Mindfulness is popular and a very old practice. Science is now unpacking the benefits of mindfulness across many life areas. The idea of being present just where you are and just as you are is a liberating notion. And, it is also difficult to do. Minds don't like being in the present. They prefer to dwell in the past and the future. You can see for yourself if that is mostly true of your experience. It sure is for me.
Where was your mind as you took a shower? Was it fully inside the shower experience, or outside rushing ahead into the next thing or dwelling on yesterday?
Where was your mind as you ate dinner? Was it fully present with the tastes, smells, textures, and sensations or eating, the movements of the mouth, the flavors on the tongue?
Where was your mind on the way to work? Or as you went for a walk or worked out at the gym?
Where was your mind during a recent episode of anticipation, or during a spell of pain, difficulty, and hardship?
Minds have a hard time being just where we are.
But coming back to the present can be enormously beneficial. After all, that is where we are anyway. And the present is the only place we can act to impact our lives. Recollections of the past are always happening NOW. Concocting futures that have yet to be are also happening in the NOW. But this is hard to see. And it can be difficult to cultivate mindfulness in life. I know that first hand.
I thought that mindfulness required formal sitting meditation. Yet, I couldn't find a window for that, and when I made time my mind quickly launched into evaluations and judgments, intrusions reminding me that I had things to do or places to be. At times, it launched me into painful and sweet recollections of a past that is long but gone.
And so, I decided that I would instead cultivate mindfulness in my daily interactions with the world. I've applied it to ironing my shirts (an activity that I generally dislike), driving the kids here and there, during meetings, interactions with my spouse, family, and friends, and in moments when I am listening to music, on a run, walking to teach a class, and in times when I am tired and feeling alone. In a way, my practice has become one of living mindfulness. And, I think there is something precious in that -- I found presence and a lightness as I let my experience be my experience.
In my travels and teachings, I've run into many gentle souls that have struggled with mindfulness practice, including living mindfulness. One level of struggle concerns the very definition of mindfulness itself, for there are many.
I tend to gravitate to a simple definition offered by John Kabat-Zin, namely paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and without judgment. This is not a direct quote mind you, but it is close to the essence of what mindfulness entails and how John describes its essential features. Yet, people struggle with it, and especially with the notion of "without judgment."
In my humble opinion, mindfulness is not about without judgment in the sense of the mind not evaluating and judging the experience, including you the person. Minds can and will appraise and judge just about anything. If you have any doubt about that, try it yourself.
Look around the room where you are, pick an object, and label it as you might a sip of sour warm milk or the experience of receiving a fresh picked rose as a gift from a loved one. Repeat the labeling using both with good and bad evaluations. Right now, I'm looking at my glass of wine and thinking, "that's a nice glass," "that's a cheap glass," and "that's a unique glass." I noticed that I could continue this little activity for hours if I wished. Evaluating is very, very easy to do with just about anything.
If you can do this kind of thing so readily in the world outside the skin, then surely you can apply it to the world within - to your thoughts, your feelings, your past memories, your efforts to practice being present, to how well you are doing mindfulness, and to your sense of self as a human being (e.g., "I am a ________ person"; you fill in the blank with an evaluation. That is, call yourself something. Then, do it again, and call yourself something else. Do it positively and negatively and notice that you can do it.).
If you try this out, you may begin to see that you can evaluate just about anything, anytime, and in many arbitrary ways - some silly, some seemingly nonsensical, backwards sounding, some even hurtful.
So, mindfulness is not being mindful without the mind judging and evaluating the experience. Rather, it is a choice to pay attention, on purpose, in the moment where you are just as things are, and "without buying into and getting entangled in the judgment." This understanding is key.
When your mind inserts evaluative and judgmental additives to your practice of mindfulness, just notice that. Thank your mind for doing what minds do ... just more chatter.Then, return to the experience as it is, sticking to descriptions as in "I am noticing, sensing, feeling, thinking a thought, doing, feeling, tasting."
More importantly, notice that the evaluation or judgment is not a property of anything in nature; it is our minds that make it seem so. That's true when you are thinking evaluations such as peaceful, wonderful, wrong, stupid, worthless, hopeless, foolish, nice, happy, content, smart, and on and on. None of these evaluations are properties of anything in the natural world. They are phantasms, concocted by a mind that has learned to categorize and evaluate your experience. This is the great illusion that trips people up, including me from time to time.
Darwin, in the Origin of the Species, never found "stupid," "wrong," "beautiful," "troubled," "broken," or "happy" during his travels on the H.S. Beagle. That's because the natural world is not organized by evaluations. It is organized by events just as they are. More deeply, when we evaluate our experience we are dealing with words and languaging about our experience. That can be helpful to notice, especially when you find yourself tangled up with the word machine as you practice showing up to your life just as it is.
Just remember that mindfulness is noticing your experience as it is and not as your mind says it is. A judgmental mind will be right there with you as your practice. Evaluations are more experience to be noticed, and as they show up you will get another opportunity to practice being present and develop the important skill of presence in the now.
Oh, and I'm interested to hear what you think about this and your experience with mindfulness practice, so please comment and share. We will all grow that way.
With a Kind Heart,
John P. Forsyth
Dr. Forsyth is a professor of psychology, writer, clinical scientist, and director of the Anxiety Disorders Research Program at the University at Albany, SUNY. He regularly travels the world giving talks and workshops to professionals and the public about the benefits of mindful-acceptance and how to harness these skills to life a full, dignified, and purposeful life. Much of his work and trainings are based on acceptance and mindfulness-based therapies, chiefly Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
John is co-author of The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety, ACT on Life, Not on Anger, and a professional book called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Anxiety Disorders: A Practitioner's Guide. His latest book, Your Life on Purpose, was just released and walks readers through finding what matters and how to move forward when faced with life's inevitable barriers, hardships, and pains.