What is Mindfulness? And What is it Not.

Although mindfulness has its earliest roots in the 2600 year-old lineage of Buddhism, it is not a religion. It’s not even Buddhism-lite and I am not delivering Buddhism through the back door. In fact, mindfulness in our Western society began at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, which makes it very American. In 1979, a man named Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, secularized mindfulness and brought it to the U.S. He developed an 8-week program called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction or better known as MBSR. He first developed MBSR to help adult patients with chronic pain and illness, but over the last 35 years, it has become a standard clinical intervention and community offering. It is currently offered in a variety of settings worldwide. The scientific evidence is so strong now that mindfulness is being employed in places like Google, Procter & Gamble, Bank of America, the U.S. Marines and the National Health Service. And the practice of mindfulness is being researched and or taught in most major universities in the world; Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge; just to name a few. Many of them including Oxford are now offering Master’s degrees in mindfulness. Everyone seems to be talking about mindfulness! It is almost impossible to flip a page of a magazine or swipe an iPad without coming across yet another article telling us why we should be more mindful and less mindless.  Doctors, academics, neuroscientists, journalists, coaches, famous athletes and politicians alike all seem to be embracing the practice, proclaiming its benefits, and pushing forward what might be described as the mindful revolution. I mean heck even Katy Perry has an established mindfulness practice.


Now whilst it is wonderful that mindfulness is entering the vernacular, I have noticed that not everyone who is excited by mindfulness has a clear idea of what it actually is or what it requires.  


It is no longer looked at as fringe hippie nonsense. We do not need to move to Tibet and abandon our jobs and families and join a monastery or sit on a mountain top doing intensive retreats in zendos or meditation halls. Mindfulness is also not therapy, it is not yoga (although you can do yoga mindfully), it is not visualization, it isn't a practice where all of your thoughts dissipate into thin air leaving you with a clear, blank, tabula rasa mind. Another very common misconception is that it is meant for relaxation purposes. To clear this up, mindfulness is not relaxation and it won't put you in a state of calm, blissful indifference adopting a Pollyanna attitude toward your life. It is an awakened state heightening all of your awareness inside of you as well as outside of you. It is a way of discovering what your mind is doing and closing in on it with a flashlight of attention, investigating your thoughts, feelings, emotions, cognitions and sensations. This type of attentional training will increase your resiliency so that you can lean into your life, giving you the ability to respond with insight, clarity, compassion and kindness to whatever arises. 

Mindfulness is now considered as a mainstream health movement founded on cutting edge science and well-established research. This is not a new age trendy thing. Look how far yoga has come in our society and how we continue to hear about new studies on its beneficial qualities to enhance our lives and well-being. Lodro Rizler, a well-known meditator and author, equates mindfulness now is how the progression of running began in the 1950's.  If someone said, “I’m going for a run. Someone would ask who was chasing them." 


While there are many definitions of mindfulness, almost as many definitions of mindfulness as people who are talking and writing about it.  You don’t need to be aware of them all, but the most widely recognized is Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition from his bestselling book, Full Catastrophe Living, and also in Wherever You Go, There you Are.  He says mindfulness is, “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” Or simply,

 “Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” Jon Kabat-Zinn


For today, just try focusing on that one basic tenet of approaching your day non-judgmentally and see how you do. Encourage an attitude of not categorizing thoughts into "like" or "dislike" or "approach" and "avoid." Just experiment with letting all judgments go, not only judgments of others, but also including all of the self-damaging judgments of self. And at the end of the day, examine your experiment, keeping in mind, that however you did, it was not "good" or "bad."