What Does It Mean to Be Mindful?

By paying attention to the present moment, we can begin to appreciate what we already have---and grasp the key to life.

To understand mindfulness, imagine yourself doing something very simple, something that doesn't arouse a compelling interest--like, say, eating an apple. You probably eat your apple not paying attention to how it smells, how it tastes, or how it feels in your hand. Because of the ways we're conditioned, we don't usually notice the quality of our attention. Done this way, eating the apple is not a fulfilling experience.

So you blame the apple. You might think, if only I had a banana, I'd be happy. So you get a banana, but eat it the same way, and still there's not a lot of fulfillment. And then you think, if only I had a mango--and go to great expense and some difficulty getting a mango. But it's the same thing all over again. We don't pay attention to what we have or what we're doing. As a result, we seek more and more intensity of stimulation to try to rectify what seems unfulfilling.

Mindfulness is the quality of fullness of attention, immediacy, non-distraction. In that sense, it is the key to life.


Robert Frost wrote that life is an interminable chain of longing. The Buddha said that those who are heedless or mindless are as if dead already. Mindfulness is the quality of fullness of attention, immediacy, non-distraction. In that sense, it is the key to life.

Another component of mindfulness is what we call "spaciousness," the quality that allows us to observe without reacting. Normally, we hear sounds, taste tastes, or experience emotions, and immediately make a decision around them based on a whole complex of conditioning that arises. We like something, we don't like something, and instantly our mind has already jumped ahead, drawing conclusions based on those reactions.

One of my favorite examples of this tendency comes from when we first started the Insight Meditation Society 25 years ago, and some of our friends asked us to teach a course for their parents. One woman, who was dismayed at the prospect of the course, said her mother was the kind of woman who would march into the office the first morning and say, "Those goddamn birds kept me up all night!" And she did exactly that.

Creating Space
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