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.
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.