Mindfulness is a state of mind where an individual pays attention in a certain way. It can play a valuable role in self-development in psychotherapy. Mindfulness practice expands the field of awareness, allowing for improved monitoring of somatic and affective experiencing, and thereby enhancing the capacity for self-regulation of arousal, affect, and behavior.
“Mindfulness” is the English translation of the Pali word sati. Sati is an activity. What exactly is that? There can be no precise answer, at least not in words. Words are devised by the symbolic levels of the mind, and they describe those realities with which symbolic thinking deals. Mindfulness is pre-symbolic. It is not shackled to logic. The actual experience lies beyond the words and above the symbols. Mindfulness could be described in completely different terms than will be used here, and each description could still be correct.
Mindfulness is a subtle process that each individual is using at every waking moment of life. The fact that this process lies above and beyond words does not make it unreal but quite the opposite. Mindfulness is the reality that gives rise to words; the words that follow are simply pale shadows of reality. It is therefore important to understand that everything that follows here is analogy. It is not going to make perfect sense. It will always remain beyond verbal logic. But one can experience it. The meditation technique called vipassana (insight) that was introduced about 2,500 years ago and is a set of mental activities specifically aimed at experiencing a state of uninterrupted mindfulness.
Characteristics of Mindfulness
Mindfulness is mirror-thought. It reflects only what is presently happening and in exactly the way it is happening. There are no biases.
Mindfulness is nonjudgmental observation. It is that ability of the mind to observe without criticism. With this ability, one sees things without condemnation or judgment. One is surprised by nothing. One simply takes a balanced interest in things exactly as they are in their natural states. One does not decide and does not judge. One just observes. The meditator notices impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and selflessness.
Mindfulness is an impartial watchfulness. It does not take sides. It does not get hung up in what is perceived. It just perceives. Mindfulness does not get infatuated with the good mental states. It does not try to sidestep the bad mental states. There is no clinging to the pleasant, no fleeing from the unpleasant. Mindfulness treats all experiences equally, all thoughts equally, all feelings equally. Nothing is suppressed. Nothing is repressed. Mindfulness does not play favorites.
Mindfulness is nonconceptual awareness. It is not thinking. It does not get involved with thought or concepts. It does not get hung up on ideas or opinions or memories. It just looks. Mindfulness registers experiences, but it does not compare them. It does not label them or categorize them. It just observes everything as if it were occurring for the first time. It is not analysis, which is based on reflection and memory. It is, rather, the direct and immediate experiencing of whatever is happening, without the medium of thought. It comes before thought in the perceptual process.
Mindfulness is present-time awareness. It takes place in the here and now. It is the observance of what is happening right now, in the present moment. It stays forever in the present, perpetually on the crest of the ongoing wave of passing time. If you are remembering your second-grade teacher, that is memory. When you then become aware that you are remembering your second-grade teacher, that is mindfulness.
Mindfulness is non-egotistic alertness. It takes place without reference to self. With mindfulness one sees all phenomena without references to concepts like “me,” “my,” or “mine.” For example, suppose there is pain in your left leg. Ordinary consciousness would say, “I have a pain.” Using mindfulness, one would simply note the sensation as a sensation. One would not tack on that extra concept “I”. Mindfulness stops one from adding anything to perception, or subtracting anything from it. One does not enhance anything. One does not emphasize anything. One just observes exactly what is there without distortion.
Mindfulness is awareness of change. It is observing the passing flow of experience. It is watching things as they are changing. It is seeing the birth, growth, and maturity of all phenomena. It is watching phenomena decay and die. Mindfulness is watching things moment by moment, continuously. It is observing all phenomena— physical, mental, or emotional—whatever is presently taking place in the mind. One just sits back and watches the show. Mindfulness is the observance of the basic nature of each passing phenomenon. It is watching the thing arising and passing away. It is seeing how that thing makes us feel and how we react to it. It is observing how it affects others. In mindfulness, one is an unbiased observer whose sole job is to keep track of the constantly passing show of the universe within.
Mindfulness is participatory observation. The meditator is both participant and observer at one and the same time. If one watches one’s emotions or physical sensations, one is feeling them at that very same moment. Mindfulness is not an intellectual awareness. It is just awareness. The mirror-thought metaphor breaks down here. Mindfulness is objective, but it is not cold or unfeeling. It is the wakeful experience of life, an alert participation in the ongoing process of living.
Mindfulness reminds you of what you are supposed to be doing. In meditation, you put your attention on one item. When your mind wanders from this focus, it is mindfulness that reminds you that your mind is wandering and what you are supposed to be doing. It is mindfulness that brings your mind back to the object of meditation. All of this occurs instantaneously and without internal dialogue. Mindfulness is not thinking.
Mindfulness sees things as they really are. Mindfulness adds nothing to perception and it subtracts nothing. It distorts nothing. It is bare attention and just looks at whatever comes up. Conscious thought pastes things over our experience, loads us down with concepts and ideas, immerses us in a churning vortex of plans and worries, fears and fantasies. When mindful, you don’t play that game. You just notice exactly what arises in the mind, then you notice the next thing.
Mindfulness sees the true nature of phenomena. Mindfulness alone has the power to reveal the deepest level of reality available to human observation. At this level of inspection, one sees the following: (a) all conditioned things are inherently transitory; (b) every worldly thing is, in the end, unsatisfying; and (c) there are really no entities that are unchanging or permanent, only processes.
Some Benefits of Mindfulness
- Facilitates the development of a sense of embodiment
- Facilitates the capacity to tolerate and accept painful experience
- Promotes the self-monitoring and decontextualization of automatic thoughts that serve to sustain pathological structures
- Facilitates the development of inner resources that help stabilize affect and reduce impulsivity
An Example of Mindfulness
When you first become aware of something, there is a fleeting instant of pure awareness just before you conceptualize the thing, before you identify it. That is a state of awareness. Ordinarily, this state is short-lived. It is that flashing split second just as you focus your eyes on the thing, just as you focus your mind on the thing, just before you objectify it, clamp down on it mentally, and segregate it from the rest of existence. It takes place just before you start thinking about it and before your mind says, “Oh, it’s a dog.” That flowing, soft-focused moment of pure awareness is mindfulness.
In that brief flashing mind-moment you experience a thing as an un-thing. You experience a softly flowing moment of pure experience that is interlocked with the rest of reality, not separate from it. Mindfulness is very much like what you see with your peripheral vision as opposed to the hard focus of normal or central vision. Yet this moment of soft, unfocused awareness contains a very deep sort of knowing that is lost as soon as you focus your mind and objectify the object into a thing.
In the process of ordinary perception, the mindfulness step is so fleeting as to be unobservable. We have developed the habit of squandering our attention on all the remaining steps, focusing on the perception, cognizing the perception, labeling it, and most of all, getting involved in a long string of symbolic thought about it. That original moment of mindfulness is rapidly passed over. It is the purpose of vipassana meditation and any other mindfulness meditation styles to train us to prolong that moment of awareness.