Q: Talk a little bit about mindfulness. What is it? What are it’s benefits? How can it be cultivated?

A:  A New Yorker cartoon shows a beleaguered looking man clutching the arms of a stuffed chair being addressed by his wife. She tells him with a look of pity and concern, “You should never engage in unsupervised introspection.” This is a pretty good definition of the target for mindfulness. Such unsupervised introspection can get us into trouble, causing distressing emotions and reactive behavior. Mindfulness shows us how to supervise our minds.

IMG_0251.jpg

The father of American psychology, William James, said 100 years ago that our intellectual life consists almost wholly in our substitution of a conceptual order for the perceptual order in which our experience originally lives. He points to our tendency to live in concepts and stories and how we can be out of touch with our actual lived experience that is occurring right now. The definition for mindfulness that I used in my book, Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness is, “an intentional and curious directing of attention to our experience as it unfolds in the present moment, one moment following the next — the very happening of our experience as it is happening without commentary, judgment, or storytelling.” Mindfulness is not about suppressing thinking but recognizing that it is occurring and not elaborating it automatically and without choice. Mindfulness is the ability to cultivate awareness and the ability to retrieve attention from the future or past, or commentary about the present to bring it into intimate contact with what is happening right now.

Sounds rather simple, right? Well, it is. While mindfulness may be “simple” in the sense of being uncomplicated, that does not mean it is “easy.” Our minds don’t want to stay in the present and will keep going to the future and past or talking about the present rather than being with the present. This is a long-standing and strong mental habit. To better realize the “simple” nature of mindfulness, most of us need to practice and for that reason we practice mindfulness meditation (see entries on the instructions for Mindfulness of Breathing One, Two, and Three). We practice coming back from the future and past to the being of this moment, training awareness to disengage from telling stories to attend in this experiential way to what is actually happening. The more we practice coming back, the more adept we’ll become at catching ourselves in a place we’d rather not be and coming back to now. With mindfulness practice we learn to supervise our minds in a gentle and skillful way. We learn to undo the exchange of the conceptual for the perceptual and dwell in the magical and ordinary perceptual experience of this moment. 

More from Beliefnet and our partners
previous posts

An unexpected book arrived in the mail the other day. A gift from my friend’s at Wisdom Publications. Zen Master Raven: The Teachings of a Wise Old Bird. by Zen Master human form, Robert Aitken. Here the koans are told by and to animals of the forest: raven, porcupine, owl, woodpecker, badger, black bear, and […]

Good things come in small packages especially when it is The Poetry of Impermanence, Mindfulness, and Joy edited by the poet John Brehm and published by Wisdom. Wisdom has a habit of producing beautifully crafted books, packed with, well, wisdom! By way of disclosure, two of these books are mine (108 Metaphors for Mindfulness and […]

A surfer and a shrink, sounds like the start of a joke … walk into a bar … . What do they talk about? Turns out the surfer dude is an expert on fear, has even written a book about it and the shrink is a crack snowboarder. They’ve got a lot to talk about. […]

Stephen Batchelor: Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World contains twenty-five years of his writing. You may be familiar with some of these articles from his contributions to Tricycle and I recently enjoyed reading his article arguing for a Buddhism 2.0 in a Buddhist academic journal. This book contains three new contributions, making the book […]