Mindfulness is magic
Don’t be fooled by this word that gets tossed around casually so often these days.
Mindfulness is m a g i c !
This skill, this habit, this practice is the single most powerful thing I have learned in my life.
Every bit of wisdom seems to flow from it. Every good piece of advice I’ve ever heard seems to be a variation of it.
Sometimes I look at the mountains of self-help books that seem to be pedalling some convoluted, twisted, needlessly complicated version of this, and I want to scream “Stop trying to re-invent the wheel!” Honestly, this is how strongly I feel about it.
I see Mindfulness at the root of every helpful remedy, the answer to everything that brings us suffering, and I wonder why we bother talking about anything else. Why we bother seeking out the secret formula to happiness when it was discovered thousands of years ago. (It was described and prescribed by the Buddha, and comes from Buddhism, but there’s nothing mystical or religious about it.)
So, what is it??
I like Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of Mindfulness, which I paraphrase as:
The awareness that arises by deliberately paying attention to the present moment, without judgment.
This awareness is spacious, and neutral, because it’s just observing what arises (thoughts, feelings, sensations), as if from a distance, without reacting to it. It is totally open and accepting, without any attempt to change anything.
A helpful phrase that one of my teachers would always use to align us:
This is the way it is right now
It is most easily accessed by bringing attention to the physical senses (for example, the sensation of the breath through the nose, or scanning through the body and feeling every sensation).
Mindfulness can be practised in a seated meditation, through mindful movement like yoga or walking, or during any other moment of life, although it might be easiest to start in solitude, stillness, and quiet, with minimal distractions. But whatever works.
I’d suggest starting with mindfulness of the breath, or mindfulness of physical sensations (like the feeling of your clothes against your skin, the ground beneath you), or mindfulness of sounds (maybe in nature), before moving on to mindfulness of other senses and eventually even mindfulness of thoughts and feelings. (This is like master’s level — being mindful of the content of the mind without getting caught up in it!)
The aim is not to have a perfectly serene mind, free of thoughts, with perfect focus on the object of your meditation. Thoughts, feelings, sounds, even sights and other sensations will come and go… The idea is to be paying attention, and when our attention wanders, as it inevitably will, to get better and better at gently bringing it back.
Eventually, with practice, we are able to spend longer stretches of time resting in this awareness, behind it all. Just pure awareness, observing. No judgment, no preference, no trying to change the experience, or wanting it to be any other way.
This will likely bring us relaxation and calm, a delicious feeling of aliveness, of being in the moment, and a host of other benefits to our mental and physical health. But I think of these as only the preliminary gifts of cultivating a mindfulness practice. There is so much more. If we dare to go deeper, we find joyful, blissful contentment and ultimately, freedom. This is the path to awakening.
(In fact, word on the street is that Mindfulness of the breath, or anapanasati, was the very practice that lead to the Buddha’s enlightenment, if you’re into that sort of thing 😉 )
There are mountains of books and other resources to go deeper if one feels so inclined. I recommend starting with the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, as it is secular and clean and simple. He has a great book called Wherever you go, there you are. But there is an abundance of excellent Mindfulness teachers out there.
Find the flavour, the voice, the practice that works for you and you will quickly start enjoying the fruits of this most worthy pursuit.
Share what works best for you in the comments!