by Catherine Duffy
In their book A Clinician’s Guide to Teaching Mindfulness, doctors Christiane Wolf and Greg Serpa speak of how trying to describe mindfulness will always be a bit reductionist or “a little like defining love” to another person.
Though many people already know or have experienced what love is, mindfulness is a bit of a different story. I like the definition of mindfulness developed by the founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Jon Kabat-Zinn:
“Mindfulness is awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
Let’s unpack this definition in phrases to help us get a better grasp of what mindfulness is.
In mindfulness, awareness is equated with the present moment: what is happening right here and right now. For instance, the time it took you to read the last sentence happened a moment ago. Just stop and think about that right now. No, really, it’s true. And the words you are reading right now are flowing by this present moment, as well. Awareness is simply being present right here, right now, with whatever is happening.
And how easy it is for us to not be aware and present, right now! This takes us to the second portion of the definition that states: mindfulness is “cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
The other day I decided to walk mindfully from my car to the building where I work. By doing this, on purpose, I intentionally attuned my body and senses to what was happening around me.
In the present moment
The shift in my awareness was palpable. In just a few steps, I recognized the cool breeze against my cheek, heard the rush of wind under the wings of two crows lifting off from the grass next to me, and found myself squinting and smiling at another day of sunshine in my eyes. Rather than thinking ahead to all that I had to accomplish that day or worrying about what hadn’t gone right the day before, I practiced staying present, in the moment, and even noticed a new calmness arising in my body as I made my way to the building’s front door.
The last piece of the mindfulness definition is that we exercise this awareness “non-judgmentally.” Again, this is a tough one for us humans since we typically judge everything we experience as positive, negative, or neutral. With mindfulness, our minds will still likely form judgments about our experiences: “I like it, I don’t like it.” So when we notice this, we can choose to not judge our judging. Instead, we can simply notice that we’re judging and then let that go.
So why do people want to practice mindfulness? Research shows that mindfulness teaches us how to relate to our experiences differently. This doesn’t mean that the circumstances of the present moment change, but how we experience life’s circumstances can change over time as we practice mindfulness.
Trying to explain mindfulness can be as difficult as trying to explain love. But as I learned on my walk to work the other day, choosing to be mindful can be quite refreshing even when practiced in small doses. Next time you’re strolling outside during one of these warm summer days, you might try it and see. A heightened awareness to the details around you just might gift you with a sense of awe and well-being that brings a smile to your face, too.
Catherine is a graduate of our Mindfulness Teacher Training Program, 2017-2018 cohort. She resides in Seattle, and is currently working on her certification.