Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.
Jon Kabat Zinn
The word “mindfulness” is used a lot these days, here in Ireland and elsewhere. With such a large number of references, even in non-scientific magazines and journals, one would assume that a commonly accepted and clear understanding of the word itself has developed. Unfortunately this is not the case, and often there is no real clarity on what it actually means. It is frequently reduced to a type of a sound-bite mental health gimmick – which promises calm and better health simply by paying attention for just one moment – or confounded with other, very useful practices, like going for a walk in the countryside, drawing novel distinctions or positive thinking.
Mindfulness, as it appears in psychological literature today, has two distinct but related parents, namely a 2500 year old understanding that is rooted in Buddhist practice, science and understanding of the person, and a 35 year old model that is largely inspired by the Mindfulness based Stress Reduction Course developed by Jon Kabat Zinn. And on the whole, in western psychology,it is taught as a technique to heighten experience of the present moment, and to enable practitioners to accept everything without discrimination. And in the accelerated pace of life today, with faster communication and 24/7 availability, which can mean that we are always on call, rushing, busy with the many commitments which we have taken on, this attention to the present moment can be a useful counter-balance. Our minds can be constantly on the go – planning, thinking of the many things we have to do, worrying about the future or thinking on the past. This can result in moments – or even hours – of “mindlessness” – losing touch with what is happening in the present, living mechanically, not having the space to enjoy life.
Thus, ONE aspect of mindfulness practice is to learn to relate directly to whatever is happening in your life moment by moment and consciously working with the challenges or demands of everyday life. By paying more attention to the present moment, you can begin to appreciate what you already have.
The word sati derives from a root meaning ‘to remember,’ but as a mental factor it signifies presence of mind, attentiveness to the present, rather than the faculty of memory regarding the past. It has the characteristic of not wobbling, i.e. not floating away from the object. Its function is absence of confusion or non-forgetfulness.
However, this is not all that there is to mindfulness, nor will simple sound-bite slogans lead to a capacity to develop it as a stable on-going skill. Rather, mindfulness is multi-faceted, as reflected in the research by Hölzel et al., (2011) that mindfulness, as a mechanism of action, is composed of a number of components namely, attention regulation, body awareness, emotion regulation, including reappraisal and exposure, extinction, & re-consolidation and a change in the perspective on the self.
The centuries old tradition and the more recent emphasis pioneered by Jon Kabat Zinn both share the view that mindfulness is something that develops over time, and is trained through meditation practice. It has four foundations, namely mindfulness of the body, of sense impressions, of thoughts and emotions and of the fundamental truths which govern reality. It goes beyond just stress reduction and calming, and focuses on the elimination of the views and structures that cause ongoing suffering in our lives. It is a lifelong pursuit, not limited to just moments or to the formal practice of meditation.
This blog is written to support this slow development of mindfulness through an ongoing formal meditation practice and through informal practices throughout the day. It draws from contemplative traditions both Western and Eastern as well as up to date psychological research, but its main purpose is to support the practice of mindfulness, doing it rather than writing or reflecting about it.