What is Mindfulness?

Updated: Sep 15, 2021

Everyone shuffles their chairs into place in a semicircle around the whiteboard with one word written in the middle: mindfulness. As the group members settle in, I pose the question, “What comes to mind when you think of the word ‘mindfulness’?” I describe an image of someone sitting with their eyes blissfully closed on the top of a mountain at sunrise, which draws some chuckles and a raised eyebrow or two. Leading a therapy group just outside of Boulder, Colorado, (a US magnet for spiritual types around the world) means that pretty much everyone has met (or is) the stereotypical version of that mountain-top meditator, whether they are decked out in chic athleisure or have more of the worn-in, earthy, hippie vibe. It turns out, though, that person may simply be your less conspicuous coworker who just got back from a week-long meditation and yoga retreat.

The point is… the popularization of mindfulness means that most people have some kind of association with the word or direct experience with what it means for them. When asked what they associate with mindfulness, most people include:

  • Peace

  • Being in touch with nature

  • Sitting still, cross-legged, and with your eyes closed

  • Not thinking

  • Relaxation

  • “Zen” (not referring necessarily to the Buddhist tradition, but as a way to describe a relaxed or concentrated state of mind)

  • Reducing distraction/increasing productivity

It’s not that any of these are wrong or shouldn’t be things we want. But. It does point to the fact that mindfulness has been marketed in a particular way that focuses on the techniques and the possible outcomes of mindfulness practice rather than the actual experience of it (sometimes complete with a photo our mountain-top meditator and all).

Inside the Mind of a Meditator

In her book When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron invites readers to imagine what it would be like if you could see speech bubbles above people’s heads as they were sitting in meditation. Mine would include things like:

  • When the hell is this going to end?

  • I’m such a good meditator - look at me! I’m sooooooo mindful!

  • Baby shark, doo-doo-doo doo-doo-doo!

  • Where are all of the deep realizations that will make me finally feel like I’m fixed? I’m going to find them and be free!

  • Ugh! My back/foot/neck/leg/shoulder/[insert body part] is killing me!

  • Where do fingernails really come from...?

  • I’m so bored I could crawl out of my skin and/or fall asleep right here.

  • Shit - I’m lost in my thoughts again. I suck at meditating. Why even bother?

Reflecting on this always reminds me of the phrase, “Don’t judge someone’s insides by their outsides.” Just because you see a video or Instagram post of someone sitting “peacefully” in meditation or holding an epic yoga pose does not mean that their internal world is the definition of peace.

The point is that mindfulness is about noticing whatever it is that is going on inside of us and our responses to it. Developing this skill can lead to a bunch of other things, including many of the benefits that people profess about mindfulness. However, just talking about and focusing on the possible beneficial outcomes of mindfulness practice can set you up to feel inadequate, like you’re doing something wrong. It can also create a belief that you just have to push through to get to the “good stuff” that will liberate you from the “bad stuff,” even if your system is giving you signals that mindfulness practice might not be the answer in that moment.

While the conversation about trauma-informed mindfulness and how to know when to step away from practice is one for another day… It seems like a good moment to jump into what mindfulness really is in the first place.

So then, what is mindfulness, really?

One of the most popular definitions of mindfulness is from Jon Kabat-Zinn, where he describes it as “the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” This definition is based on the idea that humans spend most of our time in a kind of autopilot mode where we worry about the future or rehash the past and that our experience of the present moment and the decisions we make are filtered through these preoccupations. Through practices that aim to cultivate mindfulness, such as yoga, meditation, martial arts, breathwork, and certain kinds of movement and dance, among others, the goal is to practice bringing non-judgmental attention to what is happening right now.

While some mindfulness-based practices aim to rid the mind of thoughts, feel complete bliss or absolute peace, or develop single-pointed attention, the approach to mindfulness that informs my work is more focused on training the mind to return when it wanders. In my experience, brains are made to think thoughts and bodies are meant to feel sensations, and neither of these things are going to stop happening any time soon!

Benefits of Mindfulness

If the goal isn’t to achieve bliss, get rid of my thoughts, and become infinitely more productive... Why bother practicing mindfulness, then?

While that question is a bit exaggerated... it’s also valid, given how much mindfulness is supposed to cure, according to its advocates.

Yes, moments of spaciousness in our minds, calm in our bodies, or super-sharp focus or attention do happen during mindfulness practice and can be an outcome of practicing regularly. However, those experiences in themselves are fleeting. For me, when I fixate on them or make them the goal, I continually feel disappointed and discouraged. When I make the goal the practice itself and simply notice what happens, which definitely can include some of these more “desired” states, then I am able to be with the true range of my experience. It allows me to get familiar with and develop a relationship to all of my thoughts, sensations, and mind states, and reduces my chances of skipping over or rejecting them.

