Date Established: April 4, 2019 Created by The Mindful Place LLC ©, 2019 James D’Aconti (Owner of The Mindful Place LLC)
The Basics of Mindfulness
The question “what is mindfulness?” can be a deep and complicated question. It is sort of like asking the question “what is the human mind?”. Scholars could argue for many lifetimes about the different interpretations of the human mind. Think for a moment, where do you point when someone asks you to point to your mind? In a similar way it can be difficult to know where to point to when asked “what is mindfulness?” There are philosophers, spiritual teachers, scholars who have written endless research articles on awareness or mindfulness. Shinzen Young, who has taught meditation and mindfulness for over 50 years, wrote a 73 page document on the question, what is mindfulness?
One way to approach this question is by considering definitions of mindfulness created by teachers that we respect. This can be helpful in giving us a compartmentalized understanding of mindfulness. Consider the analogy of “what is the mind?”. One interpretation might be from the vantage point of neuroscience, which breaks down the compartments of the brain into the Prefrontal Cortex, the Amygdala, etc. This is just one interpretation of the human mind from one vantage point; an attempt to answer a massive question. We can also try to answer the question “what is mindfulness” from one vantage point.
Jon Kabat Zinn defines mindfulness as a means of paying attention in a particular way, on purpose in the present moment, nonjudgmentally. Shinzen young gives a general definition of mindfulness, which is usually some variation of “being in the present moment, nonjudgmentally”. If we look at Jon Kabat Zinn and Shinzen Young’s definition of mindfulness, there’s a large emphasis on being in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.
Non-judgment is important element in these definitions of mindfulness. There can a strong habit energy in the human mind towards judgment, which can take us away from our present moment awareness. For example, if we set the intention to be aware of our breath, me may find ourselves
losing the focus of the breath and thinking about the future or the past. We then may come to the realization that we have lost the breath and may judge that as a failure. So in sequence, there’s the intention to focus on the breath, the mind wandering away from the breath and then potentially the judgment that arises because the mind has wandered.
You may be familiar with the following sequence. You sit down and set an intention for your meditation practice, then the mind wanders, then arises judgment for “failing”. In mindfulness practice, we can work with this judgment. We can look at it with awareness and invite the judgment into the present moment awareness (because after all, it is already here). It is a helpful shift when we realize we can invite even the judgment into the present moment awareness. The same awareness that we bring to the breath, we can bring to the judgment itself and start to understand the judgment. When does it arise? What happens in my body? What happens in my mind when I judge myself like this?
The other commonality in the definitions from Jon Kabat Zinn and Shinzen young is “being in the present moment”. This is as simple as seeing through your eyes, tasting with your tongue, touching with your fingers, feeling gravity holding you to the earth, hearing the birds chirp, having a glass of water. It’s as simple as just be with your experience as it’s happening. Try it now for a moment.
If a baby sees a shiny object and crawl over to it, that’s likely all they’re experiencing. They might feel their knees and their hands touching the carpet. They might come closer to this object, put it in their mouth and feel their gums touching this object. It’s just pure sensation, pure experience and awareness. Mindfulness might be seen as carrying this pure awareness into adulthood. When you’re sitting and eating breakfast, just sit and eat breakfast.
Alan Watts once talked about a student in a zen monastery who walked up to his zen master and the Zen master was moving bags of rice from a palette to a truck. The student asked Master, what is the practice of Zen? (in this context the we might say what is mindfulness?) Without batting an eye, without thinking about it, the master said “moving bags of rice from a palette to a truck”.
There’s another story of a Zen student who was being taught by a zen master and the master said, when you’re eating, just eat, when you’re walking, just walk, when you are laughing, just laugh. One day the student, saw the zen master sitting in the cafeteria and he was eating his lunch, but also reading. The student approached the teacher and said, “teacher, I thought you said when you’re eating, just eat”. And the teacher smiled and said, “yes, when you’re eating, just eat”. And
the students said, “well, what about you right now?” And the teacher said, “when you’re eating and reading, just eat and read”. It’s really could be as simple as whatever you’re doing just doing it. Jon Kabat Zinn wrote a book called wherever you go, there you are. It means just being here with what’s happening as it’s happening.
