What Is Mindfulness, and Should You Try It?

As the mindfulness joke goes, what do we want? Mindfulness! When do we want it? Now!

what is mindfulness?

Mindfulness, indeed, is designed to keep us in the now. But there is frequent confusion about how exactly that occurs, and what mindfulness feels like. So let’s start with four things that mindfulness often gets mistaken for:

Mindfulness Impostor #1: An empty mind. Your mind is designed to think, notice, concentrate—anything but be empty. Don’t ask of your mind what it isn’t designed to do.

Mindfulness Impostor #2: Flow. Oftentimes, mindfulness is thought of as a state of deep concentration or absorption. And while it’s probably possible to lose oneself in mindfulness, this state of energized full immersion is more accurately described as psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow.

Mindfulness Impostor #3: Happiness. You can certainly feel happy while being mindful, and it’s wonderful to be mindful of being happy, they’re not one and the same.

Mindfulness Impostor #4: Relaxation.  I’ve seen mindfulness described as “an oasis of calm in which our problems melt away,” which sounds amazing—sign me up. But relaxation often implies passivity, while mindfulness can be a lot of work.

If all these things are what mindfulness is not, what exactly is it?

Dr. John Kabat-Zinn, founder of the American mindfulness movement, started to make waves back in 1991 when he published his now-classic book, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. He defines mindfulness as the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. But what exactly does that mean?

Kabat-Zinn has inspired a generation of mindfulness researchers, one of whom, Dr. Kristin Neff, has the best explanation of mindfulness I’ve come across.  Picture yourself in a movie theater, she says. A movie is playing on the screen, and you’re wrapped up in the story. You jump when the bad guy appears, bite your nails as the forces battle each other, gasp as plot twists are revealed. But then, in an instant, the person next to you sneezes. The reverie is broken. Suddenly, you are back in your seat with your popcorn, and you remember, “Oh, I’m watching a movie.” This awareness is mindfulness.

In other words, mindfulness is not thought in and of itself; rather, it is a method for watching your thoughts. It’s very meta: an awareness of awareness. You can focus your awareness on whatever you like: you can be mindful of your breath, mindful of the thoughts jumping through your head, mindful of what you can sense with your eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin. All that matters is that you are watching the present moment and you are doing nothing to change it.

Using this technique, you can watch, say, your anxious thoughts, but without getting tangled in them. For example, bring to mind a memory of a recent humiliating moment. Now think to yourself, “I really screwed that one up big time.” You probably feel some embarrassment, guilt, or shame. Now change things a little and think to yourself, “I’m having the thought that I really screwed that one up big time.” It’s subtle, but different. With the “I’m having the thought” example, there is distance and abstraction.

Just as when our fellow movie-goer sneezes, our attention shifts from being absorbed in the movie as if it was reality, to being aware of the movie as not reality.  And guess what? Just as the movie isn’t reality, neither are our thoughts. As Shakespeare writes in Hamlet, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” That’s a little freaky, huh? But it’s also freeing. Just because our brain is screaming thoughts us, doesn’t mean we have to get tangled up in them. Instead, we can just watch our brain lob those thoughts without having to catch them.

So how to put this to use?

Here are three mindfulness exercises to try, each of which only takes a few minutes.

Mindfulness experiment #1: The Hourglass.  Remember Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s definition?  Paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. The “on purpose” part means you can direct the object and scope of your attention. Here’s a classic exercise. Start off with wide attention. Notice, without judging, whatever’s happening around you right now: your thoughts, your senses, your breath. Who knew there could be such cacophony in just sitting and paying attention? After about a minute, narrow your attention to only your breath. Notice the sensation of air moving into and out of your nose, your throat, and your lungs. If your mind wanders away, which it will, gently bring it back and focus again on your breath. Then, after about a minute, expand your attention again to a wide scope. This shifting of wide, narrow, wide gives you different perspectives and helps you practice paying attention “on purpose” in just three minutes.

It’s totally okay if your mind jumps around or goes quickly. Let it. Watch it. And don’t judge it.

Mindfulness experiment #2: Watching your thoughts.  This one is great for people who hate to sit still. In this exercise, simply watch the thoughts that come into your head for a few minutes.  It’s totally okay if your mind jumps around or goes quickly. Let it. Watch it. And don’t judge it. Don’t try to change your thoughts. In contrast to some mindfulness exercises that involve more concentration, this one is more about awareness, and non-judgmental awareness at that.

Mindfulness experiment #3: Mindful listening. This is another good one for the “non-judgmental” part of the definition. Choose a piece of music—perhaps one you love, perhaps one you’ve never heard before. Put on headphones and close your eyes. Allow yourself to listen to every part of the music—the different instruments or voices—without judging positively or negatively. Just listen and experience without responding. If your mind starts getting annoyed or making a grocery list, just bring it back to the music. Tune in to what you’re hearing in the moment.

There are a zillion other exercises and meditations you can try.  Remember that sense of “Oh, I’m watching a movie,” and use it to watch your breath, a flower, a raisin, or even a headache. No matter what you choose, simply pay attention, on purpose, non-judgmentally.

And if none of this works, you can always try another mindfulness joke: Today, I will live in the moment, unless the moment is unpleasant, in which case I will eat a cookie.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.