A few days ago, many people on the interwebs were incensed by a journalist who wrote about mindfulness without understanding what mindfulness actually is. I'm told the comments on the online article were, for once, actually worth reading. I haven't looked at the article (or its comments) as I don't want to directly address any particular person's understanding of mindfulness. This incident has, however, made me think about what mindfulness is and (being a geek) made me wonder whether I could formulate a satisfying definition.
Mindfulness is noticing
This seems to be the core part of mindfulness to me. If you noticed everything that was happening within reach of your senses and within your thoughts and emotions, right now, then I don't think anyone could deny that you were being mindful.
The kind of noticing I just described feels far beyond my reach. I assume that's because I am human and tend to focus on a small part of my experience. One of the parts of mindfulness that I'm (always) learning is the noticing of my reactions to what I'm noticing. When this is the part of my experience that I don't notice, I tend to be "carried away" by my thoughts and emotions and it can be a while before I start noticing anything again.
Mindfulness may include adding to our experience
Some mindfulness techniques use visualisations. Visualisations are one way of directing our attention mindfully. Visualisations may involve deliberately bringing another person to mind, or a quality like softness or light. Adding these things to our experience may allow us to notice things that are normally obscured by our habits of thought and feeling. This can broaden our awareness and help us to cultivate characteristics that we want to develop, like empathy, clarity or calmness.
Mindfulness does not take away from our experience
We may direct our attention while practising mindfulness. What we do not do is try to suppress any part of our experience. Our motivation for practising mindfulness may include a desire for greater peace of mind. It can be tempting to induce silence by ignoring or pushing away parts of our experience (our troubling thoughts, the pain in our body) but doing this introduces a new tension: It adds a constant effort to our experience and may induce a fear that our efforts may fail.
Mindfulness is acceptance
Strong emotions, and the thoughts that come with them, are powerful competitors for our attention. In addition we can feel very strongly about our emotions, for example, "I shouldn't be sad. I have so much to be grateful for," or, "Their actions have made me angry. It's outrageous that I should have to feel this way." A technique for reducing the tendency of this part our experience to dominate is to cultivate acceptance.
Acceptance is the acknowledgement that we are human and that we experience in a human way. It enables us to say things like, "I am angry. That is part of my experience," rather than, "I am angry and that is a terrible thing." Cultivating acceptance allows us to broaden our attention, our noticing, beyond the most powerful stimulus in our awareness. And it can give us the perspective we need to change those things in our lives that cause us unnecessary hardship.