bring our attention back.
When we’re eating unmindfully we may in theory be aware of what we’re doing, but we’re probably thinking about a hundred and one other things at the same time, and we may also be watching TV, talking, or reading — or even all three! So a very small part of our awareness is absorbed with eating, and we may be only barely aware of the physical sensations and even less aware of our thoughts and emotions.
We live in a culture full of judgment, of ourselves and of others. One of my favorite aspects of mindfulness, though one of the hardest for me to practice is the non-judgmental observer part. As we are consciously taking part in an activity such as eating, our mind will likely wander or we might accidentally spill a glass of water.
Mindfulness asks that rather than reacting harshly, or reacting at all, we experience and observe what is happening and then let the feelings pass. (Of course in the case of the water we would then clean it up.) If you do react, simply be compassionate with yourself, accept it and let it go. On a surface level this is very similar to letting go of expectations and experiencing things as they come.
I once read a quote that went something like, “Anxiety is living in the future; Depression is living in the past; Peace is living in the present.” While I don’t completely agree with this quote as these two mental illnesses are very complex and manifest themselves differently in each person, in its most simplistic form this could be true.
All kinds of thoughts run through our brain each day. Thoughts about the past, thoughts about the future and everything in between. Keywords though are “run through”. When we allow these thoughts to briefly run through our mind, we see them, and then let them be on their way we are experiencing the regular activity of mind.
BUT, when we hyper focus on or fully identify with the thoughts instead of allowing them to run through, maybe we are “living” in another time. While we are busy thinking and ruminating about the past or future we are missing out on the one thing we have the ability to fully experience, the present moment.
Mindfulness is not fixed or static. It is not something that you either have or you don’t. Mindfulness is a practice. There is no end game here. Everyday in each moment when we practice these skills – intention, non-judgment, awareness – we are mindful.
(As the practice becomes more mainstream you will probably (hopefully?) hear the term more and more so you can always refer back to this post.)