What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness for Beginners by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

My own definition of mindfulness is very simple:

Mindfulness is the gentle effort to be continuously present with 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
nonjudgmentally.”

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”

Guided Mindfulness Meditation: A Complete Guided Mindfulness Meditation Program from Jon Kabat-Zinn

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 Meditations for Teens, by Bodhipaksa
Mindfulness Meditations for Teens, by Bodhipaksa

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.

137 Comments. Leave new

Hi, thank you for your explanations for mindfulness above. I hope to clarify something about mindfulness, I found this online:
“If you are remembering your second-grade teacher, that is memory. When you then become aware that you are remembering your second-grade teacher, that is Mindfulness. If you then conceptualize the process and say to yourself, “Oh, I am remembering”, that is thinking. ”

I am confused, if I am doing administrative jobs like sorting information I need to conceptualize things and facts, If I am mindful administrating that means I am aware that I am conceptualizing things and facts? If I am aware that I am doing it, am I being mindful or just thinking.

1 more question, i heard some people says mindfulness is “no-self”, however when I am mindfully thinking, when I aware that I remember some facts, I aware that thoughts like “Oh I remember.” will appear. Is that means I am not mindful, that because there is still a “self” component?
Thank you for reading, looking forward for your precious insights.

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Mbuti Kusekwa
June 8, 2013 12:09 pm

i have been trying to be mindful all the time but it seems as if it needs that all the time i should pull back my thoughts to the present is there any shortcut way to make me easier to be mindful,should it be the life long practice,or will one day be naturally done.

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I do hot yoga so I’m mindful of my breathing that keeps me focused on the present..doing hot yoga. I think that being able to focus is probably a first step to mindfulness that is more meditative.

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Became aware of and practiced mindfulness about 4 years ago for about 4 months with limited success. Have been prescribed a number of different meds over the past few years for panic disorder, social anxiety and depression. The side effects have ranged from increased anxiety to a vegetative state. Is it possible that mindfulness training could be of benefit to me and is the training available online as I live in a rural area?

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Hi,
Really nice explanation. I feel like some of the articles in other websites are misinterpreting mindfulness.
Personally I am able to do this by letting go of my thoughts and just looking at some object around me. At that point of time, I become positive, confident, am aware of my body language, etc and feel like every moment is an experience.

Paying attention to my breathing though has never worked for me.

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October 24, 2013 8:37 pm

[…] Studying Buddhism has definitely made me more mindful in little ways. While meditating, I’m more aware of sounds, smells, and sensations. While eating, I focus more on the tastes and textures of my food. While speaking, I often question if I truly believe my words or if I’m simply parroting something that I heard once (more). […]

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I’m absolutely new to this whole mindfulness thing, and it’s raising lots of questions.
The first is: if I am constantly being mindful, of the present, of the feeling of the keyboard under my fingertips, of my breathing, etc., then how do I get anything done? If thoughts are just thoughts to accept and let pass, then how do I do anything except just sit and observe my breathing? If mindfulness is just meant to occur during meditation, I might understand, but I thought (forgive me if I’m wrong) that the aim is to be constantly mindful? So I’m focussing on my breathing, and I think “it’s probably time to go to work now”… but that’s just another thought to accept and let go – so how do I do the work I want to do, or cook dinner, or do any of the other tasks that need to happen during the day, and remain mindful at the same time? In particular, how do I do work that is intellectual? I can be mindful and present while I’m cooking, but how do I be mindful and present while I’m writing an email, or figuring out what a chart means – things that require full mental attention? How do you practice mindfulness while you reply to questions on this website, for example? I appreciate any clarification you can provide on this point.

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A little common sense is in order. If your intention is to type something, then yes, you can be mindful of the keyboard under your fingertips, but you’ll be most mindful of that which is most central to your task, which is to write. So you’ll be aware of the words as they appear, and to your evaluations of whether they’re spelled correctly, whether you’re saying what you want to say, whether your sentences are well formed or clumsy, etc. And if thoughts unrelated to your task arise — “I wonder what’s happening on Facebook?” — you might notice them and let them pass.

If you have the thought “it’s probably time to go to work now” and it is time to go to work, then go to work. Just let go of thoughts that are irrelevant to your purpose. If you think “it’s probably time to go to work now” and it’s time to go to work, and another thought comes up, like “I can’t be bothered going to work today” then you might let the thought pass, notice the sense or resistance, and mindfully go to work.

