By Jimmy Warden
Mindfulness is a practice rooted in Buddhist and monk culture that has been around centuries, but it didn’t make its way into Western culture until the mid 1970’s. It took a little while for it to make its way to the United States because of World War II and the negative feelings about Asian culture that coincided during that time. It was Jon Kabat-Zinn and Thich Nhat Hanh who generated a lot of United States interest in the practice of mindfulness because of the approach that they started teaching. Rather than try to force Buddhist religion on people, Kabat-Zinn and Thich Nhat Hanh decided to pitch mindfulness as a way to compliment physical or health ailments by speeding up the recovery process. However, despite their positive intentions around Westerners practicing mindfulness, there are still some misconceptions about what it is.
To start, the first misconception about mindfulness is that it is sitting down in a quiet place, on a pillow, and meditating. Perhaps, this comes from the fact a lot of Western folks associate Buddhism with meditation, whether it be mindfulness meditation or zen meditation. However, mindfulness isn’t always a practice of sitting down in a quiet room to do some type of meditation. An individual could very well take a mindful walk, so to say. In this mindful walk, they could focus their attention on their feet hitting the ground with each step. They could also focus on specific sensory stimulation in their immediate environment; sights, sounds, or other physical feelings aside from the feet hitting the ground.
Another misconception about mindfulness is that it is merely a habit to engage in. A lot of people think that it’s just another item on our “to-do list”. Something that people use to simply “check a box” or do as a marker of righteousness. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The main reason why this isn’t true is that someone who authentically practices mindfulness has authentic intentions. They practice mindfulness to create clarity in the mind, ease their anxiety, and manage their ability to keep their mind in the present instead of the future or the past. Another reason is that mindfulness is indeed a practice. Not just something that is done separate from life. Sure, there are times when mindfulness practitioners sit down to do their mindfulness meditation, but a true sign of a practitioner is their ability to use the skills they work on in their meditations, in everyday life. If an individual is doing it to simply check a box, there will be minimal to no positive effects in their daily life.
A third misconception about mindfulness is that it allows individuals to stop or control their thoughts and feelings. This goes completely against the core principle of mindfulness; awareness without judgement. Once we start noticing thoughts or feelings and we try to stop them, we create resistance of those thoughts and feelings, which is a form of judgement. We resist because we feel like we shouldn’t have those thoughts or feelings. The action of the core principle is for the individual to notice thoughts and feelings and let them go to return to the present moment, regardless of whether we think they’re positive or negative feelings.
Now that we’ve gone over what mindfulness isn’t, let’s take some time to go over what mindfulness is. There are a lot of ideas that encompass all of the elements of mindfulness, but for today, I am going to stick with three main elements.
The first element of mindfulness is that it’s an individual’s ability to be mentally and physically present, with awareness, while moving through time and space. This is a main principle that is geared towards applying mindfulness in our daily lives. If someone is sitting down to do a mindfulness meditation, they are moving through time, with the presence of mind to notice thoughts or feelings arising in the mind and physical feelings arising in the body. This alludes to how one can actually do a “mindful walk”. In order to be mindful during a walk, we must be mentally and physically engaged with our environment and the action of walking, along with the sensations that are present. We can also focus our attention on specific sensations that we want to experience more of: the birds chirping, the ground sinking or holding firmly beneath our feet, the blue sky amidst the clouds, or something in between.
Another element of mindfulness is that it is an individual’s ability to notice thoughts or feelings in the mind with awareness. Our thoughts can be thought of as our internal dialogue that we have with ourselves and its topics can vary tremendously. We can be mindful of the argument we’re having with ourselves when we are self-negotiating. We can be mindful of the feeling that we get when we help out another person. We can mindful of how our breath shortens when we’re angry, frustrated, or anxious. We can be mindful of the self-defeating thoughts we say to ourselves when we make mistakes. Not only that, but recognizing the physical sensations that coincide with any of these moments of awareness. Do we feel the push-pull sensations of the mind and body amidst an argument with ourselves? Do we feel like a weight has been released from our shoulders when we help someone out? Do we tense up when we’re angry, frustrated, or anxious? Do we feel as if there is a lump in our throat or stomach when we have those self-defeating thoughts after a mistake? These are all ways that we can have more awareness in our minds for thoughts and feelings.
A third element of mindfulness is using healthy mental strategies to notice those thoughts and feelings, and let them go without judgement. Some of these specific strategies have been discussed already, but now is the time to label them. Whenever we notice thoughts or feelings arising in the mind, that is referred to as noting. Noting comes in handy because it helps us detach ourselves from our thoughts and feelings. By detaching, we lose the element of identity that we’ve placed on our thoughts and feelings. Whenever we say, “I am sad”, we are identifying as that feeling when in fact we are not a feeling, we are a human being. We can note in various ways, but today, we’ll look at two ways. One way is to note by gently touching the thought or feeling with a “mental feather”, as if to tap it lightly in our mind, and let it fly off. Another way is to mentally say “thinking” or “feeling”, depending on what arises in the mind. This is much different than the misconception that thoughts and feelings can be controlled as if they were part of a whack-a-mole game. In order to allow ourselves access to noting, we must also have acceptance. Acceptance of the thoughts and feelings as they are helps let go with more ease and less attachment.
As said before, there’s a lot more to mindfulness than conveyed in this post. The main takeaway here is that mindfulness is not simply an act or habit that is done to check a box from a list of “to-dos”, it is not always sitting down and meditating in a given spot at a given time each day, and it is not the ability to stop or control your thoughts or feelings.
Instead, mindfulness is a practice. It is the awareness of the mind and its tendencies; it is the awareness of thoughts and feelings; it is the awareness of and relishing in the present moment, even when the mind inevitably wanders. Above all, it is a way of life.