Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Basics I: What is Mindfulness?

Fundamentally, mindfulness is conscious awareness of what is happening in the present moment. It is experiential awareness: what is the sensation, sight, sound, taste, smell, or mental formation (thought, emotion) that is happening right now? This is the bare observation aspect of mindfulness; simply placing our complete attention on what is happening in the present, without comment or evaluation.

In addition, there is a certain quality of attention that we use to practice mindfulness. When focusing attention on our experience, we try to do so with a sense of openness and acceptance. We observe what is happening without making any judgements about it (good, bad, right, wrong, should, shouldn't) and without either grabbing on to it (trying to get more) or pushing it away (avoiding, escaping). Whatever is going on in this moment, just is.

This sounds pretty simple, and really, it is. But it is not always easy (okay, it's just plain difficult, especially when we are just starting, or when extreme difficulties arise). The reasons it is difficult also point to why it is so beneficial and to its potential for promoting well-being.

Mindfulness is hard because it is not what we are used to doing. Most of us spend nearly all our waking moments engaged in some kind of thinking about this or that, commenting, judging, ruminating about the past, worrying about or anticipating the future. We spend a great deal of time telling ourselves stories of one kind or another about what this person said or what our friend/ boss/ wife/ boyfriend/ mother/etc. thinks about how we look, our job, what kind of car we drive, the comment we made last week. We speculate about our kids, our future, money, relationships. Accompanying these stories and thoughts are our feelings about them: anger, desire, jealousy, rejection, anxiety, worry, hope, guilt, resentment, etc. These thoughts, stories, and feelings aren't just random, but are based on habitual patterns formed in response to our life experiences, especially the painful ones. As a result, we tend to react to life situations out of our habitual patterns instead of acting in a conscious way with full freedom of choice. This is a profound source of suffering.

Mindfulness is about waking up from the unhelpful ways we think and feel about ourselves and others to what is actually happening. It's about listening deeply to ourselves in an open, caring, non-judgmental way that engenders understanding and compassion. Mindfulness lets us see how we undermine our own peace and happiness, and provides us the means to reclaim it. It gives us a window into the richness that exists in our lives, the richness we've been missing.

Next - The Basics II: Getting Started

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