I wonder if perhaps you have stumbled across the word mindfulness. Maybe a parent, or a teacher, or a therapist has mentioned this idea. You might have read a book or a magazine that mentions mindfulness or maybe you heard about it in a movie or on the radio. Although this word is used quite often, it can be difficult to precisely describe. Before I offer my definition of mindfulness, I wonder if you already have some thoughts about what this word might mean. How would you define mindfulness?
To understand mindfulness, it’s important to first talk about attention. Attention involves noticing something or someone. When you pay attention to something, you are noticing or becoming aware of what is there. In any given moment, there are about a billion different things that you might choose to pay attention to. You could pay attention or notice different objects in the room, or the sounds in the room. If someone is reading you this book, you might (and I hope you are) be paying attention to the words or the sound of the reader’s voice. Maybe your attention has wandered to the past and you’re thinking about an argument you had with a friend. It’s also possible your attention is drifting to the future and you might be thinking about an upcoming vacation. Your attention is kind of like a flashlight in your mind and it can shine inside of you, on your thoughts, feelings, images, or body sensations, or it can shine outside of you, on something that exists in the world around you. That flashlight can also shine on things that happened in the past, or things you imagine might happen in the future. Your flashlight of attention can shine on something small and very specific, like a pebble in your hand, or the sound of one bird in the tree. Your flashlight could also shine on something bigger and broader, like all the stars in the sky above you or all the different sounds you hear on a busy city street. Your flashlight of attention might shine on the feeling you get when you think about someone you love or the taste of a mint in your mouth. As I said, there are a lot of different things you could be paying attention to, and for most of us, our flashlight of attention is moving around all the time, jumping from one thing to another.
Now I want you to notice where your flashlight of attention is shining right at this very moment. What are you paying attention to right now? Once you’ve had a chance to notice where your attention is, let’s see if you can shift your attention on purpose. See if you can notice what it feels like when you take a breath in. Does the air enter through your nose or through your mouth? Does the air travel all the way down to your belly or does it remain higher, gently raising your chest and shoulders? When you exhale and breathe out, what happens? Although we breathe all day long, most of us rarely pause and pay attention to this process.
Congratulations! You have taken your first step towards practicing mindfulness! The process of shining your flashlight of attention on something that exists in the present moment is the first component of mindfulness. The second part of our mindfulness definition involves how we pay attention, and the attitude we take when we start noticing things. When we practice mindfulness we try to pay attention in a way that is filled with kindness and curiosity. This is where things can get a slightly complicated, so don’t worry if you notice yourself feeling a little bit confused. To help you understand the idea of a curious, kind attitude, I want you to imagine a friendly puppy or kitten as it approaches something new. They tend to investigate things with a sense of open acceptance, interest, and wonder. This is the same energy that we try to carry with us as we practice paying attention to the present moment.
Mindfulness = Attention to the Present Moment + Kind, Curious Attitude
If we combine these two ideas, we arrive at our final definition. Mindfulness is the process of paying attention, in a kind and curious way, to what is happening right now, inside our bodies or in the world around us. Still a bit confused? No problem. This blog will be filled with practices to help you gain a better understanding of mindfulness. I’ll try to include a variety of exercises with the hope that you might find a few practices that feel right to you. Please don’t sit down and try all the practices at once. I think it’s true that you really can get too much of a good thing. You wouldn’t walk into an ice cream shop one afternoon and try a bowl of every flavor- total belly ache! Visit this blog and pick a practice or two that look interesting. Give them a try and see what you think. Over time, you might develop a list of five to ten favorite exercises, but don’t feel pressured to rush the process. Slowly but surely you’ll get there.