By becoming intimately familiar with my internal world in this way, I can start to reduce my “fear of the unknown” that often accompanies us in our first forays into these deeper layers of our experience. It’s not that this goes away entirely, though. The journey of getting to know ourselves is not linear and does not have an end, just like the journey of knowing any person over a long enough period of time. Ask anyone who has had a friend or partner for more than even a couple of years, and you’ll hear from them how much they change, grow, or reveal as time goes on. It is the same in our relationship with ourselves. Mindfulness alone does not build this relationship, but without some form of it, some way to observe and connect with our experience non-judgmentally, it is (in my experience) essentially impossible.

This way of practicing, focusing on the task of paying attention rather than what I hope to get from it, also leaves some space for me to be surprised by what I find. If I’m trying to get somewhere or feel something specific, it usually impedes my curiosity and openness to what else is going on for me. (Ultimately, though, noticing and bringing curiosity even to that pattern is the point of mindfulness practice in the moment, not to change or get beyond it.)

Some of what surprises us might be related to the more “negative” aspects of our experience that we traditionally associate with discomfort. Maybe I notice some feelings that I have been shoving down or see clearly thought patterns that are keeping me stuck. However, what has most surprised me is touching in with what might be considered “positive” experiences, but which can be equally uncomfortable if we are not familiar with them.

Getting to Know Ourselves

Some of these experiences I have had are related to qualities that are often associated with what Tara Brach calls “presence,” or the state that is cultivated through mindfulness practices. In her book True Refuge, Tara describes presence as “the felt sense of wakefulness, openness, and tenderness that arises when we are fully here and now with our experience.” Wakefulness can be likened to the part of us that sees, that knows what is going on. Openness is the space of non-judgement that allows for the flow of experience without pushing against or trying to skip over any of it. Tenderness is the unmediated response to what is found by paying attention - it is experienced in the desire we might sometimes feel to lean in and tend to a child who is hurt and crying or the awe that comes when we turn a corner on the highway and unexpectedly see the full moon peeking over the horizon.

These qualities of wakefulness, openness, and tenderness, among others, are regarded as being intrinsic to human nature. The idea is that upon close inspection of ourselves (i.e. through mindfulness practices), these aspects of ourselves are naturally revealed. As unbelievable as it might sound (and it certainly did to me), we don’t have to “work on ourselves” to generate them and we don’t have to learn them. For many of us, there is usually a disconnect from these allegedly core aspects of being a human and our ability to experience them, as they are so often clouded by preoccupations with the past and future that I mentioned earlier. Doing mindfulness practices can be seen as a way of building a bridge between these qualities in ourselves and how we experience ourselves in day-to-day life.

The idea is that when we make the effort to finally get to know ourselves, yes, we will find all of the parts of ourselves or patterns that seem to get in our way. But we will also find who we are alongside those parts and patterns. Beyond that, we will find out so much more about our world and other people.

As always, though, I’ll leave it to you to see if it’s true in your experience.

Motivation and Mindfulness Practice

A never-ending source of reflection is the question: Why am I doing (yoga, meditation, martial arts, movement practices, etc.) today? I’ll get into a deeper answer another time, but I wanted to touch on it here because exploring mindfulness without looking at the why would skip over a crucial aspect of what it is to practice mindfulness.

On the one hand, the why doesn’t really matter. You can come to a mindfulness practice seeking productivity, inner peace, or even eternal bliss. The truth of the practice is that as you look closer at yourself, regardless of why you started looking, you are already getting to know yourself. As is often said, there are many doors to connecting with ourselves, and ultimately it doesn’t matter which one you choose.

On the other hand, understanding the impact of our whys can help us see what might get in the way of practicing. Our whys can impact the sustainability of our practice, specifically regarding the expectations they set up regarding what we will get from it. As I mentioned, if we are seeking a specific experience or feeling, it might be more challenging to bring non-judgement. I might end up thinking my practice isn’t working because I’m not feeling the thing I’m looking for and ultimately abandon it altogether.

If my why is more aligned with what I can realistically expect from the practice, such as getting to know myself more fully (among other things), then it is my experience that I can be more patient and curious with the whole process.

Mindfulness-Based Coaching

I’m becoming more aware - now what?!

Mindfulness in itself is about being in the present moment, but so often, people who engage with those practices are left asking… “So then what? I notice all these things, I have these insights about myself, but how do I actually bring them into my life?” The hope is that the more that we cultivate mindfulness and connect with these qualities of wakefulness, openness, and tenderness, the more fully we can live from them in our actions, relationships, and experience of ourselves. But there is often a gap between the experiences we have while practicing and the ones we have when we are running errands, working, or relating with the people in our lives.

That’s where mindfulness-based coaching comes in - to support you in using mindfulness to be more fully in your life, both internally (how you experience yourself) and externally (how you move and do in the world). The challenges of bringing mindfulness into daily life are just as common for the (sometimes weary) seekers who have years of practice and for those who are just starting to explore mindfulness. I’d love to connect about your particular challenges and find out how mindfulness-based coaching can support you on your journey to being more fully in your life. I also offer consulting, coaching, and more for organizations that would like to incorporate mindfulness into their work.