What is mindfulness?

ring-shaped bubble rising through blue water

My own definition of mindfulness is very simple:

Mindfulness is the gentle effort to be continuously present with our experience.

But I like Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness:

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way;

On purpose,
in the present moment, and

Kabat-Zinn, if you haven’t heard of him, is a famous teacher of mindfulness meditation and the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.

Paying attention “on purpose”

First of all, mindfulness involves paying attention “on purpose”. Mindfulness involves a conscious direction of our awareness. We sometimes (me included) talk about “mindfulness” and “awareness” as if they were interchangeable terms, but that’s not a good habit to get into. I may be aware I’m irritable, but that wouldn’t mean I was being mindful of my irritability. In order to be mindful I have to be purposefully aware of myself, not just vaguely and habitually aware. Knowing that you are eating is not the same as eating mindfully.

Let’s take that example of eating and look at it a bit further. 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 when it does wander 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.

Because we’re only dimly aware of our thoughts, they wander in an unrestricted way. There’s no conscious attempt to bring our attention back to our eating. There’s no purposefulness.

This purposefulness is a very important part of mindfulness. Having the purpose of staying with our experience, whether that’s the breath, or a particular emotion, or something as simple as eating, means that we are actively shaping the mind.

Paying attention “in the present moment”

Left to itself the mind wanders through all kinds of thoughts — including thoughts expressing anger, craving, depression, revenge, self-pity, etc. As we indulge in these kinds of thoughts we reinforce those emotions in our hearts and cause ourselves to suffer. Mostly these thoughts are about the past or future. The past no longer exists. The future is just a fantasy until it happens. The one moment we actually can experience — the present moment — is the one we seem most to avoid.

So in mindfulness we’re concerned with noticing what’s going on right now. That doesn’t mean we can no longer think about the past or future, but when we do so we do so mindfully, so that we’re aware that right now we’re thinking about the past or future.

However in meditation, we are concerned with what’s arising in the present moment. When thoughts about the past or future take us away from our present moment experience and we “space out” we try to notice this and just come back to now.

By purposefully directing our awareness away from such thoughts and towards the “anchor” or our present moment experience, we decrease their effect on our lives and we create instead a space of freedom where calmness and contentment can grow.

Paying attention “non-judgmentally”

Mindfulness is an emotionally non-reactive state. We don’t judge that this experience is good and that one is bad. Or if we do make those judgements we simply notice them and let go of them. We don’t get upset because we’re experiencing something we don’t want to be experiencing or because we’re not experiencing what we would rather be experiencing. We simply accept whatever arises. We observe it mindfully. We notice it arising, passing through us, and ceasing to exist.

Whether it’s a pleasant experience or a painful experience we treat it the same way.

Cognitively, mindfulness is aware that certain experiences are pleasant and some are unpleasant, but on an emotional level we simply don’t react. We call this “equanimity” — stillness and balance of mind.

129 Comments. Leave new

  • Mindfulness and Faith should be inseperatable.

    • Why!
      I have faith that the number 17 bus will appear at 28 minutes past the hour. I fail to see what that has to do with mindfulness. I think you’re confused. cygnusx15 at bigpond.com

      • Doesn’t it depend on what’s meant by “faith.” The word most commonly translated as “faith” in Buddhism is “saddha,” which means confidence or trust based on experience. Mindfulness and faith are both part of the group of qualities known as the five spiritual faculties, and they’re meant to be developed together. Mindfulness has the function of balancing faith, our emotional response to truth, with wisdom, which is another of the spiritual faculties and which is our cognitive approach to truth. Anyway, I don’t know what Barbara meant, but in traditional terms she’s correct, and mindfulness and faith/saddha should be inseparable.

  • See also a book by Brother Lawrence written about the 12th century in France, called Practising the Presence.

  • Actually there’s little difference as they’re on the same scale. It really depends on how ‘aware’ you are in the first place.

    I have seen drivers break at the last second showing they are not very aware, and I think most people are living in a dream world for most of the time. Obviously mindfulness is a heightened version of good ol’ awareness. Let’s not get all unnessassary about this…

  • […] of every part of your experience— your breathing, the sensations on your skin, etc. I like the definition of mindfulness provided here: “Mindfulness is the gentle effort to be continuously present with […]

  • Great understanding of mindfulness presented in a very simple manner. This brief post is good enough to change a life.

    Could you please explain “on purpose” a little more? Thanks.

    • It’s hard to say without simply using synonyms for “purpose.” I suppose what JKZ means is that mindfulness is intentional awareness. I prefer to talk about it in terms of observation. There’s a difference between merely seeing and consciously observing. One is a passive process, and the other is intentional. Does that help?

  • Sheldon S. - The Knowledge Roundtable
    May 25, 2017 8:39 am

    I came late to the mindfulness game, but it actually played a huge role in my ability to deal with panic attacks. (I wish I had found this sooner!) I have since begun implementing several of these techniques in my classroom. My students are able to bring an increased calm and focus to the classroom and thus are better prepared to engage with their learning experiences.

  • Alice Cinnante
    July 26, 2018 8:31 am

    Mindfulness and Focus: What is the difference

    • Mindfulness is being attentive to and observing your experience. A word like “focus” isn’t necessarily a technical term, but it generally refers to paying attention to one small aspect of your experience. Focus may or may not be mindful — for example when you’re distractedly caught up in a thought you’re not mindful but you are focused. You can mindfully focus, or you can pay mindful attention to many aspects of your experience.


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