Mindful awareness can be considered as a way of being, more than something that involves our “doing” something. Engage a certain “state of mind” that has the range of qualities we have heard repeatedly even though there is no fixed and final definition of mindfulness: How we pay attention (different from awareness), on purpose (but it doesn’t have to be done with active effort, it can in fact be an intention that happens “automatically” as a habit of being, not a consciously thought out plan of carrying out a way of focusing attention) to the unfolding of present moment experience (but, in fact, we can pay attention to memories of the past or plans for the future—but do so…) with a sense alertness, attention to detail, and with kindness and compassion.
And so there is quite a healthy and active discussion about what mindfulness actually is, even though the overall feeling is that we know what is.
Let’s start with this distinction: We can have a mindful state of being, and a mindful trait of being. A state is in the moment. A trait is a habitual and repeated way of being over time and over various situations. We intentionally carry out a mindfulness practice—like walking meditation or mindfulness of the breath—to create, on purpose, and repeatedly, an intentional state of taking in what is, without judgment, and with presence to whatever arises. That’s called a mindful awareness practice, or what we call a “MAP” at our UCLA center. MAPs come in many varieties, from yoga and tai’ chi as moving forms of MAPs, to sitting forms such as mindfulness meditation.
For myself, each morning I try to do (or intend to do, it doesn’t always work out that way!) a comprehensive practice that is called the Wheel of Awareness. This WoA practice was created to integrate consciousness as it differentiates and then links a wide array of elements of being aware. Within the metaphoric hub is the sense of knowing; within the rim is that which is known—such as the first five senses, the sixth sense of the sensations from the interior of the body, the seventh sense of our mental life of emotions and thoughts, and even an eighth sense of our relations to people and the planet. Moving a spoke of attention from hub to rim around the various elements of the rim enables hub and rim to be differentiated and then linked. This is how consciousness can be integrated.
We’ve had hundreds of thousands of people download the Wheel practice from our site, and I’ve had the privilege of teaching the Wheel to people in a variety of seminar settings. The feedback we’ve received about the experience of the wheel have been deeply gratifying, from decreasing ruminations to decreasing bodily pain. Overall, the freedom from the tyranny of being “lost on the rim” can be experienced by people across the lifespan. Even kindergarteners have found this a powerful way to strengthen their mind.
And while the WoA practice was initially designed to be an integrative practice, it has been declared to be a “mindfulness practice” as well. And from an interpersonal neurobiology perspective, this makes sense as we see mindfulness as a way of integrating one’s life—from the brain to interpersonal relationships. On the brain side we see that the “connectome” is more interconnected along with the growth of regions of the brain such as the insula and anterior cingulate which are those “middle prefrontal cortical” regions that I discuss as part of the “resonance circuitry” in The Mindful Brain. On the relational side, we can see that the increase in self-compassion and other-directed compassion and empathy are a result of how mindfulness can be considered a form of attunement—focusing attention on the internal mental life of one’s self or of other—to create internal and interpersonal attunement in mindfulness practice.
In these ways we can state that mindfulness is an integrative practice that promotes integration in mind, in relationships, and in body. And as integration can be seen as the heart of well-being, having a regular (hopefully near daily) intentional practice of creating an integrated state of mindful awareness can then become an automatic habitual trait of being mindfully aware and fully present for life. To help teach this to others, we need to practice and be this way ourselves. So yes, we need to walk the walk as well as talk the talk! It’s worth the time to take “time-in” each day, for a minute, or ten, or twenty, to focus on the unfolding nature of our inner mental life. Seeing the sea inside develops the capacity to see beyond what is in front of our eyes, to have more than eyesight, and to develop mindsight for the energy and information flow that is the nature of each of our inner mental seas. Seeing this sea inside is the basis of emotional and social intelligence, the foundations of mindful awareness, and the gateway toward integrating our internal and relational lives!