Jump to the following topics:
- What is mindfulness?
mindfulness, we are aware of whatever is happening.
- Don't strive for
"bare attention" all of the time.
- We gain benefits
- The technique.
- Exercises in
- The further
stages of mindfulness.
example of mindfulness: typing at my computer.
What is mindfulness? It is a
moment-to-moment alertness to the events of our world. We cultivate
"bare attention"; our mind merely observes, without elaborating.
Mindfulness meditation is a practical form of meditation for busy
people, because it does not require us to set aside any time for it;
instead, we are simply "mindful" of whatever activity we are doing.
Although that might not seem like "meditation," mindfulness
(satipatthana) is practiced in many Buddhist sects.
mindfulness, we are aware of whatever is happening. Rather than
concentrating on a particular object (e.g., a candle flame), we allow
our attention to shift continually from one object to another, in the
natural course of our daily actions; we do not direct our attention
toward anything in particular. We can be "mindful" of our thoughts,
feelings, emotions, sensory input, bodily sensations -- and external
phenomena such as people, objects, and movements. As our attention
moves from one object to another, we can "mindfully" notice both the
object and the reason why our attention was drawn there.
for "bare attention" all of the time. Perhaps in advanced stages, we
can maintain this mindful state continually. But for the rest of us,
a constant "bare attention" would be repressive of other states which
need to be expressed. We can use the mindful state as our center, our
"home," from which we venture out to engage those other
"non-mindfulness" states, and to which we return when we have
concluded each interaction. Those non-mindful states include:
- Analytical thought. In mindfulness, we merely observe our
thoughts as they pass through us. However, sometimes we benefit
from lingering with our thoughts, to delve into them more deeply.
- Imagination. Sometimes we might need to daydream in reverie
and fantasies; we shut off the input from the external world and
become functionally "mindless."
- Personal response. Instead of merely observing, we might need
to affirm our human identity and boundaries by indulging our
personal reactions, opinions, liking or disliking, and our intent
to change certain elements in our life.
We gain benefits
- We act consciously rather than automatically. This enhances
our spontaneity, flexibility, creativity, and freedom of choice.
From this position of centeredness, we are "ready for anything."
We notice our behavioral habits and the thoughts or emotions which
propel them; with this awareness, we might modify the habit to one
which is more productive, or we could lift the behavior from the
realm of the "habitual" altogether and perform it with full
attentiveness. Eventually mindfulness itself becomes a habit; it
is the natural state of the mind.
- We are more aware of our emotions and thoughts. We notice them
as soon as they arise, so we are less likely to become "lost" in
them and thus to perpetuate nonproductive habitual emotional
responses or trains of thought or fantasies or compulsions. This
awareness of our inner world might be developed more easily in
"thought meditation" when we are turned inward specifically to
observe our thoughts and feelings, but we can also observe them
during mindfulness of our daily activities.
- We acquire more information. Because of our increased
alertness, we learn and remember more details and subtleties.
Because we attend to each distinct moment, we are continually
receptive to new information rather than accepting a closure (as
in the statement, "I already know how to do this, so I don't need
to pay attention").
- Our senses become more acute. We notice both the beauties and
the dangers around us. For example, we have a greater enjoyment of
a delicious apple, and we are more conscious of the circumstances
when we are driving; my favorite place to practice mindfulness is
in my car, being fully aware of my vehicle, other drivers, and the
- We perceive more accurately. Mindfulness helps us to "see
things as they are" by developing an open, neutral stance from
which our input is not distorted or repressed by biases. We
directly observe each moment as unique and intimate, so we don't
rely on abstract concepts or stereotyping labels; for example,
rather than viewing a person simply as "Peter," we might
experience him as "a happy person who seems excited to share some
news with me." (That perspective frees us to live in this moment
of "sharing some news" rather than being unduly restricted by any
prior associations which we have had with Peter.)
- We increase our understanding of our physical body. (The
benefits of mindfulness in the use of the body are examined in the
chapter regarding movement meditation.) As we become more mindful
of our body:
We learn to "live in the moment." The present is where we find
joy and life itself. We attend to the current process rather than
fantasizing about the eventual goal. In mindfulness, the past and
the future do not exist (except perhaps in a sense of "flow" from
one moment to the next). Contrarily, our thoughts are never in the
present; even when we are thinking about a present occurrence, the
amount of time in which we process the data about the occurrence
has already made it a thing of the past.
