The Conundrum of Mindfulness
On lock down, I have to admit, I spend a lot of my time thinking, reading, and practising ‘mindfulness’. When the mind and body are still, it is easier to try and understand what exactly mindfulness is. In my own mindfulness classes in everyday life, I lead exercises in ‘mindful breathing’, whilst at the same time wondering what really is at the core of mindfulness.
Beyond our daily life there is a precious stillness that we have so ungraciously forgotten. In our ‘doing’ mode and the mad rush to achieve ‘economic growth’ together with our addiction to stimulation, we are missing something about what it means to be a human ‘being’. We are missing the present moment. The present moment is also associated with mindfulness, but is it actually mindfulness, or just a quality?
One of my teachers describes ‘mindfulness’ as ‘placing the mind’, which is actually describing the necessary act before achieving ‘mindfulness’.
So what then is mindfulness?
Mindfulness as Non-Judging
Mindfulness is often described as happening when we practise ‘non-judgemental present moment awareness’. When we are totally present and aware of our surroundings, not liking or disliking anything, we are told we are practising ‘mindfulness’; the ‘state’ of being mindful that is, since ‘mindfulness’ itself is a noun (i.e. an object or thing).
Mindfulness as Paying Attention
Mindfulness is also described as paying attention, with purpose and curiosity. Again, it describes this as an act of ‘doing something’ to achieve mindfulness. But if mindfulness is an object or thing, paying attention can’t be ‘mindfulness’, per se. I’m splitting hairs of course, as a matter of linguistic precision, but there is a greater point to be made in the context of trying to understand what exactly mindfulness is – mindfulness is a state, not an act of doing.
I was told recently, on a free mindfulness session put on by the Guardian, to not try to understand mindfulness, but to ‘experience it’. Of course that only goes so far, as with the driver of a car who one day harbours dreams of being a mechanic. That is, you want to understand what is actually underneath the bonnet of the thing you are driving. At worst, the experience of what you believe to be mindfulness is entirely something else.
The Origins of Mindfulness
The origins of mindfulness, it is often said, come from the Buddhist tradition, where ‘mindfulness’ is seen as one of the limbs of the ‘eightfold path’ to achieving enlightenment. Right mindfulness it is said, involves holding an object in your awareness and then understanding the nature of that object, in particular seeing the reality of that object in the context of its ‘inherent emptiness’. To the Western mind, the idea of an object not existing seems like nonsense, but to the Buddhist, the very summation of any object derived from its constituent parts means that ultimately nothing actually exists. In this light, freedom can be derived from all the suffering created by the delusions of mind.
Take the human body for example. Can we actually identify a ‘body’? Of course, you say. But if we were to decompose that body into its constituent parts (i.e. the arms, legs, head, torso. etc…) we couldn’t actually find a body. If someone is disabled and only has one limb (or no limbs), do they still have a body? What does it take until there is no body? This discourse is somewhat irrelevant to the task of establishing what exactly mindfulness is, but it’s an illustration of the deception of the modern Western mind, which identifies all conventional objects in the absolute sense.
Within ‘mindfulness’ there is the pali concept of ‘sati‘. The precise meaning of ‘sati‘ is not entirely settled, many Buddhist scholars having their own interpretation. That said, it appears to be commonly understood that the idea of ‘sati’ relates to some form of ‘recollection‘ or ‘remembering‘, even in the lucid sense.
When one remembers, it generally relates to referring back to an event, an object that already existed in the past. That object can even be transitory, arising and falling, as in the case of the breath, but in each case, the act of remembering involves ‘looking back’, no matter how momentary that may be.
Indeed, the practise of ‘mindfulness meditation’, a form of meditation, involves the conscious effort of placing the mind in a deliberate and consistent way on an object of attention, typically the breath, but may also involve the body, or other beings (such as in the case of a loving kindness meditation).
As part of the practice, we ‘recognise’ whenever the mind wanders and become aware of our thoughts, bringing the mind back to its object of attention. We keep repeating that over and over again. Eventually, the mind may settle for longer periods of time on the breath, but it will wander again, the breath, of course, being transitory, moment by moment.
In all cases, the effort involves bringing one’s awareness or attention ‘back’ to whatever is the object of attention. It is therefore regressive in the technical sense, always reminding the practitioner that their efforts need to be referring to objects or things that have already arisen in the past. Through consistent practise, the quality of the mind starts to change and a realisation of seeing things how they are actually begins to emerge.
In our day-to-day life, we become more aware of our thoughts and emotions, realising they, too, are transitory. We reside in the present moment, but there is a reminder too, when our minds have inevitably wandered.
