Mindfulness is everywhere these days, but it’s often poorly defined. To me its central and defining characteristic is self-observation. When we’re unmindful, there’s no self-observation going on. The lights are on, but nobody’s home.
Thoughts, feelings, speech, and actions are all functioning, but there’s no inner observer, and so there’s no evaluation going on. Without evaluation there’s no mechanism for recognizing that certain thoughts etc. are causing us or others suffering. And so we’re really nothing more than a complex bundle of instincts and habits. Those instincts and habits can do amazing things, like drive a car (ever “woken up” to find you’ve driven somewhere and have no recollection of the journey?) or read a book (I often would find that I’d read several pages of a bedtime story to my kids and not paid attention to a single word I’d said.
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The key thing is our suffering. Or, to put it another way, the quality of our experience. With no observation, there’s nothing to stop us from making ourselves anything from mildly disgruntled to extremely unhappy.
When self-observation is taking place, we notice the effects of particular thoughts, words, actions, and so on. And so we’re able to make adjustments. We might notice that a certain train of thought is causing us to feel anxious or depressed or angry. We might realize that the train of thought isn’t even true. And we might decide to let go of it.
Mindfulness gives us two kinds of freedom. It gives us freedom from, and freedom to.
By “freedom from” I mean freeing ourselves from the tyranny of habit and instinct, and therefore a cultivating a growing freedom from the suffering that these unmindful behaviors cause. When we’re mindful, these habits and instincts are still there, of course. They don’t magically vanish. But when we’re mindful they’re less likely to control our minds, and instead are just thoughts and desires that we observe and that we may decide not to act on.
That’s radical in itself, because it profoundly changes the course of our being. But we also discover that we have not just freedom from unmindful ways of being, but the freedom to bring about different ways of being. We have the freedom to choose. We can choose to be kinder, for example. If we just remember that being kind is a possibility, we’re more likely to be kind. If we remember what it’s like to feel and act in a kind way, then those qualities are more likely to arise. If we’re free from angry thoughts we are also free to think in ways that are more empathetic and loving.
And what is true for being kinder is true for being patient, curious, courageous, accepting, appreciative, reflective, and for practicing other skillful qualities. With mindfulness we’re free to choose to be different.
Mindfulness gives us the freedom to stop causing ourselves and others suffering through unmindful habits, and to instead cultivate skillful habits that help to improve the quality of our own lives and that also impact other people in positive ways. It’s both freedom from and freedom to.