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Beyond Just Presence - 3 Definitions of Mindfulness

I find it interesting that there is not a universally agreed upon definition of mindfulness. Probably because it is meant to be directly experienced through one’s own body, mind, and sense faculties. Since everyone’s direct experience does and will vary, a dictionary definition is really just a sign post pointing toward a felt experience of mindfulness. Yet, we all must start somewhere.

Here are three definitions of mindfulness, (One, a modern-day psychological definition, and the others come from two traditional Buddhist texts) and my brief thoughts on each one.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (Jon Kabat- Zinn) says...

...Mindfulness is the awareness that arises from paying attention on purpose in the present moment non-judgmentally.

I feel this is a very powerful and accessible take on what mindfulness is. It covers a lot, and one can get "far" with just these instructions.

Mindfulness can be thought of as a kind of awareness. In this case, such awareness emphasizes the importance of cultivating attention on what's happening right now. Regardless if there is thinking occurring about the past or the future; those experiences are still happening right now! And this is our life: always now! Living mindlessly, we neglect the present moment, wishing for a different past, anxious about the conceptual future. You see then, how our attention gets stretched, scattered, and pulled apart in so many different directions. Kabat-Zinn is advocating for a "taking back" of our own attention, in a sense, through practicing paying attention (non-judgmentally). And thus, strengthening out attention little by little, not unlike any other habit or body part we'd care to strengthen.

Present moment attention, however, is not mindfulness.

How we are in relationship with experience is just as important. Many of our waking hours, unfortunately, are spent relating to the moment through chasing pleasurable moments, distracting ourselves from unpleasant ones, or desensitizing to what we care very little about. Notice how these - particularly the first two, chasing and avoiding - require a kind of constant movement and dissatisfaction of the mind. And such a state of restlessness yields less than ideal conditions for personal maturation and access to clear wisdom.

The alternative that Kabat-Zinn suggests is to be nonjudgmental. Though, mindfulness does not mean to have no judgments. It means that when the mental commentary of opinions, preferences, judgments, etc. arise, that we do no add more judgements to the ones that initially arose. And this is done, of course, by training the mind in gentle attention to what is happening right now.

Let's see what some older texts say about mindfulness

Nagasena was an Indian Buddhist

scholar and awakened being who lived around 150 BCE. He has a longer definition that sounds much different and gets more at the quality of discernment and ethical behavior.

Mindfulness, when it arises, calls to mind wholesome and unwholesome tendencies, with faults and faultless, inferior and refined, dark and pure, together with their counterparts....mindfulness follows the courses of beneficial and unbeneficial tendencies: these tendencies are beneficial, these unbeneficial; these tendencies are helpful, these unhelpful. Thus, one who practices yoga [meditation, in this context] rejects unbeneficial tendencies and cultivates beneficial tendencies. (I plucked this from B. Alan Wallace's wonderful YouTube video, "The Buddhist Science of Mind" Day 1, time-stamped ready to watch here for your convenience if you'd like to hear his comments on this definition.)

Again, though he doesn't say it outright, he implies what Kabat-Zinn states plainly: PAY ATTENTION. Pay attention to the skillful and unskillful components of your behavior. Because that's why most of us come to mindfulness anyway, right? To change our behavior in some way. So Nagasena is saying, to change your behavior, you must understand the positive and negative sides of it well. We must understand clearly what we do that causes our own suffering, and what we do that doesn't. This shows that mindfulness practice is inherently wholesome.

So, we are not only paying attention to our body, speech, and mind right now. We also bear in mind (and this is another important definition of mindfulness, to bear something in mind) the potential outcomes for our present behavior.

The last definition comes from the classic must-read Buddhist text on the 4 Foundations of Mindfulness, said to have been spoken by the historical Buddha himself (translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu) over 2,500 years ago. Here he highlights aspects of mindfulness that can often be overlooked, aspects that go beyond just being "in the now." (I've edited for pronouns/gender) Oh, and this is the refrain to the text, so this is from the section on mindfulness of the body.

"There is the case where a practitioner remains focused on the body in & of itself — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world...their mindfulness that 'There is a body' is maintained to the extent of knowledge & remembrance. And they remain independent, unsustained by (not clinging to) anything in the world. This is how a practitioner remains focused on the body in & of itself."

Here he is emphasizing in this refrain of the text that mindfulness ought not be separated from ardency and alertness. It is not a time to "zone out" when we practice meditation. When we focus our attention on an object, we are right there with the object without "greed and distress" (non-judgement). When the mind wanders, we are alert enough to notice and ardent enough to bring our attention back lest we fall into a kind of "partial" mindfulness.

Mindfulness is also entwined with non-greed and non-hatred to anything in the world (putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world). Even if we are purposefully being present, if we are wanting our experience to be different than it is, then it's not true mindfulness (we practice through this, regardless; and try our best to not let it discourage us). We ought to know our relationship with the present moment, and then see it for what it is rather than see our thoughts of how we THINK the present moment is or should be.

Additionally, I've found that as we remain with things as they are we strengthen the quality of discernment. Thus, we are more prepared to take Nagasena's advice and bear in mind the wholesome and/or unwholesome results of our present actions or inactions. We know when to be with things as they are and we know when we must take action (e.g. shift our posture, add more salt to the soup, or make that difficult phone call). This means that mindfulness becomes the thread seamlessly tying together the fabric our life, whether we are sitting or moving. I can move quickly to get to a work meeting, while still bringing mindfulness to the experience of moving quickly, or rushing even. So the totality of our experience - thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations - are fair game for mindfulness to arise to the fore.

If these last two definitions feel a bit more difficult to grasp or lofty, mindfulness practice doesn't have to be. We can look around. Notice the light and colors. Take a moment to listen to sounds, whether near, far, clear or faint. Feel our bodies, toes, and the delicate way our clothes rest upon our skin. Objects of smells and tastes of course are not excluded from ways to infuse mindfulness into our lives. Finally, thoughts and feelings are present in the moment as well. Whether its internal dialogue or a subtle feeling of anxiety because you're reading this and it's past your bed time. Whatever you're experiencing, either through your senses (seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling, and tasting) or within your own mind, THAT is your present moment experience, your life!


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