We learn about life's impersonal nature. As we watch the
phenomena around us, we notice that the components exist
separately from us, despite any psychological connection to them
(as in "my" home). Our actions and thoughts and body seem to have
a life of their own when we watch them closely. To an extent, we
are a mass of impulses, spontaneous movements, and functions which
occur without our conscious knowledge or consent; some people
believe that we are composed of nothing but this impersonal
activity with no permanent self behind it. (Those of us who
believe that there is a permanent self can still use this
general principle to perceive the world around us with less of the
"personal" overlay of our projections, desires, aversions,
judgments, and fantasies.) We become simple awareness -- a
spectator who senses events (and ourselves) as mere "processes"
involving semi-autonomous elements. To explore this
impersonalness, we can ask ourselves, for example, "Who is
We learn about life's transitoriness. When we observe objects,
we see their changes, their growth, and their decline. In
contrast, when we experience life conceptually, we don't notice
the changes, because the "tree," for example, is still a "tree,"
rather than a sprouting life which has more flowers than it had
yesterday. We also realize the impermanence of ourselves -- the
passing of thoughts and feelings and moods and identities which
might seem continuous if not observed carefully; for example, we
might have generalized ourselves as "a sad person," but in
mindfulness, we notice the many other emotions (including those of
"a happy person") which pass through us. Long-lasting experiences
become a series of separate momentary occurrences; for example,
what we might consider to be simply "a two-hour car ride" becomes
millions of ever-new sights and sounds. We begin to feel the
general impermanence of the phenomena around us; objects are no
longer "solid" but rather we sense them as shifting energies. In
advanced stages of mindfulness (and Zen), practitioners say that
they can detect "mind moments" -- the individual, extremely brief
periods of time in which the entire universe repeatedly ends and
recreates like the separate frames of a movie.
We become more aware of our energy.
- We can enhance its energy, pleasure, comfort, breathing,
relaxation, efficiency of movement and posture -- and thereby
increase our healthfulness.
- We notice more of the tensions and pains which alert us to
situations which need to be corrected, and we discern our
reactions to specific foods, or to "bad habits" such as
overeating, or smoking, or taking drugs.
- We might become aware of the subtle physiological states
which occur in response to our thoughts and emotions; for
example, we notice the change in our breathing and muscles when
we are afraid even if we are telling ourselves that we are
not afraid. Conversely, we recognize the ways in which
physiological states influence our thoughts and emotions.
We learn about the nonverbal aspects of ourselves. Some people
"think too much"; we allow a continual flood of thoughts --
labeling and judging and over-analyzing everything around us, and
also processing regrets about the past, and worries about the
future. The mind creates thoughts constantly; sometimes we need to
attend to those thoughts. But at other times, we can direct our
attention to other valuable interests; for example, we can decide
instead to be attentive to the refreshing and stimulating objects
of the senses -- the cool breeze, or the background music, or the
warm sensations of our body, or our feelings regarding our
surroundings, or our imagination, etc.
We experience more of life and its possibilities. As Thoreau
said in Walden, "Only that day dawns to which we are
- When we perceive the living, active qualities of our
interactions (instead of experiencing them conceptually), we
discern them as exchanges of energy; thus we can enhance these
exchanges by directing our attention (and thus our energy) more
- We notice the ways in which we squander energy in mindless
behavior or involuntary emotional responses.
- We notice more interesting elements around us, so we are
less apt to experience the energy-draining state of boredom.
- Because we are attuned to present occurrences, we are not
frittering our energy with worry about the future or regrets
about the past.
The technique. Simply, we "pay
attention" to whatever we are doing.
- Accept whatever is occurring. In mindfulness, we are accepting
and self-accepting, regardless of whatever is presented
to us. With this acknowledgment of things "as they are," we do not
become immersed in thoughts of interpretation, judgment, reaction,
opinion, expectation, liking or disliking, or wanting to change
anything. In mindfulness meditation, everything is equal; it is
simply an occurrence to be observed in what the Buddhists call
"choiceless awareness." For example, if we feel unhappy, we behold
the unhappiness; if we are excited, we behold the excitement. We
surrender to the experience of our life, rather than denying or
avoiding -- but if we find ourselves denying or avoiding, we can
be mindful of those activities, too. "Acceptance" is not passive.
It does not transform us into "mindless" victims who would have a
"choiceless awareness" about whether to walk into a busy
intersection; we accept the fact that we must wait for the traffic
light, and we accept the smog and noise (or we accept the
realization that they irritate us), and we are mindful of the
conditions which would permit a safe crossing. At such times in
this complex world, we must be analytical -- but we can be mindful
of our analyzing, and not allow the analysis to proceed into an
emotional reaction (and judgment, opinion, etc.). The analytical
part of the mind is necessary in certain circumstances, but it
doesn't need to be left running all the time; when its service is
completed (i.e., after we have crossed the street), we can shift
to a different mode in which to be mindful.
