According to Merriam Webster, the definitions for mindfulness are: 1) bearing in mind; 2) inclined to be aware. Neither of these truly captures the Eastern tradition of simply “to be”. The fact is that there is no one specific word in the English language that encapsulates the state of ‘moment-to-moment awareness of present events that is absent of judgment’. Sadly over the last few decades, the Western world has been inundated with the word “mindfulness” without a full understanding of its notion. This has caused much confusion of the true nature of the practice. Let’s demystify the concept of mindfulness to lessen the confusion and return to the Eastern root of its true meaning.
Mindfulness is not relaxation. In fact, to cultivate a state of mindfulness, you must be alert and focused in the present moment. Many mindfulness practices instruct you to refocus your attention onto the breath. However, this doesn’t mean to use breathing as a relaxation exercise. Breathing is simply a target to bring your awareness back to the present, since the present is where the breath occurs. Although you will “feel” more relaxed over time through mindfulness practice, the relaxation comes as a result of your focused attention versus merely your breaths. This brings us to the second point.
Mindfulness is not ‘full of mind’. It isn’t rumination on thoughts, sensations, or emotions. It isn’t “mindlessness” either. A better phrase for the purpose of this mental state is ‘watchful or attentive mind’. When your mind is attentive to the present moment, you foster awareness of reality absent of confusion or delusion. This reality-based awareness minimizes those negative emotions triggered from faulty perceptions that often spiral out of control. Cultivating an attentive mind keeps you grounded in the present, so you experience reality for what it is rather than where your insecurities and defenses take you.
Mindfulness is not a capture of thoughts. It is not a state of obsession or holding onto experiences. It is observing thoughts as they come and go without appraising them with significant meaning. People often attach excessive importance to trivial thoughts and experiences. However, thoughts are just that… thoughts. Nothing more, nothing less. Having this awareness allows you to let go of troubling thoughts, emotions, or sensations that have no basis or evidence for their existence.
On the other hand, mindfulness is not thoughtlessness. The goal is not to be without thoughts. That is an impossible task unless you’re brain dead. Some mindfulness practices instruct you to “empty your mind.” This doesn’t necessarily mean to be mentally blank. Rather, the goal is to have focused intentions in order to remove yourself from distracting, pointless thoughts. In other words, purposefully attend to the moment without judging your experience. This includes your emotions, sensations, AND thoughts.
Mindfulness is not solely to keep focus on the presence. It is also about learning and remembering the practice of being with an open heart for the future. This doesn’t mean to keep your mind focused on the future. Cultivating a state of mindfulness itself requires training and remembering for the future. In fact, the Chinese character for mindful is 念 (niàn), which when translated, literally means to study and remember.
Mindfulness is not rigid or critical. As you think, “I should be more mindful of this or that…” you are already forgetting the true nature of just “being” without adding unnecessary judgments of good or bad value. Dichotomous thinking keeps your mind imprisoned to unconstructive evaluations of your experiences. In reality, whatever it is, it just is. You have no control of the past, and there is no point in getting caught up in one negative thought after another. Remember the lesson in this moment and move on to the next.
Mindfulness is not just about letting go. It is more about remembering the needlessness of holding on. Whatever emotion or thought you are experiencing, whether positive or negative, over time, has to pass. Every moment is moving toward the next. No one thing can ever be static. Everything evolves and passes. Holding on to what is actually beyond your control is a futile effort and goal. Remember, time is valuable and cannot be recycled.
Most importantly, mindfulness in its purest sense is not religion or philosophy; nor is it psychology or a type of science. It is not a new trend, and it is not to be admired, esteemed, or worshipped. Neither is there a need to despise or scorn it. The concept of attentive mind is simply a way and view of life. And there is never a “right” or “wrong” way of living.