My point, here, is to demystify mindfulness, to show how much more ordinary and normal it is than you may think... and what it means to develop mindfulness in a practical way. So I am taking issue with a frequent misconception, one that only sees “mindfulness” as a quasi mystical state of “quieting the mind”, a state that one assumes will only be reached through rigorous esoteric practices.
It’s not that I disagree about the benefits of the sustained practice of mindfulness meditation. For instance, EEG studies conducted with highly trained Buddhist monks documented higher alpha wave activity during meditation.
However, focusing on these cases introduces a distortion. It is as if we only looked at opera singers when we talk about the human activity of singing, omitting the whole range that starts with people singing in their showers. Or if we only looked at Olympic athletes when discussing the benefits of physical exercise.
Mindfulness is not limited to what happens when one meditates regularly. And it is certainly not anything like an experience of rapture or enlightenment. In Jon Kabat-Zinn’s words, it is simply “paying attention in a particular way”.
“Paying attention” is part of our repertoire as a human being. So, defining mindfulness as “a particular way of paying attention” is a very nice way to make it more natural, much less intimidating.
Of course, there are many ways of paying attention. What is it that characterizes mindfulness? According to Jon Kabat Zinn: “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally”.
Now, this definition is more specific, but also more difficult to relate to. For instance, what does it mean to be on purpose? Or in the present moment? So I would like to give up, for the moment, the attempt to define mindfulness the way a dictionary would, through abstract phrases. Instead, I’m inviting you to follow me in exploring a specific situation.
A long, long time ago, our ancestors lived in the wild. In those days, survival depended on being alert. Imagine the “ancestors” walking in the wild, keeping their eyes and ears open. They’re alert. Ready to react to danger, or to seize an opportunity. Poised, but not tense—this is not an emergency situation, this is everyday life.
Now, let’s revisit Jon Kabat Zinn’s definition in light of the situation I described. The ancestors described in this scene are very much on purpose, in the present moment. We are not talking about some mystical, esoteric way to “be here now”; we are talking about having to pay attention to what is happening here and now in order to get what you need. As to the nonjudgmental quality: You cannot be fully engaged with the environment if you are second-guessing yourself or what’s happening around you.
This quality of engagement differs from the way you or I might take a walk in the woods, following a blazed trail in a State Park. Not only are we not threatened by wolves, our survival doesn’t depend on finding food or shelter. We can afford to be distracted. And so, we often are. Not just when we take a walk in the woods, but in so many aspects of our lives.
One of the great benefits of civilization is that we live in a kinder, gentler, more forgiving world. We don’t need to be so engaged in order to survive. But not having to be engaged is also one of the great curses of civilization.
Our ancestors evolved ways to store fat, and that had great survival value in an environment where food was scarce or not always available. Now that most of us have plenty of access to all the food we need (and more), we find it necessary to make a concerted effort to monitor our food intake.
In a similar way, we find it necessary to make a concerted effort to exercise, because we cannot count on our regular daily activities to naturally include the amount of exercise that our bodies have evolved to require.
You see where I am going with this: We also need to make a concerted effort to shift from distracted to engaged, because the need for it is no longer built into our life styles. The reason we need it is not for some moralistic reason. It is because it’s part of how our organism evolved to function optimally.
Now, why am I writing this? I am describing what makes it possible for us to achieve proactive change.
- Existential mindfulness:
How we define ourselves by the choices we make
- Mindfulness & therapy