What is Mindfulness – The Nature of Mindfulness
This is an expanded second post on the nature of mindfulness. This post will begin with secular understandings, and end with basic spiritual path information. Generally mindfulness is a wide-ranging process with a special noticing quality. It focuses the power of attention leading to improved concentration. Mindfulness is an attuned effort to pay attention – be fully aware of – whatever is happening in the present moment without judgments or evaluations. It allows us to watch our mind as it reacts or responds to the the experiences inside and outside of us. It is usually coupled with radical acceptance of whatever exists in the present moment, and it connects to this experience as it changes moment-to-moment. Once mindfulness has been mastered, it enables us to make better choices in our thoughts, emotions, behaviors, beliefs, and relationships. In day-to-day life experience, it helps us to become more friendly, caring, and compassionate in interactions with others. There is a wise-mind characteristic in it. Eventually we may reach a state of loving wisdom for all things. Some might call this enlightenment.
There are many related definitions of mindfulness. Although most definitions have common attributes, we will review four of them here. J. Kabat-Zinn noted that mindfulness is a way to pay full attention (have complete awareness) of experience in the present moment only. This is purposeful attention without judgments or evaluations. Thus, mindfulness may be viewed as a way of being rather than a way of doing. J. Siegel noted that mindfulness is being aware of present moment experience with complete acceptance. R. Nairn noted that by developing skillful observation, mindfulness is being aware of what is happening no matter what; in mindfulness we pay attention to present experience without mind wandering, ruminating, evaluating, or avoiding emotionally. K. Holmes noted that the regular practice of mindfulness includes ethical values, making it a serious, personal practice in life.
In more specific detail, mindfulness is a gentle process of paying stronger attention to present objects and phenomena; it does not occur when the mind moves into the past or into the future. It also signals us when our mind moves away from the object or experience we are paying attention to. This bare attention helps us to calm the “monkey mind’s” typically rambling thought processes. As we practice and develop skill, we become more discerning and notice things in a more finely attuned manner. With long-term practice, mindfulness enables us to respond to life challenges (people, places, things – the 10,000 things) with more understanding, emotional balance, and caring compassion. Our more open mindful soft heart-mind reduces our incessant need for attaching, desiring, clinging to what we want and avoiding what we do not want. Since we seek pleasure and hope to avoid all pain and suffering, some still believe that our joy and happiness come from intermittent pleasant feelings related to acquired material gains and valued social interactions; in reality, our long-term, authentic happiness comes from deep inner peace and honest contentment right now. It is often our un-ending desires and attachments – as well as efforts to avoid unpleasant experiences, including the impermanence of joy – that lead to serious suffering. Skilled mindfulness practice allows the improved development of concentration skills; rather than simply noticing in a more neutral and balanced manner, we can now penetrate the objects or experiences we encounter. We may become one with it. Mindfulness coupled with concentration abilities may eventually lead to greater wisdom, even highly valued special spiritual wisdom.
In a spiritual sense, mindfulness helps to reduce all sense-based experiences and associated thinking. Sensory experience is like a vast, powerful ocean – an ocean we must cross carefully in order to reduce distractions, stuckness, and the hindrances. Mindfulness on the body, feelings, mind and dharma lays the pure foundation for very important next steps. Zen master Ryokan suggested that such skillful means allow us to better express what is deep in our heart. When we are skilled enough to use mindfulness and concentration in practice, we may approach a state of wisdom. As we overcome the hindrances of greed, hate, restlessness, lethargy, and automatic mental fluctuations we are ready to pursue deeper wisdom and act upon it. Such complex spiritual realities as direct experience over intellectual concepts, impermanence, selflessness, dependent origination, nonduality, emptiness all become more clear in a state of wisdom mind. As Bhikkhu Bodhi noted, right mindfulness helps to clean up cognitive views and opens our doorway to direct experience. Such direct experience shows us that all phenomena are conditioned perceptions and interpretations (samsara). Thus we may enter into the higher reality of not thinking, not judging, not associating, not planning, not reasoning – just pure being with calm abiding in the here and now.
By Anthony R. Quintiliani, PhD., LADC
Author of Mindful Happiness
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For more information refer to Gunaratana, B. H. ( ). Mindfulness in Plain English. Boston: Wisdom Publications.