What Is Mindfulness, Actually?
Mindfulness as “remembrance” rather than “alertness”
Posted Mar 08, 2016
My spiritual mentor used to say to me, “we are human beings, not human doers.”
In an era that rewards productivity, what does it mean to focus on being, instead of doing? What does it mean to live a purposeful, reflected life? And how does mindfulness have anything to do with it?
Over the past several decades, there has been a proliferation of conversations, research studies and publications on the topic of mindfulness. A simple google search of the word “mindfulness” yields more than 38 million (and counting) hits. Under “In the News” section, you may find headlines such as “Mindfulness Teaching People to Reduce Stress & Live in the Moment” (CBS Local), “Why Mindfulness Has Become a Trend and How You Can Do it” (ABC News), or “Diabetes and Meditation: Daily Mindfulness Linked to Healthier Glucose Levels” (Tech Times).
The way it is discussed, mindfulness sounds almost like a magic pill. It is linked to all kinds of benefits. It helps with sleep problems, weight loss, symptoms of depression or anxiety, impulsivity, self-esteem, attention and concentration, empathy and compassion, and overall physical health and mental well-being.
Mindfulness was primarily introduced to Western health practitioners through John Kabat-Zinn in the early 90s. Kabat-Zinn is a trained physician at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and a trained Dharma teacher (Dharma means suffering and refers to the teaching of the Buddha). In his work with patients with chronic pain, he developed the program Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) to help them live with greater ease and quality of life. A synonym for mindfulness is “alertness” or “attention.” According to Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness is paying attention, on purpose, to the present moment, without judging it or immediately needing to change anything. As you learn to pay attention to your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations without judging them as good or bad, you discover new degrees of freedom and learn how to better manage stress.
Even though these may be byproducts of mindfulness, mindfulness at its core is never about stress reduction, increased productivity, or better quality of life.
Mindfulness practice has been an integral component of wisdom and faith traditions since the beginning of recorded history. Such practice facilitates a path associated with an ethical code of living across all faiths and religions. The word mindfulness was translated from the original word, “sati,” where its literal meaning is “memory.” Another word for it is “remembrance” or “recall.” Yes, it is about paying attention, but it is more than mere attention or alertness. There is a reference point. As people pay attention to their thoughts, they are also aware of the set of ethical and spiritual principles they strive to live by and how their thoughts or actions are aligned to that set of principles.
As a Christ-follower, I practice meditation on a regular basis. I meditate not because I want to feel more relaxed or less stressed (although they are definitely good and often byproducts of meditation). When I meditate, I turn my gaze from my self to Christ who redeemed me. Instead of simply focusing on how I feel or what I think, I look at Christ and what He has done for me on the cross more than two thousand years ago. I am reminded (memory) of His goodness in my life and I become more aware of His presence. As I remember how much I am loved by God, it prompts me to think and act more in ways that reflect His love.
Meditation can also be a seminal practice for people who do not believe in gods. For people who do not have a particular (or any) faith background, you can remember the person you strive to be, the values you embrace, and the kind of ethical or moral lifestyle you want to lead.
In my research and in this blog, I attempt to answer the broad question of whether the benefits of mindfulness meditation may be enhanced when it is re-integrated into its spiritual tradition.