- Move slowly. We can be mindful at any speed, but our practice
is easier if we move slowly. When our actions are at a relaxed
pace, we can feel our body adjusting to various motions, and we
have the time to notice more elements around us. After we
strengthen our habit of being mindful, we can attain that same
degree of awareness in our typical faster pace.
Exercises in mindfulness.
We can be mindful during all activities, but these exercises give us
some special challenges.
- Repeat a simple activity for a period of five minutes. We can
select action which is so easy that we would ordinarily become
bored (and mindless) while doing it. For example, sit at a table
with your arms resting on the table. Now, very slowly, reach
several inches to pick up a pen. Raise it a few inches and then
set it down. Move your hand back to its original position of rest.
While you repeat this action throughout the time-period,
experience each repetition with freshness, as though you have
never done it before. You can direct your attention toward
different aspects of the movement: watching your hand, or feeling
the muscles contracting. You can even close your eyes and
concentrate on your sense of touch, sliding your hand across the
table toward the pen, and being aware of the different textures
and pressures. (With eyes closed, a variation is to dwell on the
sounds which are created by the sliding and your movement of the
- Listen to some enjoyable, peaceful music. Each time you become
distracted by a thought, write a brief note about the content of
that thought. After five minutes, read the notes. What types of
thoughts pulled your attention away from the music? Why did those
particular thoughts attract you? Were they derived from charged
elements in an archetypal field?
- Watch a movie or television program while maintaining
mindfulness. (Our habit -- and the producers' goal -- is to lose
ourselves in an emotional involvement.) Try different types of
programs: sitcoms, news reports, dramas, soap operas, etc.
- Write down the details of an activity after you have performed
it mindfully. (This activity can be a short walk or a household
chore.) Then repeat the activity, and notice the many details
which you did not recall the first time.
- Do a familiar activity as if this is your first time. Say to
yourself, "I have never done this before." In Zen, this viewpoint
is called "the beginner's mind." Be fascinated and surprised by
each step of the process; you don't know what to expect next, so
the activity is fresh and exciting and even ecstatic.
- One of my favorite variations of mindfulness meditation is to
use the phrase, "This is just ..." (e.g., "this is just walking"
or "this is just driving"). That phrase releases me from the
burden of analyzing an activity in terms of my personal benefit
and thus it frees me to experience the activity in its own manner,
with a resulting exhilaration and an experiential intimacy.
stages of mindfulness. We can expect the following developments.
However, during the mindfulness practice, we do not seek these states
as "goals," nor do we seek a sense of "improvement" in our
mindfulness "skill"; to do so would impose an overlay which would
distract us from the mindfulness itself. We simply do the practice,
and we let it unfold in its own manner.
- We become progressively aware of smaller increments of the
phenomena around us, so the benefits stated previously become more
profound. For example, we see more details; we hear more nuances
in the sounds around us.
- Mindfulness becomes a habit because:
We explore the nature of perception. As we strip away the
personal overlays (our emotional reactions, etc.), we strive for a
direct, intimate contact with our surroundings. In doing so, we
realize that this supposed "contact" is actually a series of nerve
messages and brain processes which occur entirely within us. (We
don't know what is "out there"; we only know how the external
world is experienced through our human nervous system.) If we seek
a more-profound contact through mindfulness, we might transcend
our physical senses to become mindful of intuitive or "psychic"
perceptions of the energy of those objects. But there are more
subtle levels beyond the psychic, as explained below.
We contemplate the duality of "the person who sees" and "the
object which is seen" -- and we achieve the state where the
"seeing" is an impersonal function; "seer" and "seen" are merely
two sides of that function. For example, when we are walking
mindfully, we might feel our foot reaching down to touch the
ground while the ground simultaneously reaches up to touch the
foot, and in their contact is a perfect gestalt, a wholeness which
is so complete that nothing exists in the universe except those
two agents briefly merging into one incident within a field of
emptiness. We might sense that the mind and the objects which the
mind perceives arise together from that emptiness; neither one has
an enduring quality nor an independent existence, and neither of
them constitutes "who we are" nor a reason to provoke our personal
When we can maintain mindfulness continually, it matures into
"insight meditation" (vipassana). Because our mindfulness
is constant, in regard to all that we encounter, we begin to
perceive these elements' interplays and patterns. We have no
distractions which would cause us to miss a moment of the action
(and which would leave us with the absence of important pieces
from our puzzle). Thus, we gain "insight" into the general nature
of our world and ourselves.