Most often the thoughts we’re letting go of are anxious, angry, or simply taking us out of our present-moment experience. Just let them go.

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I was liking the sound of this until the last section – it sounds as though mindfulness can leave you cold and unfeeling. I’d like to achieve balance and perspective and not allow negative emotions to take over but I’d still like to enjoy pleasant experiences on an emotional level! Does no more despair/upset mean no more elation/joy? If so, I don’t think it’s for me.

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Mindfulness is quite the contrary to a cold an unfeeling state. When the article says “We simply accept whatever arises. We observe it mindfully. We notice it arising, passing through us, and ceasing to exist,” this includes experiences of joy as well. Joy arises, and we enjoy it — fully — while it lasts, but we don’t cling to it, so we don’t get disappointed when it ends. But to my mind the word “elation” which you obviously have positive associations with, isn’t a very mindful state. TO my mind elation is a kind of intoxication with joy, which leads to a loss of balance and sensitivity to others, and to a post-elation “crash.” Of course you may understand something quite different by the word “elation.”

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Hello!
Im new and I’m having a hard time understanding a concept. When I think of someone who is in the present moment, they are completely aware of what’s happening around them. For example, someone could not sneak up on them or when prompted, they can immediately participate in a conversation that is happening in front of them. It seems as though if you are being mindful of your thoughts, emotions, senses, etc that you are not necessarily aware of everything that’s happening around you also. So, can you be mindful of the experience of eating ice cream and be aware of the person taking a walk off in the distance? Or does the term ‘in the present moment’ mean whatever experience you choose to be mindful of? Thanks

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if mindfulness is deliberately noticing things and sensations,living in the present ,then why do you need to just focus on breathing ? why not just focus on all the things that are happening,listening to sounds , noticing all the bodily function etc.

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Well, you don’t just focus on your breathing. You notice other things as well. But what focusing on your breathing does is teach you to develop steadiness of attention, so that you can be more continuously mindful.

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@cate: That works for me….I generally breath through my mouth ….so its difficult for me to focus on breathing…..So I focus on things that are happening and objects around me…..and once im being mindful,…there is sudden awareness about my breathing and body language..

Actually when I am watching movie….I am not even blinking….but when I am mindful….I actually realize i need to blink my eyes

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As far as I can tell from studying all the major religions, you aren’t supposed to enjoy yourself at all (especially not sexually). How does this square up with mindfulness? Am I allowed to enjoy sex if I’m mindful about it? Or is it still a sin? Ps. Not a troll. Genuinely confused.

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It’s a good question. Buddhism doesn’t say you shouldn’t experience pleasure. It says that you shouldn’t get attached to pleasure. That can mean many things, including not getting upset when pleasure passes, not craving to have pleasure, not trying to get pleasure in ways that are destructive, etc.

If you’re a monk or nun, then the rule is no sex. It’s just too much of a distraction — the sex itself, plus the relationship aspect (those are always complicated), plus the possibility of having kids. If you’re a householder Buddhist then there are precepts to guide your sexual activity. So it’s fine to have sex (there is no concept of sin in Buddhism) but you should make sure that you don’t hurt others by, for example, getting involved in someone else’s exclusive relationship, or by having sex with someone inappropriate (they’re too young, say), or by having sex with someone who doesn’t want to have sex with you.

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I think I’m not grasping the point of this. My psychologist instructs me to practice it. I usually read and think about abstract theories for fun, If I’m into something I do not look up from what I’m conceptualizing for up to 24 hours (taking laptop with me when need to use toilet). Why should I want to not do this, and sit and think about the physical sensations in my body, or the movement of my toothbrush back and forth in my mouth? This is not interesting or enjoyable. Is the goal not to have thoughts or opinions? why should I not want to analyse and make judgments? I can escape the pains of the physical into fantasy so why would I not? I don’t see the benefit, it seems awfully depressing. I’ve googled but perhaps i need someone to explain specifically whatever I am apparently missing. Thanks.

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I’m assuming that you’re seeing a psychologist for a reason. Usually those reasons are to do with unhappiness or with there being some difficulty in our lives that we need help with. I think it’s pretty much guaranteed that being more mindful would help you with that unhappiness or those difficulties.

No one’s asking you to think about the physical sensations in your body. That would not be mindfulness.

You are afraid that mindfulness would take things away from you that bring you pleasure. Mindfulness is a form of awareness that gives us choice. What you choose to do is up to you. You can choose to be so caught up in your computer activities that you take your laptop to the bathroom with you, but you can also choose not to do that if you find that other activities are better for you. Mindfulness gives us choice. It doesn’t take it away.

