In a previous article, I touched on the very basics of mindfulness. I said mindfulness was a state of mind, one in which we are aware of the self and unfolding experience in a moment-by-moment attentiveness; I called it a state of conscious consciousness. When going about our regular day, most of us operate on a predominantly auto-pilot mechanism. Most of our actions are habitual. We can execute them without much thought, even the complex activities like driving or working at our jobs, and indeed, many people do just fine under this system.
When we need our more attentive mind, we can do that, too, without much ado for relatively short periods. Holding the focus, however, is not that simple. Holding the focus requires brain power, skill, and training; each one accomplishable by most people. Brain power relates to health not IQ, skill to development, and training to hours of practice; but all are reachable for the average person. It takes enormous focus to perform as elite athletes, concert musicians, surgeons of any sort, and deep thinkers. Every one of us can improve at what we do professionally and personally, in most areas of life, by honing our focus – our conscious consciousness.
So it takes practice to develop the skill of mindfulness. And in so doing it is important to practice effectively. Yes there are techniques. More important, however, is that the practitioner understands to what he or she is attending; in other words, what is the goal in mind. For sure, it is to focus and hold the attention for as long as possible. And if the focus is lost, then the objective is to return to the focus and hold, and refocus and hold, and so on.
With this basic intent and action, the practitioner will also need to consider some fundamental elements of our mind which are ingrained and habitual, yet completely contrary to maintaining focus. These mind habits will pull your attention away and take you down paths which are easy to get lost on. By simply having awareness of these habitual behaviors of the mind, you can keep yourself off these temporal paths of past memory and future imagination. I do not mean to knock either memory or imagination, as both serve their purpose, but as I have said, both oppose our intent to maintain focus. Discussing these elements is another of way explaining mindfulness by laying out exactly what it is not.
The first thing mindfulness is not is control. It has nothing to do with controlling the mind. While we aspire to sharpen our focus, we do not accomplish it by controlling our thoughts. Part of awareness is being conscious of your incoming and outgoing thoughts. Once you observe them for long enough you come to realize that you have no control over them anyway. Where do they come from? Why are they persistently of particular types? These answers will become clearer as you practice. Mindfulness is allowing these thoughts to come as they come, and go as they go. It is never about stopping any particular thoughts like, “I shouldn’t be thinking that.” Instead, being aware of the nature of your thoughts will teach you a great deal about your highest values. Your seemingly random stream of consciousness is directly related to your value system. I say to my students, “You will come to know your values intimately when you practice mindfulness.”
The next thing mindfulness is not is judgment. Judgment is a natural mind activity. We judge by default almost constantly: Good, bad, right, wrong, up, down, hot, cold, safe or sorry – all of these are judgments we are making constantly. We need judgment to survive; we have to select between choices constantly. As a hardwired function of the human mind, we judge things, idea and experiences with little to no thought. In fact, this system is so strong that we often allow it to make decisions for us, even in spite of evidence showing errors in our judgment. That being said, mindfulness is neither about judging our thoughts nor stopping judgment. It is about observing our judgments without becoming attached to them. Our mind creates stories that we can easily get carried away by. Mindfulness is allowing these stories to take shape, making note of them, and allowing them to fade as abruptly as they come. It is not allowing one story to lead to the next while falling unconsciously into its stream. A seasoned mindfulness practitioner recognizes this as the standard state of the mind – the unconscious consciousness of auto pilot.
Finally, mindfulness is not assessing oneself, one’s life, or anybody else’s and it is definitely not comparing oneself to others. Mindfulness is being aware of present moment – as it is. It is not desiring something different, just as it is not an elation over the way things are. At its most basic: it is an acceptance of things exactly the way they are. But more precisely, it is an underlying appreciation of things as they currently are. The human mind has the tendency to seek the next desire, goal, accomplishment and/or novelty. While this may have distinct advantages – like the advancement of civilization, for instance – it can lead to an incessantly chattering mind. One reason our mind jumps from story to story is precisely because of this function. Our seeking minds find problems to solve and obstacles to be overcome; it does so naturally and automatically.
Mindfulness, however, is not wanting the world to be different; it is not wanting your life to be different. Mindfulness is loving and appreciating your life in present time. More accurately, it is observing the present moment in depth, with sharp focus, and no judgment; it is carried out with an underlying appreciation of self and circumstance. When you can passively observe the details of your life, remain poised, and not become emotionally swayed, you will be practicing mindfulness properly.
With all that being said, it is important to remember that these skills are sharpened over time and effort. You have to practice mindfulness to master it. Once you get the hang of it, you will begin to experience a depth to your awareness. You will enjoy your activities and interactions more. You will have greater insights and certainty, and you will open portals of your mind that will enhance creativity and productivity. Anything worth doing comes with difficulties, and practicing mindfulness is no exception. I can say with certainty that you will find the rewards of mindfulness practice well worth the investment.