We can maintain mindfulness during sleep. We develop this
ability in lucid dreaming and in "Tibetan dream yoga," to be
conscious during the entire sleep-period. During some lucid
dreams, we are as mindless as we are during wakefulness; however,
we have the option of practicing mindfulness as we pursue
activities within the dreamscape. Some people are able to maintain
consciousness 24 hours per day; they are "lucid" during their
dreams, and aware also during the non-dreaming periods. When they
awaken, they are fully refreshed, because their body has had a
natural sleep and their mind, too, has recharged itself.
- We are attracted to the pleasure which it creates.
- It is a more natural and streamlined mode of functioning,
so it appeals to the mind's aspiration for efficiency.
example of mindfulness: typing at my computer. We cannot be mindful
of everything, but we might be mindful of some of the following
elements while typing. Possible digressions are also described.
- My computer's monitor: I see the blinking cursor; I digress
into a thought that it is blinking very quickly and so I should
adjust the speed -- but then I return to mindfulness and simply
observe the blinking, and I notice (for the first time) the
individual pixels which are visible within the cursor. I see the
white-on-red color of my text on the computer; I digress into a
thought that it looks blood-red and that that's morbid -- but then
I look at the color itself and notice the tingling sensation in my
eyes as they process the image. I look mindfully at the monitor
itself, and I notice the texture of the plastic (for the first
time), and the shadows which lie on it, and I sense the fervent
electronic activity which is occurring with in it. I sense the
physical composition of the monitor -- the minerals which were
extracted from the earth and were then fabricated into this
machine, and I feel their connection to the minerals in the ground
outside of my home; in a further penetration -- not a digression
-- I sense their participation in an infinite flow which
temporarily has fashioned them into a human device but will
eventually return them to the ground.
- My hands on the keyboard: I feel the smooth surface on top of
the keys. I hear the clicking of the sound of the keys; I digress
into a thought they sound business-like -- but then I listen to
the sounds themselves, and I feel tingling in my ears (but I
digress to compare the tingling to the sensation I had felt in my
eyes when looking at the monitor). I feel the heat and muscular
tautness in my forearms. I feel the acute readiness in my fingers,
preparing to type more words; I digress to compare their bursts of
activity to that of a machine gun. I look at the curve of my
ergonomic keyboard; I digress to feel happy that its ergonomic
quality is protecting my health, and I feel proud that I am "smart
enough" to have bought an ergonomic device -- but then I return to
looking at the keyboard and I notice the many individual shapes
and shadows of the keys.
- Myself: I sense the connection of my body's energy to the
keyboard, and I feel the energy flowing into the plastic and
electronics, and I also feel it radiating back to me as a warmth.
I notice the typing of my fingers; I digress to feel proud of the
speed and skill, but then I am corrected and humbled by the
recollection that when I try to claim that skill as my own, my
fingers become "self-conscious" and clumsy, and they regain their
swiftness only when I withdraw and become the "typing" itself
rather than the "typist," so I withdraw my identification and I
permit the impersonal action to occur. I feel anxiety surrounding
my desire to write more pages of text today; I digress to plot a
remedy to this anxiety -- but then I accept the anxiety, and I
feel a transcendent peacefulness which allows the anxiety to
exist, and I notice that I am no longer compounding the original
anxiety by being disturbed about it; eventually the original
anxiety fades of its own accord as my attention inevitably
redirects toward a mindfulness of something else. I observe my
body's involuntary movements: the shifting of my weight on the
stool, and the adjustments in my posture, and the scratching of an
itch, and the periodic squinting of my eyes, and the pauses in my
breathing, and the tiny "jiving" rhythms to which my body
playfully moves as though it were listening to a silent song.
- My surroundings: I look at the curtain in front of my desk,
and I notice its bright blue color and the intricate weave of
threads; I digress to notice that it needs to be washed. I see the
papers disarrayed on my desk in a chaos of shapes and shadows and
colors which fascinate my eyes; I digress to judge the papers as a
"mess" which should be organized. I hear the air conditioner, and
I notice that the sound is not a steady white noise but instead it
has a pulsing and a variety of pitches; I digress to remember that
it probably needs to be serviced. I feel the stool upon which I
sit; if I allowed my mind to digress with no control, I would
follow a mindless stream-of-consciousness that would proceed
through these thoughts: This is a hard stool. I looked for a
comfortable stool at a store which is north of town. That store is
across the street from the park. I haven't gone to the park in a
few weeks. I used to go there before my weekly shopping-trip. I
need to buy groceries tomorrow. I need to make a shopping list. My
shopping list is in a folder in my box. I need to process some of
the paperwork in that box. I don't have time for that. How am I
going to spend my time tonight? I need to read some books. I need
to go to the library for more books. ... And so on. Such is