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Mindfulness - An Alternative Approach to ADA
June 25, 2014 10:22 am

[…] a really, really good description on the difference between simple awareness and mindfulness. What is mindfulness? | Wildmind Buddhist Meditation I think everybody should read […]

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Hello, Dear Bodhipaksa.
Thanks and congratulations for loving kindness and insights! Finding the site you are leading and reading the contents therein is truly beneficial, indeed.
I normally and mostly to be exact, go to the related link shared in my native language, MYANMAR(BURMESE) from where followers can benefit to any levels ranging from the basic, the understanding of Karma to the ultimate, the attainment of Enlightenment, depending on. Given yours,Sir, I truly have a high regard for your metta(lovingkindness), cetana(well-wishing), and thuta(being well-versed)and bhavana(practice for perfection). Pardon me if mine comes short of the totality of yours. Also allow me to reshare one of the treasure utopias as a way of paying homage to all my teachers, even though I still need to come up to the highest form of actually doing so, so far.
Here comes the the Link; http://www.dhammadownload.com
Thanks again.

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[…]  I saw this and just stopped!  Serious contemplation!  “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; On purpose,in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” – Jon Kabat – Zinn  This is a great article on mindfulness:  https://www.wildmind.org/applied/daily-life/what-is-mindfulness […]

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Dear Bodhipaksa, I have a practical question about mindfulness which I have not been able to answer by myself. I’m having problems with the paradox of being present without trying to be present and without thinking about being present. As soon as I start practicing mindfulness, in my mind I start pouring out theories, directing myself, etc. I can observe that this happens, and then my mind puts that observing into language as well, which never ends. To simply go ‘deeper’, ‘observe the reactions of the mind’, or whatever, still requires conscious action and effort based on words/theories, hence in my case these things also get dominated by the mind. So, my attempts at being mindful are active processes which require direction, which turns it into a complete paradox. How to be mindful without trying to be mindful and without conscious theories or directions? Thank you!

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It sounds, Suzanne, that your idea of “being present without trying to be present” is getting in the way. Did someone tell you that mindfulness is effortless? It can get to that point, just as being able to juggle while riding a unicycle can be effortless. On the way to effortlessness a lot of effort has to be expended.

It also sounds like you’re trying to practice mindfulness of the mind without first developing mindfulness of the body, and so you’re getting lost in your thinking. You’re over-thinking. For now, I’d suggest that you just keep coming back to your breathing (I’m assuming you’re doing some kind of mindfulness of breathing). When you notice you’ve become caught up in thinking, just let go of the train of thought and return to noticing the physical sensations of the breathing. If you find yourself commenting on what you’re doing, this is just more thinking that you’ve been caught up in, and so you let go of that thinking and return to the physical sensations of the breathing.

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Okay, thank you! I like to put effort in things I value and it is good to know that mindfulness can take at least as much effort as juggling while riding a unicycle. That is indeed how it seems to feel sometimes, though in truth I never tried the unicycle.

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I find that the more I try and stay away from a thought or a way of thinking (self-pity, frustration), the more I gravitate toward it. So. What works for me is letting myself go there. Dwell on it. Talk to myself about it, why I’m feeling that way, why I might be right or wrong to feel that way. Overthink it until I’ve exhausted myself on it. And then I can move on. Restricting (or trying to restrict) yourself from a natural thought pathway will only create confusion and frustration. This works for me.

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Hi, Misty. Mindfulness isn’t about trying to stay away from thoughts. As far as thoughts go, it involves noticing them when they arise, and having the choice whether to engage with them or not. When a thought is one that we recognize as unhelpful (like the self-pity or frustration you mention) we generally just let go of them by gently turning our attention to something else.

We are also free to reflect on the thought in the ways you mention — for example reflecting how you’re going to feel if you keep indulging in it — but I wouldn’t use the expression “dwell on it” and I wouldn’t recommend “overthinking.” But anyway, all of that can be done mindfully.

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It is hard to stick to a mindful routine. I’ve found that what can be really helpful is a gentle reminder to help us to stay mindful every morning as our day starts. The Mindfulness Wake-up Call (http://www.mindful.website) has helped me a lot.

