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What Does Mindfulness Really Mean Anyway?

There is no doubt that “mindfulness” is having a moment in the spotlight. Back in November 2013, David Hochman wrote a New York Times feature titled “Mindfulness: Getting Its Share of Attention,” indicating the initial surge in the mindfulness “trend.” In his article’s first sentence, Hochman invites readers to consider the funny question, “What is the sound of one hand texting?”

I find that funny because the question is both earnest and ironic. Mindfulness — an expansive term that refers most generally to the state of “being present” — includes the practice of tuning into our sensory experience with more presence, too. In other words, it allows us to listen to “the sound of one hand texting” as opposed to just hearing it.

But the question is ironic because of Hochman’s focus: how mindfulness is finding its way into our increasingly digital culture. He not only cites the vast array of companies — from Google to Goldman Sachs — whose employees tout the benefits of meditation for their productivity, but also argues that the specific reason mindfulness is having its moment is because technology has made us all so distracted. “The hunger to get centered is especially fervent in the cradle of the digital revolution,” Hochman argues. None of us can seem to pay attention anymore, so the so-called mindfulness revolution is gaining momentum as a way to stay connected to the here and now.

Anagarika Shri Munindra (Munindraji) at the Insight Meditation Society in 1978 with Sharon Salzberg.

I went to India in 1970 to learn meditation (it was pre-mindfulness revolution, for sure, so I had to go somewhere.) I came back in 1974 as a teacher, having been told to teach by one of my own teachers. In those days, at a party or some social situation, you never heard a word like mindfulness. If someone asked what I did and I responded, “I teach meditation,” they would usually look at me funny.

These days, the single most common response I hear is:

“I’m so stressed out, I could use some of that.”

I have a Google alert on the word “mindfulness.” Every single day I read about new research and new applications in schools, at work, in hospitals, in the military, in breast cancer support groups, for caregivers — and much more.

I think this is a good thing. But what exactly does mindfulness really mean anyway? With its newfound, relatively mainstream support, mindfulness has become somewhat of a business and pop cultural buzzword. So now strikes me as a particularly good time to think about how we can come to understand mindfulness even more deeply.

Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein in India in the 1970s.

Mindfulness is not simply becoming aware of the temperature of my cup of coffee or hearing my coworker’s fingers type on the keyboard. It includes these things.

But most of us simply use the word “mindfulness” to suggest “knowing what’s going on.” The popularization of mindfulness mostly has to do with the particular benefits of this practice: when you more closely tune into the details of your life, you enjoy things so much more. You are more present with your experience: you smell the cup of tea you’re drinking as opposed to drinking tea while on a conference call, simultaneously checking email, and watching the TV on mute.

Mindfulness isn’t just about knowing that you’re hearing something, seeing something, or even observing that you’re having a particular feeling. It’s about doing so in a certain way — with balance and equanimity, and without judgment. Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention in a way that creates space for insight.

Let’s take an uncomfortable feeling, like anger. What does it take to work with the feeling of anger, rather than against it? Well, it takes mindfulness. If I am mindful of my anger, I can observe it with sensitivity, focus, and greater emotional clarity. I can see the sadness and fear within the anger, and ultimately see anger’s changing nature. This kind of realization opens our minds and hearts, and we can see, in fact, everything’s changing nature.

Mindfulness serves as the basis for insight — literally meaning it provides us a clearer vision (“sight”) or what is within. If we experience a difficult emotion or undergo a negative experience, we tend to want to deny or avoid the pain we feel as soon as it arises. But, when doing this, we don’t create adequate space for learning and growth. Reactivity doesn’t expand our perspective. Mindfulness transforms our tendency to react by enabling us to be more present and aware. This presence is the platform from which we can access more wisdom and compassion.

Sharon Salzberg in India in 1972 with Jacqueline Mandell and Dipa Barua. Image by Insight Meditation Society..

When I began meditation, I was 18 years old. I had gone to India as a junior in college. At the time, I knew I wasn’t happy but wasn’t particularly aware of my emotions. I didn’t really understand what was inside other than the fact that it hurt. Many of my closest friends are people I met at my first retreat in January of 1971. I’m somewhat famous amongst that group of people for once having marched up to my first mediation teacher and saying, “I never used to be an angry person until I started meditating,” thereby laying blame on him.

What I now realize is that I had always been hugely angry but hadn’t known it. Becoming more mindful of my pain meant seeing things I hadn’t noticed before. I began judging everything I saw, and mindfulness allowed me to identify that.

For me to come to a place where I actually could just be aware of suffering in a balanced way inevitably meant lovingkindness and compassion for myself. I think that’s true for many of us, if not all of us. That’s why I think it’s an implicit cultivation. We can’t be mindful, really, without compassion.

Mindfulness helps us create a certain kind of relationship with experience in order to make ourselves available for greater wisdom and insight. That way, we can see what we feel, even if its judgment, pay attention to it, and allow it to exist without condemnation, without that constrictive gesture of “pushing away.”

A retreat in India taught by SN Goenka, where Insight Meditation Society founders Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein met n 1971.

It may seem bizarre that something as clinical sounding as “paying attention” is essential for creating the space in ourselves for real, sustainable happiness. But actually, the difference between suffering and happiness all depends on what we do with our attention: do we position happiness as something outside of ourselves, or do we allow ourselves to look deeply within and feel whole as we are?

Mindfulness is what can permit us to no longer feel like victims of our negative emotions. Instead, it allows us to understand our intentions and gain awareness of our emotions as they arise. As they arise, we pivot, we continue to pay attention, and our world continues to open up.

Science agrees, which is undoubtedly part of the popularization. A 2011 study conducted at Mass General Hospital, with the headline “Mindfulness meditation training changes brain structure in eight weeks,” examined the brain structure of 16 participants for two weeks before and after they took an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Progress text at the UMass Center for Mindfulness (MBSR). Results showed measurable changes in participants’ brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress. Meditation actually produced actual changes in the brain’s grey matter.

Long story short: by practicing mindfulness, we aren’t simply just “more aware.” We open ourselves up to greater discernment, compassion, and an intelligent, empowered sense of choice.
This is mindfulness.

Image by Kristof Magyar/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)..

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