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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness has become a buzzword that is applied to everything from enjoying the sensual pleasures of eating a desert to the kind of attention deployed when you sit on a cushion on the floor and focus on your breathing.  Being “mindful” has crept into contemporary language so you might hear someone say, “I was mindful of my anger” or “I ate my lunch mindfully.”

Given the wide usage of the term, a more precise definition of mindfulness would be helpful.  One of the most often quoted definitions of mindfulness is that of Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” (1994, p. 4).  This captures much of the meaning of mindfulness but also omits some elements that are critical to understanding what we are cultivating when we meditate.

The term mindfulness has it roots in Buddhism and has a very specific meaning in that context.  Mindfulness is an English translation of sati, a word in the Pali language in which the Buddhist scriptures were written.

The word’s original meaning had to do with memory or recollection.  This is puzzling since the concept of mindfulness as it is currently used implies being in the present moment.  So what does it have to do with memory?  One answer is that mindfulness has to do with being aware of something in the sense of making a mental note of it and, in that sense, remembering it.  In a future post, I will go into greater detail on this concept of noting.   

In Buddhist psychology, consciousness is not a continuous process but occurs in discrete mind-moments that are extremely brief, on the order of millions a second.  Within each of these mind-moments, consciousness arises and passes away like a wave or pulse.  Because of the speed with which this occurs and the impact of one instance of consciousness on the succeeding instance of consciousness, there is an illusion of a “stream of consciousness.” 

Any given instance of consciousness is accompanied by mental factors that impart to it certain qualities.  There are mental factors that occur with all instances of consciousness (universal mental factors) and others that only occur with certain instances of consciousness (occasional mental factors).  A further division can be made with respect to the remaining factors according to whether they contribute or detract from well-being.  These additional factors are either wholesome or unwholesome factors.  (Sometimes the words “skillful” and “unskillful” are substituted for “wholesome” and “unwholesome” in an apparent attempt to soften the ethical dimension of these factors.)  Wholesome and unwholesome mental factors cannot coexist in the same mind moment; they are mutually exclusive.   

Mindfulness is one of the wholesome mental factors and arises in every wholesome mind moment along with several other universal wholesome mental factors and, sometimes, with other higher level mental factors.  Mindfulness is not an ordinary kind of attention.  As a wholesome kind of attention, it cannot arise at the same time as unwholesome mental factors are present.  For instance, if you were paying very close attention to what you were doing as you stole something, you could not be said to be mindful.  Likewise, you could not be mindfully greedy, but you could, in one moment, be mindful of greed in the preceding moment. 

Mindfulness itself is a quality of attention characterized by present focus, non-forgetfulness and stability of focus.  It is built on mental factors such as energetic, focused, and sustained attention.  When mindfulness arises, other wholesome mental factors arise that have to do with being even-minded (i.e., equanimous) and not caught up in (i.e., non-greed) or repelled by (i.e., non-hatred) the objects that arise and pass away.  This lends to mindfulness the non-reactive and non-judgmental quality to which Jon Kabat-Zinn refers.

If you meditate to be mindful, you try to create the conditions for mindfulness to arise.  You cannot force it.  If you are doing sitting meditation, you relax the body, stay alert and focused, and note the object that is most dominant.  By sustaining those conditions, mindfulness may arise.  Although mindfulness comes and goes, by cultivating it one can establish it from moment to moment.  As you become more proficient in this type of meditation, you learn how to cultivate mindfulness as you would a treasured plant, feeding it, watering it, and weeding it.   

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994).  Wherever you go, there you are:  Mindfulness meditations in everyday life. New York:  Hyperion

revised March 12, 2012

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