Another teacher that I respect greatly is a Thich Nhat Hanh. One of his definitions of mindfulness is “the practice of being fully present and alive, body and mind united”. Mindfulness is the energy that helps us to know what is going on in the present moment. So again, pointing towards this “being in the present moment”. Thich Nhat Hanh emphasizes the connection between body and mind. He’ll often guide meditations where he reference “bringing the mind back home to the body”. In my interpretation, sometimes we can fall into what I might call a “cerebral experience”. Where we overthink and get caught in the busy mind. Thich Nhat Hanh helps us recognize that the mind and this cerebral experience (or wandering mind) is happening in the body. He teaches us to bring awareness to this whole body and recognizing the wandering mind as part of our whole experience.
This helps us connect with this larger experience of awareness, which can include the thinking mind. This is similar to the aforementioned practice of including the judging in the practice of awareness. In fact, mindfulness includes everything in the experience of awareness. It is being aware of whatever is here. To reiterate what Jon Kabat Zinn, Thich Nhat Hanh and Shinzen Young have already said, mindfulness is being here in this moment with whatever is happening, while it’s happening.
Attitudes of Mindfulness Practitioner
When my mind wanders from the “object” of meditation, there can be a tendency to judge myself. The judgement comes from a belief that I have done something wrong. In other words, if I choose to pay attention to my breath and I find myself preparing in my mind for a meeting the next day, there may arise the thought that I have “failed” in my meditation practice. Non-judgement helps us bring a realistic expectation to our meditation practice. The mind will always wander, that is just what the mind does. So, to judge ourselves for having a wandering mind is about as useful as judging ourselves every time we sneeze. What becomes very interesting is when we set this intention to “be non-judgemental” and then we forget and judge ourselves out of habit. Then we may fall into the trap of judging ourselves for being judgmental. We can quickly see the layers of judgment that can develop. The simplest way to cut through all
of these layers is to bring an attitude of non-judgment, as best as you can. This means, if you find that you are judging yourself, try not to judge yourself for it.
An image that comes to mind when I think of patience is that of a baby. If a baby has unmet needs, it may cry. The baby will cry until the need is met. Maybe the baby is hungry, afraid, tired, etc. A caregiver can tune into the baby’s needs and help relieve the baby’s suffering. If a caregiver becomes inpatient with the baby, it may exacerbate the problem. The same is true for our adult selves. We have needs that must be met, and if we are kind to ourselves and tend to these needs patiently, it will be soothing. However, if we becoming impatient with ourselves, it will only exacerbate the problem.
3. Beginner’s Mind
Beginner’s mind means keeping an open perspective to your mindfulness practice and to your life. It means that we do not go into any practice with the idea that we know what to expect. For example, in my training to become a qualified MBSR teacher, I had to do “the raisin” exercise many times. This is a simple practice where one slowly encounters a raisin by smelling, touching, seeing and tasting it. If, after one such encounter with a raisin we decide that we have “done this exercise before” we may close off to the idea that we may learn something new. Each time I have stopped to mindfully eat a raisin in formal practice, I have learned something new. If nothing else, I have learned that when I decide there is nothing new to learn, I will learn nothing new.
Beginner’s mind also means brining a fresh eyes to your practice. As part of a vipassana retreat I sat in silence for 10 days and for the first 3 days I was instructed to pay attention to my breath. In this experience I was able to see that there is a great depth to the experience of the breath. I would have stopped the opportunity to learn if I decided after a few hours of watching the breath that I have gotten what I could out of it, or thought “OK I watched the breath, now what?”. A persistent openness and curiosity about the breath (or anything) allows more space for us to see deeper into these experiences. Beginner’s mind can be thought of at this persistent openness and curiosity.
6. Letting Go
It feels natural for me to group trust, non-striving and letting go. To look at them individually may also be helpful. To me, trust means accepting that the practice can be helpful for you. It is normal to have a certain level of skepticism when we are introduced to a new technique or
concept. It is easier for me to trust the practice of mindfulness with the wealth of research supporting mindfulness as an evidenced based practice to reduce stress. However, I have developed a personal sense of trust.
