Updated: Sep 12, 2020
Mindfulness is our inherent ability to focus our awareness in the here and now, allowing curiosity to arise while the natural flow of thoughts, feelings, and sensations come and go from our experience; the practice of which, when cultivated, provides insight and creates space for us to have a more loving and compassionate relationship with ourselves and others.
Characteristics of Mindfulness
Cultivating a mindfulness practice nourishes a richness of experience. Having Beginner’s Mind (dropping the concept that we already know how things are) and seeing things newly without the ego needing things be a certain way gives rise to impartial watchfulness which allows us to get in-tune with our observing self with pure attention. This quality of attention doesn’t need to qualify, categorize, or assign meaning. We snap out of auto-pilot and see beyond what is "me/I/my" and this helps us let go of self-identifying labels. An expanded potential becomes possible in the unknown! This is particularly helpful when dealing with unpleasant thoughts or bodily sensations like pain, impermanence and our ability to see that change is a constant in life.
The practice of mindfulness extends beyond the act of just sitting in meditation. When one
develops a practice, one anchors their life with a commitment to sitting in meditation but the
outcomes of this commitment give rise to insight, which, from my own experience, has led to a
more compassionate, accepting, and wise view of life beyond the “me” or ego that had
previously run the show, oftentimes, unconsciously.
There are a vast range of practices one can engage with even in a secular way: attention
training, cultivation of qualities of heart, forms of visualization, listening, walking, standing,
laying down, body scans, etc. There are formal traditions or rituals practiced in forms of
Buddhist meditation, one example being Zen Buddhism, and there are open-ended mindful
qualities of mind one can apply while in line in grocery stores, while sitting in nature, or
elsewhere. One can practice in silence, community, or even with guided recordings.
In mainstream culture there are notions that mindfulness is a toolbox, as if there are
protocols one can whip out to use when trying to deal with whatever’s not working in life.
While this notion might help people looking for a fix to something in life that seems broken, I
feel this completely misses the point.
When one develops a practice of mindfulness, by its very nature, it cannot be compressed
into something as trivial as being the next self-help tool, panacea, or pill to swallow. What
emerges is an expansive quality of mind. From this, a quality of life emerges informed
by our experiences of being in the present moment more and more. When practiced regularly
through sitting in meditation, for example, this string of experience becomes part of our
conscious memory. We begin to see with awareness, the unconscious wrangling our ego plays out in its never ending rodeo of thoughts and assessments. We begin to hear our own inner wisdom and intuition with more clarity. We begin to see this as true experience. For me, it has felt like- I am able to remember... re-collect the most important things. As if I am remembering or recalling who I really am, what is wise, unconditional, loving, and beautiful. In this space, the judge and jury of my inner criticisms have no jurisdiction, and I feel blessed and present.
What happens next is the adventure, because most of us have a lifetime of unconscious
memory running the show with our guides “ego” and “social conditioning” leading the way.
So, when we return to our seat, through a commitment to this practice, we begin to
hold the space for this present moment experience to grow and take root in the way we live.
Holding the space creates and cultivates the space, claims it. When I claimed a space
for mindfulness meditation to be a part of my daily life, I made room for present moment
experience to be part of my life experience. Claiming the space for this is the key to my
practice. Taking a seat in meditation (or a walk, a stand…) This is what opens the door, the
attention to breath is the window, and it is a room with a new view. The practice allows for a
new way of being inside my body and mind, a new way of being in the world.
Mind States: Learning to recognize what is skillful and unskillful. We can begin to discern the difference between that which provides access to happiness and liberation and that which leads to suffering. Although this discernment is basic to the foundations of Buddha’s teachings, in modern society, this is a process. It is easy enough to recognize poor states of mind like greed or hatred, anger, jealousy, materialism, etc., with being fairly unwholesome. But we tend to qualify ourselves or others when we see this trait lived out, with ideas like, we are bad people for having it, or that it is wrong for this mind state to even arise. This pattern leads to judgement, aversion, and suffering. This becomes a cycle that we lock ourselves into like a hamster on a wheel, round and round we go. This cycle feeds our personal psychology and informs our actions in the world. Through a mindfulness practice, we come to understand which mind states are skillful and which are unskillful and we do this not to continue to judge self or others, nor even to react to these ideas... not to suppress or deny them either, but to see which leads to happiness and which we could cultivate more of in our lives.
The world is filled with unavoidable pain, and I postulate even to some level of suffering, but there is so much suffering we create for ourselves which is unnecessary and completely avoidable. When we cultivate a practice of living mindfully we learn to train our minds and open our hearts. With practice we can more easily see which attitudes of the mind are arising in us, but with a deepening practice we can even see when we are cultivating wholesome mind states. In my life, this depth is what helps me return to that seat inside myself in my mindfulness practice. It nurtures something inside me that doesn’t need to be qualified or labeled, about who I think I am. This leads to what we can cultivate in our lives that we could describe as benefits to our practice.
With continued practice of living more mindfully, we become more aware of those life-giving mind states and we can begin to cultivate these with regularity. In this way we nurture them, and this can give way to growth. The growth bears fruit and some of the fruits have the following characteristics.
Generosity: Approaching life with respect and gratitude becomes consistently possible. We are able to give not to get things back for ourselves and this brings its own kind of happiness. We become aware of what is present now in our lives and the yearning for that which we don’t have is able to be noticed.
Love and Compassion: We are able to develop empathic compassion when others around us experience pain or unpleasant feelings, and empathic joy when those around experience happiness. Love arises naturally in the present moment.
Refrain: We feel pleasant feelings when we are able to renunciate our familiar comforts we had previously relied on. We untie from this addiction to accumulate and we naturally prefer the simplicity available in the present moment. Life as we knew it before, where we sought distraction and fulfillment in things or the material world seems so unnecessary or cluttered by comparison.
Concentration: Mind states flutter regularly in modern society between agitation, anxiousness, and worry… but with a commitment to living mindfully, the mind settles and rests more easily on the object of attention, carried on the current of mindfulness. Ease and pleasure are more available. A sense of unification emerges. This practice is one thing we can do consistently in our lives without giving rise to fatigue. In comparison, non-stop eating, shopping, talking, and competing, etc., are all things focused on in our society as means to measure success and these things all bring exhaustion.
Clear Seeing: This speaks to the various stages of insight and awakening that become present. We can begin to see deeply and vividly the changing, selfless nature of what arises in this moment. As things (objects and circumstances) in our lives come and go, grow or shrink, the knowing- consciousness remains. This clear open space remains, uncluttered. We become aware of the object of our attention, be it a wandering thought, a bodily sensation, or our breath. The breath can serve as an anchor in the here and now and with practice we can identify that which anchors us in the present moment and our practice and cultivate this with clarity.
I realize this only skims some of the surface of this deep pool of mindfulness but it hopefully unpacks what I attempted to describe in the original statement of what mindfulness is to me.