What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is when we observe our experience rather than merely participate in our experience. When we’re unmindful, we’re certainly experiencing, but we’re “merely participating” in that experience, swept along in the flow of our thoughts and fantasies, caught up in thinking without being aware of what we’re doing and what effect it’s having on us, and not realizing that we have the choice to do anything else.
When we’re mindful, we observe our experience. We know that we’re thinking. We’re aware of what effect our thinking is having (for example that it’s making us or others unhappy). We’re aware we have choices about what we do and what we think.
And that’s what mindfulness is: observing.
Often teachers will say that mindfulness is other things as well: that it’s kind and compassionate, that it’s curious, peaceful, confident, non-attached, equanimous, trusting, and wise.
But what’s happening here is that these other qualities are being conflated with (and confused with!) mindfulness. These qualities are not, in fact, part of mindfulness. Instead, they are separate qualities, and mindfulness enables them.
Because mindfulness leads to us having choice, it allows us to bring other qualities into being.
We might, for example, start off unmindfully obsessing over some hurt we’ve experienced. We’re caught up in the flow of “being hurt” or perhaps “being angry” about that hurt. But we’re “merely participating,” without observing. Then mindfulness comes into being. (This happens spontaneously, and without any will on our part.) Now we’re aware that we’re hurt and angry, and of the way we’ve been reacting to this in ways that intensify our suffering. And we have the freedom to stop reacting and to respond more creatively. Mindfulness enables this.
Perhaps we start by accepting that there’s pain present. Perhaps we bring in a wise perspective that anger isn’t the most helpful way for us to respond to this pain. Perhaps we bring in some warmth and compassion for ourselves. Perhaps we become curious to see how we can respond with even more creativity. Perhaps we cultivate kindness and compassion for the person who hurt us. And perhaps now we’re suffering much less than we were before.
All of these qualities come into being as a result of mindfulness, but they themselves are not part of mindfulness. They’re not inherently part of the act of observing, although they may flow alongside it and intertwine with it.
In time, we get better at “leveraging” our mindfulness and bringing these other qualities into being. In fact it can happen rapidly and automatically. And so the moment we step into mindfulness, curiosity, acceptance, compassion, etc., arise.
One problem with assuming that all these skillful qualities are part of mindfulness is that it causes doubt. Someone may become mindful, observing their experience, but doubt that they actually are mindful, because they haven’t yet brought into being curiosity, compassion, wisdom, etc. If someone has developed mindfulness but thinks that they haven’t, then this disempowers them and causes confusion.
Bearing in mind that mindfulness is an enabling quality — one that creates a space in which we are free to bring into being other skillful qualities, is truer to the traditional understanding of mindfulness, and makes it clearer what actually happens as we first become mindful of our experience and then learn to respond creatively to it.