When I am practicing meditation regularly, I can feel the equanimity and balance it brings into my experience. A regular meditation practice helps me respond to stress in my life with more clarity. This has helped me develop a trust in the practice. However, when we are first starting out we may not have this personal experience to support our trust. Therefore, it may be supportive to read books or research articles about mindfulness/meditation to help develop a sense of trust. It’s like reading a review for a hotel before you book the room. It helps ease any skepticism you may have about moving forward.
When I think of letting go I always imagine a chinese finger trap. If you have ever had your two pointer fingers in a chinese finger trap, you know that pulling your fingers apart will only cause the finger trap to tighten and lock your fingers together even more. The only way to separate your fingers is to actually move them towards each other to release the tension of the trap. In the same way, when we practice in meditation it is common for us to try to effort our way through the meditation. It can become something we try to perfect by working very hard at our practices. What I have learned is that meditation is much more of a letting go than something we can work hard at to improve. I once heard a story of a student who asked his teacher “how long will it take me to be enlightened if I practice meditation every day?”. The teacher said “10 years”. The student asked, “how many years if I practice all day, every day and work very hard at sharpening my practice?”. The teacher said “then it will take you 20 years”.
Non-striving feels so closely connected to letting go that it is hard for me to differentiate the two. Ultimately, if you trust your practice, trust what arises in you and learn what letting go and non-striving mean to you, it will be supportive to your practice and your ability to live in the present moment.
Gratitude, like a plant, must be watered often. Our gratitude is something that we must take care of on a daily basis if we want it to take care of us. This means stopping and considering what it is we are grateful for often. Who or what in your life are you grateful for? How often do you stop to consider how wonderful it is to have these people or things in your life?
It is amazing to see what happens in the body when we stop for a moment and consider what we are grateful for. I have seen my entire mindset or experience change. I was once given a “gratitude calendar”, which had me track three events or people I was grateful for in each day. At the end of the week, a particularly stressful and hectic week, I stopped to reflect. My first thought was, “what a crazy week, I will be happy when all of this stress is gone”. But after reflecting on my gratitude calendar, I had a different perspective about the week. My new perspective was
“despite all of the stress and perceived negativity, there was a lot a good that happened this week, there is a lot for me to be thankful for”.
To me generosity is an umbrella concept for a lot of related concepts. When I speak of generosity, I will use the words compassion, kindness, generosity, care, love, etc. Generosity specifically to me means remembering to give to others. That might mean giving your time, attention, money or your understanding. One way that I choose to be generous is to donate 10% of the revenue that I earn from The Mindful Place to charity. For me, this is a number that I am comfortable donating, without being too much of a financial pressure on myself. After all, I have to be kind to myself as well. Jack Kornfield said something along the lines of “a lot of spiritual practice is self-love, maybe all of it”.
By donating 10% of my revenue to charities, I have made some wonderful connections with people who are tremendously grateful for my donations. It is a blessing for me to feel their gratitude, and I can share in their positive energy. Additionally, the mission of The Mindful Place became bigger when I decided to share a portion of my profits. Initially The Mindful Place was a vision of mine to share practices of mindfulness with people in my community. Now, The Mindful Place has contributed to various project such as grief support, cancer research and local law enforcement. The positive energy that fills my heart when I consider these things is one of the major reasons why practicing generosity is a fundamental component of mindfulness practice.
Compassion is another component that should be considered here. Compassion for me means seeing deeply that on some level, we are all connected. We are all human beings, who experience primary human emotions such as anger, fear, loneliness, doubt, joy, love, hatred, excitement, anxiety, etc. So, when we come across someone at the store who is in a rush or having a bad day and is rude to us, we can use compassion to help us. We can consider the thought “I have had a bad day and been in a rush before, and I know what it feels like”. Instead of reacting to the person’s rudeness with anger or aggression, we can look deeply into the situation and connect to them on a primary emotional level, thus allowing compassion to arise. This compassion is a much wiser energy then the alternative reactive anger. It is said that “if we hold a hot coal to throw it at someone else we are only burning ourselves”. So when we are filled with compassion instead of anger, we are helping ourselves. When we practice being compassionate to other people, we are at the same time practicing being compassionate to ourselves.
Date Established: April 4, 2019 Created by The Mindful Place LLC ©, 2019 James D’Aconti (Owner of The Mindful Place LLC)