Considering that I’ve been practicing meditation for over 30 years, I’m rather embarrassed about how hard I find it to define mindfulness.
I’ve described it elsewhere as “the gentle effort to be continuously present with experience.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn’s has described it as “Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
The other day I thought of a useful way to describe or define mindfulness:
“Mindfulness is when we observe our experience rather than merely participate in our experience.”
Unmindfulness is an almost hypnotic state. We’ve lost our perspective on our experience, and we’re swept along by it. We may be caught up in an angry rant, or in some compulsive activity like binge-watching TV, but we’re not standing back and observing our experience. We’re participants in the stories and fantasies we create.
In mindfulness we observe our experience rather than merely participate in it. When there’s anger present, we notice the feelings and thoughts that constitute the experience. Part of us is still caught up as a participant, but we’re observing that taking place. When there’s a compulsive activity going on, we stand back and recognize that this is happening. We may not yet be able to stop our compulsion, but we’re at least making a move in that direction.
Another way to put this is that when you’re unmindful, you’re entirely inside your experience. When you’re mindful, you’re partly inside it but there’s a significant part of you that’s looking at the experience from the outside. In neuroscience terms this probably means that you can have your limbic system active (that’s where your emotions and drives operates) or you can have your neocortex (your higher centers) monitoring what the limbic system is up to. That’s the part of you that’s standing outside your experience. That’s the part of you that’s observing, rather than merely participating.
The problem of course is that when you are not mindful, you are not mindful of your unmindfulness. I certainly find myself being more of a dispassionate observer of certain behaviors after quite a few years of fairly regular meditation, such as getting annoyed by other drivers. I find that my annoyance dissipates much more quickly because I am not pulled so completely into the mind state.