Think of it like a ship passing in the night, always being ‘mindful’ of the lighthouse. The lighthouse is the metaphor for the object that we hold in our mindfulness meditation practice, reminding us to bring our attention back to whatever is our object of attention.
The Modern Understanding of ‘Mindfulness’
Take a giant step forward into the modern understanding of mindfulness in terms of becoming more ‘present’ and ‘aware’. We are told to eat more ‘mindfully’, to appreciate our food and the pleasures of actually tasting all the ingredients that are so often missed as we ‘mindlessly’ gulp down our meal whilst paying attention to something else. We are told to listen more ‘mindfully’, carefully focusing on the person who we are having a conversation with, engaging with them in a deliberate way.
In becoming more present, we are told to practise ‘mindfulness’ by fully appreciating the sights and sounds of our surroundings, fully bringing their beauty into our awareness. We feel uplifted, empowered, and a renewed sense of energy may arise for what already exists, but which we are often unaware of. What’s more, we may have never experienced this sight, sound or taste before. We become absorbed in the present moment. It ‘feels’ like we are practising mindfulness, since the pure joy of being in the present moment and paying attention to whatever we are ‘focusing’ on feels wonderful. There is an inherent ‘liking’ of the current situation. Mindfulness is then seen as a practice of deep conscious awareness.
In each case, the idea of practising ‘mindfulness’ in the context of being present with purpose and curiosity is to bring something which already conventionally exists, into our awareness and fully appreciate it for what it is. The mind becomes ‘absorbed’ in this object and a greater appreciation of that object may occur.
Mindfulness as Choice
Mindfulness is also described as having a choice about how to respond to situations in the ‘future’ differently. A ‘choice’ always involves options, and with options come decisions about what action to take in the future. A famous quote attributed to the Austrian neurologist Victor Frankl is cited as one of the pinnacles of a mindfulness practise:
“Between stimulus and response, there lies a space. In that space we have choice. And in that choice lies the possibilities for stimulus and growth’.
It’s a beautiful quote and suggests a certain level of emotional mastery. Yet it is forward looking in terms of the growth that a person may achieve if they respond to situations differently in the future – there is an element of emotional regulation.
“But the more I practiced mindfulness of the thoughts and emotions that arose in my mind, the more I became aware of my reactive tendencies. Now I’m better able to catch myself when I’m frustrated or upset at someone, take a conscious deep breath, and choose a more skilful way to respond.”
Mindfulness as ‘Being in the Present Moment’
Yet in the same chapter of the book by Toni Bernard, she writes:
“Take three or four conscious breaths, while letting your attention settle on whatever is appearing in your field of awareness – a sight, sound, a smell, a taste, a bodily sensation, feeling thought or emotion or image. There. You’ve just practised mindfulness!”
So the first quote is an acknowledgment that one ‘recognises‘ the tendencies of the mind to over-react to external stimuli based on past behaviour, and the other involves a gentle placement of the mind on an object.
One is ‘looking back’, the other is more based on an action of the mind in the present.
Which is ‘mindfulness’ then?
Distractions as Mindfulness?
You may say both, and on one level you might be right, and what does it matter, but then again we may as well call anything that could be mindfulness by the name ‘mindfulness’ because the qualities of mind are focused in the present, rather than being distracted, which is how mindfulness is often presented.
Yet it is the very distraction, it is is often said when one is truly practising mindfulness – noticing, witnessing, observing, remembering etc… To the contrary, becoming absorbed in the present moment is nothing more than experiencing consciousness on a deeper level, rather than for the most part, being ‘unconscious’ in the metaphorical sense as we go about our day to day life.
My own view is that both paragraphs above talk to different aspects of being mindful – one placing, another recognising, but they both need to be read together to avoid the reader getting the wrong idea that mindfulness involves solely some form of emotional regulation or simply being in the present moment.
Mindfulness as ‘Remembering’
To this extent, an essential aspect of being mindful is that within the field of awareness, you want to remember whenever the mind has become distracted, wandered, or is caught up in thought, to gently bring it back to whatever is the object of attention. It is this act of bringing the mind back that is at the core of being mindful, and where from a corporate and therapeutic perspective, the benefits of mindfulness arise.
Whereas, as the preceding example illustrates, the modern take on mindfulness relates to ‘being’ in the present moment and fully appreciating that state of awareness. Rather, the additional component of remembering that object arising, is also required to be fully cognisant of the practice of mindfulness.