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Luisa Altamirano
December 21, 2014 11:29 pm

Hello,
I am from Mexico City, and I am very interest in study and get a serous certification at mindfulness, to be more aware of my life, and to support my clients at coaching. Do you have any suggestion where can I study at Mexico City or US?
Thank you
Blessings,
Luisa

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The only place I know of that offers MBSR teacher training is UMass Medical Center, Luisa. There may be something in Mexico, but being a non-Spanish speaker I wouldn’t even know how to look :)

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[…] to think or feel in a given moment.” Or as Wildmind Buddhist Meditation puts it in the post What is Mindfulness, we don’t judge experiences as good or bad, or if we do make judgements, we simply notice them […]

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January 12, 2015 6:58 pm

[…] to help alter a person’s mood, promote relaxation, increase energy and help reduce pain. Mindfulness[15]is a practice of focusing one’s attention on the present moment and accepting rather than […]

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Hello there. I recently had anxiety attacks and it has left with this memory that I need to control my breathing. After reading about mindfulness on this website, I can accurately say that I have been very mindful of my breathing evey time, to the extent that I find it is bothersome to me. But when my mind is totally occupied, I don’t think so much about it. I have spoken to some psychologists and they have told me that it’s because I have associated a bad memory to it, that’s it why I find it very bothersome. Can you help me out with some advise or suggestion? Or is there away to message you privately. I appreciate your help greatly.

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Hi, Malvin.

I’ve had several people post comments recently along similar lines. I don’t know if this is a coincidence, whether there’s an epidemic of people controlling their breathing, or whether perhaps there’s some link to this site that’s bring people interested in that topic. I have an article here on that topic, but it’s mostly aimed at the mild problem some people have in meditation of trying to control their breathing. It seems that with some people this becomes an ongoing problem. How to deal with that, I don’t really know, although perhaps some of the suggestions in the article I linked to, or in the comments below it, will be helpful.

I have to say though that being mindful of your breathing (which you say you’ve been doing all the time) is not really compatible with controlling your breathing (which you also say you’ve been doing). Mindfulness just observes — it doesn’t interfere.

One thing I’m going to throw out there is that idea that you could switch your attention to being mindful of your desire to control your breathing. Where is that desire? Where is it located? How does it manifest? What size is it? What texture is it? What’s its emotional tone? Just notice those things, without judgement. If you can’t find the desire, just stay with your experience and keep looking.

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the Sufi believe is the similar as the Buddhist mindfulness, A Sufi says our life is a series of moments and we need to live in the present. the present little happiness will determine the future happiness.
the technique described is excellent in this article present of mind and present in time. Control the past pains. Excellent article.

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How does one practice being mindful while grieving the suicide of my child. Honestly looking for help. Thank you

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Hi, Lisa.

You have my sympathy. I can’t imagine how painful it would be like to lose a child. Mindfulness at a time like that is crucial. It’s important to accept the pain; to allow it to be there. It’s also important to recognize when the mind is creating stories around the pain, and thereby intensifying it. All those thoughts we have along the lines of “this shouldn’t happen,” or “this is terrible,” or “I can’t stand this,” are unnecessary additions to our experience and just cause us pain.

The other thing that’s important is to offer our pain compassion. That’s something I (and others) have written about a fair bit on this site. You’ll find some resources here.

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Great distinction.

Mindfulness really seems to be something that’s easy to misinterpret and I think many authors could explain it better.

I love the idea of “gentle effort”… too many materials I’ve read just talk about awareness, “being not doing” etc, but the neurological reality of it is that, actually, it is a habit and you are “doing” something new with it (And anyway the brain is always “doing” something).

That gentle effort of meeting your difficult sensations/thoughts/ urges with noticing and perhaps curiosity, compassion, etc – which over time builds new neural pathways that allow psychological flexibility in situations where previously you were rigid in your behaviors/internal states.

I’m glad there are people like you who can describe it practically and usefully and not get too dogmatic about “being not doing”, “not trying”, “pure awareness”, etc. All that stuff sounds great, but in practice – like, actually mindfully meeting anxiety or anger or hurt or self-destructive behavior – I find it unhelpful.

There is a gentle effort and purpose involved, as you say.

Thanks for putting that into words so well.

Rick

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Thanks, Rick.

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Hi I just found your website. Very interesting and uplifting. Anabel was asking about how mindfulness can help with a eating disorder…it makes us more aware as to what is going on inside of our minds and bodies as to why to would chose to deprive yourself of food or even why someone would over indulge. My heart goes out to her. I hope she had pursued this lifestyle to find peace within her being. Awareness is a new life.

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