What is mindfulness and what does it mean to be mindful? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition of mindful is “to be acutely aware”. This is expanded further as we look to psychological definitions of mindfulness that refer to it as “bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis” or “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”.
As we examine these definitions, we see that the goal is to be not only aware of what is going on around us but to be paying specific attention to it and perceiving it in a non-judgmental way. Seems pretty easy right? Well, yes…and no. One of the main challenges we face in our modern technological society is an overabundance of input. At any given moment we have a seemingly overwhelming amount of stimulation coming in from things that we see, hear, touch, taste and smell. And that is not even including the intuitive and psychic stimuli that many of us encounter as well. Yet, even with all that input, how much of it are you really aware of? When you are standing outside, do you hear the birds? The crickets? The wind? There is a lot coming at us so how do we get to this state of awareness?
Let’s break it down and look at each part of the definition individually. First we will look at being “aware”. If you are anything like me, you are probably multitasking right now. I’d like to take this opportunity to walk you through an exercise in awareness. Take a minute to just stop and listen to your surroundings. What do you hear first? Was it pleasant or annoying? Keep listening, what else do you hear that you didn’t before? Does it compliment the primary noise or seem to contrast it? Now shift your awareness to what you can feel. What kind of seat are you on? Is it comfortable? What parts of your body does it touch? How does it make your back feel versus your seat? If you are holding something, what does it feel like in your hands? Is it smooth, rough, shaped, etc? Next, take a look around you and absorb what you see in the distance. Then bring your focus in front of you and look at the detail of an object that is close to you. Can you see how it was made? Was it molded, cut, shaped? Is the coloring natural or added? If it’s clear, how does it distort your perception when you look through it? Close your eyes and begin to breathe slowly in through your nose and out through your mouth. Pay attention to what you smell with each breath. What comes out first? Are there other aromas lingering under it? Can you identify what each smell is and where it is in proximity to you? Lastly, if you have some food or drink close by, put some in your mouth. Without chewing or swallowing, just let it rest on your tongue so that you can really taste it. Now chew it a bit or slosh it around in your mouth. How did that change the flavor? Savor each bite or sip and see if you can identify more subtle flavors within the item. Did you discover something you hadn’t noticed before? Were you able to better appreciate something that you had previously taken for granted? Did you notice something wrong or off about your space that you were not aware of? Now see what happens when you combine all your senses together for a full awareness of your space. This is the start of mindfulness. A full awareness of all the bits and pieces of the world around you. All of the subtle pleasures and pains hidden beneath the grand aspects of life. However, as you may notice, it can be rather overwhelming and confusing. This is part of why our brains automatically filter out much of what we take in. Without some sort of filter or focus we would find ourselves in a constant state of either amazement or bewilderment. Possibly both. This is where the next part comes in.
Once we learn how to be aware of our environment, we must then retrain our brains on what to filter. By paying specific attention to the elements of life that are within our sphere of control we can take full reign of our lives and retake our personal power. How many times have you found yourself thrown off track by the actions or words of someone else? You’re walking along having a happy and productive day only to see or overhear something that upsets you. Maybe it was a rude comment, someone cut you off in traffic or you witnessed an argument that just left you disturbed. Suddenly you find yourself leaving that happy place you were in and end up feeling hurt, angry or just sad. What you need to realize is that none of the input you just took in was within your control. Your awareness noticed these things (which is ok) and brought your attention away from your power and your elements of control (not ok). So what is it that we can control, you ask? Well, to put it simply, the only thing within your sphere of control is you. You cannot control the words, actions, thoughts of feelings of others. You can control your reactions to them though. By keeping your focus on yourself, you can better perceive why something made you feel the way it did and if your initial reaction is heart centered or ego based. Consciously work to keep your reactions heart centered and you will train your brain to filter out that which triggers your ego and robs you of your focus and power.
Lastly we need to look at the third aspect of mindfulness which deals with perceiving things in a non-judgmental way. This ties in with the idea of keeping your reactions heart centered as we need to understand that we do not always know why something just happened. Let’s take the example above of someone cutting you off in traffic. When this happens, our egos tend to flame up really quick. Our safety may have been risked, possible damage to our car, we may even feel that we have been wronged or inconvenienced by this person’s actions. The gut reaction is to call the person a jerk, a bad driver, an asshole or <insert your chosen insult here> and even though there was no damage done we harbor anger and frustration for them. We instantly judge the person based on our perspective of their actions. But, what if we found out later that the person’s child was in a horrible accident and they were rushing to be with them? Or that someone you loved was in the hospital and this “jerk” was the doctor rushing in to save their life? Not only can we not control the action of others, we cannot control the circumstances behind them either. It is only with the concept of non-judgmental reaction can we quickly assess that no harm has been done to us and no further energy needs to be given to the situation. It is now in the past and our awareness needs to be in the present. Cut the cord and let it go.
The full process of mindfulness is amazingly simple and wondrously difficult at the same time. It does not come in a day and I am not sure that it can ever truly be perfected and mastered. However, it is through regular conscious attention to it that we are able to incorporate it deeper into our lives. Each moment that we bring our awareness into the present and our focus onto ourselves we take a step in the right direction. As with so many aspects of life, mindfulness is a lifelong process of growth. The measured success comes at each moment and within each choice we make.
It is a race to be run and not a prize to be won.