What is mindfulness?

Wholehearted Man reading a book

Mindfulness elicits various responses depending on the individual in question. Some think it is meditation, others relaxation, others a cure for all mental ills and the list goes on.

Mindfulness is a concept that is often misunderstood. In fact, there is not one agreed upon definition of mindfulness.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the creator of mindfulness-based stress relief (or MBSR), defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

Thich Nhat Hahn, the well-respected Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, defines mindfulness as “the practice of being fully present and alive, body and mind united.”

ACT trainer and therapist Russ Harris defines mindfulness as “paying attention with openness, curiosity, and flexibility.”

So, you can see that there are many ways to view mindfulness, even those who are experts in the area have slightly differing opinions.

What is common amongst all definitions is that mindfulness the idea that mindfulness is about paying attention in the present moment, and almost all definitions allude to acceptance in some capacity.

Most people believe that mindfulness was developed as part of the Buddhist tradition. This is a common misconception. Buddhists have certainly been at the forefront of mindfulness education in

are found in many traditions, including Hinduism, Taoism, (both certainly pre-dating the birth of the historical Buddha), and also Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

The history of mindfulness may not be perfectly clear yet we can agree that the practice in all traditions has been designed to focus the attention on the present moment. Prayer, chants, breathing, movement, are all examples of centering the self in the present moment.

We can practice mindfulness formally and informally, and, in my opinion, most importantly in our moment-to-moment existence. Mindfulness is not meditation, although meditative practice can form part of your practice.

Formal mindfulness exercises include following the breath, performing a body scan, practicing loving kindness. You can find many guided exercises that will lead you through each of these exercises.

Informal practices can include almost any activity that is performed mindfully – that is with attention, curiosity, and openness. For example, you can mindfully wash the dishes, or listen to music, or drink a cup of tea.

Whether formal or informal, mindfulness exercises are demonstrating one key point: your entire existence is in the here and now. Your past and your future have no bearing on what is happening for you right now.

You can use mindfulness throughout your day, at any time. It will help you become aware of your behaviours, and may possibly help you find calm (although calmness in and of itself is not the goal of mindfulness). Awareness will help you to fully accept your life as it is, without the need to label it good or bad or otherwise.

Try this, next time you find yourself caught up in your thoughts, and not paying attention to the current moment, pull yourself back by simply pushing your feet into the ground, gently pressing your hands together, and feeling the sensation of being in your body. As your awareness returns to the present moment look about you and notice three things nearby, or listen intently and hear three sounds around you. You are now present, and as such you are in a much better position to make a choice about what you will do next.


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