What Is This Thing Called Mindfulness?

“…we don’t have to look outside the present moment to experience wisdom, compassion, and the boundless purity of our true nature. In fact, these things can’t be found anywhere but the present moment.”

—Mingyur Rinpoche

We use the word mindful or mindfulness in a lot of different ways. Be mindful of your step. Do that mindfully. Be mindful of the planet by recycling.

But mindfulness is not just watching your step, being careful, or recycling. Those things have been around for a long time, and they are very important but not what we mean when we talk about mindfulness here.

The mindfulness we’re talking about is more than that. In Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, our working definition comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn: “Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and without judgment.” That is a mouthful! When I first define mindfulness to students in that way, I often repeat it so they have a chance to wrap their minds around it.

I love this slightly simpler definition from Diana Winston: “Mindful awareness is paying attention to present moment experiences with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is.”

The Three Components of Mindfulness

In 2006, Shauna Shapiro and colleagues published a paper called, “Mechanisms of Mindfulness.” It has been used quite a bit to help us understand more deeply what we mean when we talk about mindfulness, and it talks about the three components of mindfulness: Intention, Attention, and Attitude.

So, let’s explore this with that frame in mind using the classic MBSR definition from Jon, “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and without judgment.”

  1. “On purpose” – intention
  2. “Paying attention” – attention
  3. “In a particular way” – attitude

“Intention, attention, and attitude are not separate processes or stages – they are interwoven aspects of a single cyclic process and occur simultaneously. Mindfulness is this moment to moment process.” –Shauna Shapiro

“On Purpose” – Intention

Intention is the reason we start to practice mindfulness in the first place. When our students come to class, it is often with the intention to reduce their stress or chronic pain and help them to live their lives with more ease and well-being. Some come to deepen or restart their existing meditation practice, and others come as professionals to develop tools to help their patients and clients. Intention is the “why” of our practice; what is important to us. If we are clear about our intention, we will be much more likely to achieve it. Intentions are seeds we plant that come from our hearts. We learn and grow not so much by what we do, but by why and how we do it—and that is intention.

“Paying Attention” – Attention

Attention is an innate skill that we can develop more fully. Attention can be like a laser, one-pointed and focused, or it can be wide open like a wide-angle lens on a camera. In mindfulness, attention means to observe our internal and external experience from moment to moment. It is meeting our experience just as it is without all of the concepts we use to interpret our experience. Attention is the ability to attend to one thing for long periods of time, and also the ability to shift our awareness at will to different things in our environment. It is also the ability to settle the emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations that are getting in the way of our seeing directly.

“In a Particular Way” – Attitude

Attitude is the how of our attending. These qualities of attention in MBSR are referred to as the attitudinal foundations of mindfulness. This is what Jon Kabat-Zinn was talking about when he said, “What we mean by mindfulness in MBSR is right mindfulness; woven into mindfulness is an orientation toward non-harming and seeing deeply into the nature of things.” These heart qualities include: patience, trust, beginners mind, acceptance, non-judging, non-striving, and letting go.

Cultivating a New Way of Being

You may be feeling overwhelmed by the amount of effort required to be mindful—it seems like a lot to pay attention to! But that is why it is called a “practice.” Even something as simple as paying attention to the breath with an attitude of gentle curiosity and an intention of understanding ourselves better is enough to slowly change the way we treat and talk to ourselves; the way we interact with each other; the way we live our lives. When we strengthen our ability to remain present to our lives with intentionality and non-judgment, it slowly becomes our new “normal”, and much easier to sustain. This is sometimes called the “effortless effort.”

Learning from a trained teacher in a supportive community is a profoundly helpful way to learn how to live mindfully. Whether you are an experienced practitioner or totally new to mindfulness, we encourage you to consider one of our many workshops or multi-week class formats to support you in your journey!

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