One of the best definitions of mindfulness comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Kabat-Zinn said that mindfulness is, “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment. “ This definition is perfectly accurate. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really explain why mindfulness has become so popular, or why it would be any help in reducing stress, or for that matter, why anyone would have any interest in learning to practice it. I run a mindfulness-based stress management program in a big city on the East Coast. Every day I meet people who have come to learn how to manage stress; over the past 20 years my program has trained thousands of them. Nobody has ever told me that they are stressed because they do not witness “the unfolding of experience moment by moment”.
Yet that is what mindfulness is about, that is what they really do need to learn, and that is what I teach them. And once they have learned how to practice mindfulness they almost always say that it has made all the difference, that it was exactly what they needed.
Trying to understand mindfulness by its definition is like trying to understand what it is like to fall in love by reading a textbook. You might get a general idea, but you’d be missing out on the best part: what it actually feels like. Mindfulness is all about experience, about the actual aliveness, of each moment. You learn to pay attention on purpose, in the present moment, not because someone said that it would be a good thing to do, but because that is where you find your life.
The Automatic Pilot
Even though we have always been right here, in this life, we often don’t notice. We can live in a kind of “automatic pilot” mode, where we travel through our days without really paying attention to much of anything. We get in our car and drive home from work, and when we get out of the car at the other end of the commute it’s almost as if it didn’t happen. It is sort of like sleepwalking, except when it happens we seem to be completely awake and we aren’t wearing pajamas. Nobody would suspect that we are barely there. Almost nobody notices, maybe because they’re on automatic pilot, too.
And sometimes it doesn’t seem to matter so much. But then, at other times it is the only thing that does matter. Maybe somebody we care for needs our attention, and we don’t notice. Maybe they are disappointed or hurt at first, but after a while they learn to accept that nobody is paying attention, and eventually they might even stop trying. Or maybe it is a gorgeous day, but we don’t even see what is right in front of us. Spend enough time on automatic pilot and life begins to feel more shallow. Everything is here, but yet…something is missing.
Could it be that the most important missing ingredient is ourselves? When we are not paying attention to the present moment we are literally absent from our own life. Mindfulness, and the meditation-based practices that are used to cultivate it, are a way to reconnect with what is most vital and alive in our experience. It is a way to fully experience ourselves and our world. When we do this we find that there is a lot to appreciate in this life. Stress seems like less of a big deal compared to what we already have. Graduates of our mindfulness-based stress management program often say this best. “I came to learn how to manage my stress,” they say, “but what I learned was how to appreciate my life.”
In future postings we will explore meditation and some specific mindfulness practices in more detail. But for now, I’d like to suggest that you spend some time each day not meditating. Instead, take some time to simply notice what is happening in your life right now. Put aside three minutes each day to do nothing but pay attention to how you are. It is like scheduling a date with yourself. You don’t have to go anywhere special. You can just pay attention to what is happening in your heart and mind right now. How are you doing, really? How is it going? What is most important to you at this time?
Sit down and take a minute to just be here. Stop, breathe, and feel. Let the past be over and done with, and let what has not yet happened be off in the future. This practice is about feeling where you are right now. Just give yourself three minutes to feel your body and mind. It might seem like a surprisingly long time. And maybe that is to be expected. After all, when was the last you spent even three minutes doing nothing?
Of course, you might not find what you expect, or what you want. But if you already knew what you would find, there wouldn’t be much point in the exploration. Give yourself a chance to be surprised. You might notice that your mind wanders constantly and that you have one restless thought after another. You might notice that there is a longing in your heart, or a dream that is asking to be fulfilled. Right now, you don’t need to do anything about whatever it is that you find. The goal isn’t to have any particular experience, but rather to check in with how it really is to be you. The practice of mindfulness begins with learning to check your own inner compass. Slow down a bit, just for a few minutes. When you know where you are right now, your next steps become a whole lot more clear.