Mindfulness is a huge buzzword at the moment. Hundreds of clinical studies are run every year, looking at how it might benefit our health and wellbeing. It’s being used for stress management, pain management, addiction treatment, and to help people become better leaders.
But let’s go back to basics and ask, what is mindfulness anyway? Yes, Jon Kabat-Zinn says that it’s “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” And that’s true.
But to me the essence of mindfulness is observation. When we’re unmindful there’s no sense, or only a very distant and insignificant one, of us being an observer of our experience. We’re so caught up in our experience that there’s no part of us outside of it.
So we might be angry. You know what that’s like. There are angry thoughts. Our body tenses. Our endocrine glands release stress hormones, pushing up our blood pressure and raising our heart-rate. We raise our voice and us vocabulary that’s critical, sometimes designed to hurt, and say things that are often not entirely true. There’s lots going on. But there’s no significant portion of us that’s stepping back, observing all this happening, and asking the very important questions, “Is this really what I want to be doing right now? Is this helpful for my long term benefit and wellbeing?”
Everything changes when we’re mindful. Now there’s a part of us that’s observing and monitoring our experience. We notice an angry thought arising. We notice tensing in the body, the presence of unpleasant feelings in the gut, signs of stress building. We notice that this is unpleasant. We might notice that perhaps the thought isn’t entirely true, but contains an element of exaggeration, which is contributing to our stress. We can ask those questions: “Is this what I want to be doing? Does this serve my wellbeing?”
We can let go of some of the anger, take a breath, come back to balance.
Now we’re able to sort though the anger response — to know better what it is we’re angry about and whether there’s something in the world around us that we might like to see changed. And we might be better equipped to do that in a way that’s sensitive to others, straightforward, and effective — at least compared to when we simply let off steam.
Now we all have the capacity to be mindful, but we spend a lot of time being unmindful as well, and so our habits of unmindfulness are well developed. We have to train ourselves to be mindful. It’s a practice.
At first our practice can be very bumpy. It can actually make our inner turmoil seem worse. Say we’re now observing all the things I mentioned up above: the angry thoughts, the tensing, the unpleasant feelings. We’ll often find ourselves getting upset because this isn’t how we want to be. And so we might switch from being angry at someone to being angry with ourselves (or perhaps being disappointed, doubting ourselves, or anxious). This can happen at first. But we learn to be mindful of that too, and to let go of it and simply be with and observe our experience.
All of this is deeply transformative. Mindfulness is a portal to a more conscious and purposeful approach to life. Mindfulness itself is not curious, but it allows curiosity to arise. Mindfulness itself is not kind, but it allows kindness space to manifest. Mindfulness is not itself wise, but it opens a doorway through which wisdom can make an appearance.
Mindfulness much more than a “relaxation technique,” a therapy, or a way to become a better leader. It’s the foundation for a life of spiritual practice, a life based on the conscious intent to be the best possible version of ourselves.