The ‘Technique’ of Mindfulness
Mindfulness in the modern sense is also described as a technique, using ‘mindfulness skills’ as if it can be acquired and learnt. To acquire or learn means obtaining something that a person did not have prior to undertaking the training. The state of mindfulness, I would argue, is something we already possess. We just aren’t familiar with it. That’s not to say it doesn’t take a lot of practice or dedication to experience the benefits of mindfulness, but it’s the very act of ‘waking up’ that distinguishes a skilled practitioner of any discipline who has spent a considerable time learning or studying, from the practice of mindfulness.
Buddhist v Modern Mindfulness?
So, is it possible for the Buddhist approach to mindfulness to coincide with the Western approach? Although there is some overlap, my conclusion is that there is a subtle difference that we need to carefully distinguish. Either mindfulness is grounded in the ‘past’, based on remembering & understanding the true nature of objects and phenomena, or it is about becoming fully present and absorbed in that moment.
Unlike other words which, from an epistemological perspective, may have had a very different meaning from that what is understood today (the word ‘marriage’ coming to mind), mindfulness still exists in the Buddhist tradition as a distinct and necessary limb of achieving the goals of the Buddhist philosophy. It cannot be ignored or merged into what is commonly understood as ‘mindfulness’ today.
To this extent, if we are to maintain the original meaning of ‘mindfulness’ in terms of the realisation of a state of lucid awareness, then what are we left with, in the modern context of mindfulness? ‘Conscious awareness’.
By being more conscious, we can learn to appreciate things for what they are. It could be the food that we are eating, the drink we are consuming, or the person we are having a conversation with. In all cases, being consciously aware and paying attention carefully to that object (i.e. the thing that is being done ‘to it’), is the key to getting more out of that experience. But it is not mindfulness, in my view.
Finding the Middle Way: ‘Mindfulness-based’
Whilst many of the perceived qualities and attributes of mindfulness are useful in the cognitive and psychological sense, the very act of being truly ‘mindful’ as understood by its historical meaning diverges from those qualities. ‘Mindfulness-based’ is probably the right description, as in ‘Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction‘ (MBSR), but when one practises MBSR, my query is whether mindfulness is actually being practised, or one is simply taking the qualities of mindfulness to bring about a therapeutic outcome.
In the modern Western approach to mindfulness where improving mental health through the effects of mindfulness is the main goal, what is commonly understood as the practice of mindfulness involves carefully paying attention. People find this definition of mindfulness particularly useful because it breaks the tendency of the mind to ruminate, often giving rise to stress, depression and anxiety.
When we pay attention to sensations and bring them into our awareness, often that issue or problem dissolves itself, since the negative feedback loop is halted. The body scan, which is a type of mindfulness meditation practice, is a great example of this, and one that I often introduce amongst city professionals to get them “out of their heads and into their bodies”.
That said, the ‘act’ of paying attention involves ‘doing’ something, where the verb of course is ‘to pay’. In paying attention, we learn to regulate our emotions, moving closer to what is commonly known as ’emotional intelligence’. Mindfulness however is beyond thought, since it involves a momentary ‘flash’ or ‘recognition’, yet choosing to pay attention involves a conscious choice of how to respond to something.
What Exactly is Mindfulness?
From my perspective, what exactly is mindfulness then? To summarise, I believe it is state of realisation which involves a recollection of the clear nature of all things. Being mindful is the act undertaken to achieve this realisation, being the placement of attention on an object and holding that object in one’s awareness. The act of remembering is to pause and acknowledge the very object and bear witness to its form.
Mindfulness is therefore not focus, which involves thought, nor present moment awareness, since being in the present is available at any point, free of time or of an object for that matter.
The clue is also found in the practice of ‘mindfulness meditation’, which involves the sustained concentration by placing the mind on an object of attention, with the necessary component of ‘recognition’ coming whenever the mind loses concentration, resulting in ‘replacement’.
Mindfulness in an informal setting involves something similar: it involves establishing that object free of thought and holding that object in your awareness, pausing to remember its inherent emptiness.
With a better understanding of the topic, I do not regret or wish that what is commonly understood or practised as ‘mindfulness’ digresses from its historical roots, because if people can experience reduced stress, are calmer and happier, then that can only be a good thing. If we eventually transition to measures of wellbeing such as ‘happiness’, rather than abstract notions such as GDP, by using mindfulness-based practices, then that is a positive thing.
I just think that we need to be careful before we rush in and label anything and everything as ‘mindfulness’, whether it be in the corporate sense, personal sense or somewhere in between, because it feels or is seen to be good or productive and involves some element of pause. The ‘pause’ itself is the act of being mindful in the modern sense when translated to the actual practice of mindfulness. What we do after the pause is something else.