Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The difficulty and importance in defining ‘Mindfulness’

You are driving in traffic, someone cuts you off, barely missing hitting your car. Your young child is sitting in the seat next to you. A rush of adrenaline shoots through your body, your heart rate spikes, and you feel a flush of heat. Automatically you reach across your child’s body and your foot moves to cover the breaks. Your mind starts reeling… quickly calculating the many possible scenarios that ‘might’ve’ happened due to this thoughtless driver… your child, your car, yourself…  

The effects of this momentary experience could go in a couple of different directions; one from unconscious, habitual reactivity, and the other through the lens of mindfulness. Without having cultivated an ability to shift into mindful awareness, the most common result is an unchecked proliferation of angry and fearful thoughts, affecting how you interact with your young child for the next few minutes or hours, your attitude (aggressiveness?) from behind the wheel, and the natural, momentary stress reaction snowballing into a full-fledged, uncontrolled stress response affecting your mental and physical health. However, training in the practices of mindfulness, the intentional act of bringing non-judgmental awareness into the physical experiences happening in your body and the arising of thoughts and emotions, enables you to short-circuit the reactivity and restore a balanced mind to move through the rest of your day. 

An Unclear Definition as an Obstacle to Learning

Having training and practice in mindfulness can be deeply transformational, not only enabling us to intentionally respond better to stressful situations like with traffic, but also in shifting our relationship with others, ourselves, and our experience. However, one obstacle in endeavoring to learn mindfulness practices can be in the understanding of what “Mindfulness” actually means. Mindfulness has great cache these days based on significant outcomes in medical and health research, as well as in education and the corporate sector, among others.  Having thus entered into the popular culture the word “mindful” or “mindfulness” has come to be bandied about quite loosely, and the word is often used as an attribution for programs or classes that aren’t actually teaching the practice. Sometimes the word is merely added on as an adjective for an activity, such as ‘mindful drumming’, something I’ve recently seen advertised, for instance. And in other instances there may be an intention offer meaningful instruction in mindfulness, however what is actually being offered is only a few techniques, rather than guidance in the practice. (and, while there are many benefits to be had in some of the techniques offered in the name of mindfulness, there is a big difference; something I will address at a later date!)  

So, what's the definition? 

Mindfulness is a non-conceptual practice, so any attempt at providing a definitive meaning can be slippery. Although the word mindful has a particular meaning in English, the word mindful used in the context of a specific ‘practice’, (the practice which has been studied so widely) has much more nuance. The dictionary definition of ‘Mindful’ is, “bearing in mind; inclined to be aware” (Mirriam-Webster). Mindfulness practice is a practice of awareness, and as such, can seem deceptively simple when plainly interpreted, but it’s really not so easily pointed-to or defined. The English ‘Mindful’ was taken as a translation of the word, 'Sati' from the Pali language. Sati is an aspect of contemplative practice originally described in the Buddhist suttas some 2600 years ago. And even amongst Buddhist scholars this originating word, Sati, has been subject to much debate regarding its meaning. 

To work from a simple English definition of ‘mindful’, then, is misleading and overly simplifying; while practicing mindfulness is a practice of awareness, it is a more subtle level of awareness than what is generally accessed by most of us in day-to-day life.  

In looking at a few of the definitions offered by the experts, however, we may begin to have an understanding of what mindfulness practice entails:

Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, the creator of the original Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, from which, all that we see today of this phenomenon has emerged, has one of the most widely quoted definitions of mindfulness, “…paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally…” 

Gil Fronsdal, PhD, another preeminent teacher of mindfulness, in reviewing the meaning of Sati within the Buddhist literature came to a holistic description in trying to incorporate multiple sources by describing it as “being in a state of lucid awareness.”

An oft cited popular definition for mindfulness practice is ‘present moment awareness,’ however, this too is somewhat misleading in pointing toward what the practice is about. Joseph Goldstein, one of the ‘fathers’ of mindfulness practice in the West, and author of one of the definitive books on mindfulness practice, endeavored to clarify the meaning as, “not only ‘being present’, but also an awareness of how we are relating to the present. It’s a special kind of awareness, that incorporates other components – it has a range of meanings.” (and here's a video with a lengthy talk by Joseph about mindfulness for anyone wishing to get a more in-depth understanding)

Goldstein’s definition points to two identifiable aspects to learning mindfulness: One is learning what mindful awareness ‘feels like’, and being able to recognize some of the subtle differences between mundane awareness and the attention referred to as ‘present moment awareness’ or ‘bare attention’. The other is being able to recognize, when accessing this kind of awareness of experience, how we are relating to that experience. Both of these together create what is understood as mindful, or ‘lucid’ awareness. Cultivating these abilities is what constitutes a mindfulness practice. 

Bhante Gunaratana, another luminary in the field, discusses the importance of training and practice in the cultivation of mindfulness in his book, Mindfulness in Plain English (which he offers freely online): “This state of perception has to be learned, however, and it takes regular practice.”

Experiencing mindful states vs. cultivating mindfulness practice

Mindful awareness is something that we may naturally and spontaneously experience in many situations, for instance; mindfulness correlates with the experience of ‘flow’ reported by athletes, it can be accessed through practices like yoga and qi gong, and may be experienced in relation to prayer. Mindful awareness can also accompany instances of extreme physical and/or emotional stress, as well as in states of deep relaxation. Those engaging in highly focused activities may experience periods of mindful awareness. However, none of these represent the practice of mindfulness in and of themselves; which also includes the aspects of cultivation, as well as learning to recognize the many subtle ways attention can fall off of the ‘razors edge’ of this kind of awareness (something that cannot come from conceptual understanding or techniques, but can be understood through guidance from an experienced practitioner); and none provide an understanding of how to intentionally bring mindfulness into other areas of our experience and into our daily life. 

These other usages of the word are only problematic in the sense that they create confusion about what mindfulness is, sometimes even with those who may have been 'turned on' to the practice, but still may not understand the difference between teaching techniques and teaching mindfulness practice. 

Understanding what mindfulness is informs how to best learn the practice, and as such, can help navigate the deluge of mindfulness programs that are likely offered in your local community.  Because, while mindful drumming might be an enriching experience, can be stress-relieving and even transcendent, it won’t teach you the mindfulness you’ll need to engage your experience in a new way when some mindless idiot (please see my previous post on forgiveness as a quality of mindfulness!cuts you off in traffic. And, although learning some mindful techniques can be helpful in stressful situations such as these, remembering to apply a set of techniques can often be a challenge when we most need them. Indeed, approaching mindfulness as if it were merely a set of boilerplate instructions doesn’t lend itself to the fullness and power of what mindfulness truly is.  

However, when mindfulness is understood and approached as something more akin to an Art, something to be cultivated and developed; engaging experience mindfully comes to be a dynamic, natural internal resource. Cultivating mindfulness is a cumulative process, becoming progressively more integrated with our conscious experience, with less and less need to remember one more ‘technique’.  This is the way mindfulness practice becomes not only a resource for stressful times, but also a way to more fully enjoy and engage the full range of our experience. 

1 comment:

  1. The sitting practice of mindfulness meditation gives us exactly this opportunity to become more present with ourselves just as we are.As we've seen in earlier blog postings, the man called the Buddha taught that the source of suffering is our attempt to escape from our direct experience. First, we cause ourselves suffering by trying to get away from pain and attempting to hang on to pleasure. Unfortunately, instead of quelling our suffering or perpetuating our happiness, this strategy has the opposite effect. Instead of making us happier, it causes us to suffer. Second, we cause suffering when we try to prop up a false identity usually known as ego

    Sant Kirpal Singh