What is Mindfulness?

"Mindfulness" has become a buzzword in psychology and spirituality circles. As its use has spread, its definition has become more and more diffuse. Some people like to describe mindfulness as, "non-judgmental, present-time awareness." While this is a reasonably useful definition, I prefer to define mindfulness as three core skills:

  • Concentration - the ability to attend to whatever you deem relevant.
  • Sensory Clarity - the ability to track what's happening in the moment.
  • Equanimity - the ability to allow sensory events to come and go without resistance, neither holding on to them nor pushing them away.

…so what's all this about "sensory events"? Well, mindfulness examines our reality in this moment. Any given moment can be completely divided up into sensory events (i.e. experiences coming into the five senses: seeing, hearing, feeling–including emotion, tasting, and smelling).

Additionally, mindfulness treats thinking as a sense. Thoughts arise internally the same way that sights and sounds arise externally. Put another way, thoughts are "internal" seeing and hearing. So we have six senses in all. Any given moment is made up of events coming through one or more of these senses.

By defining mindfulness as three core skills which can be applied to the sensory events that make up each moment, we now have three skills to cultivate, and there are specific practices we can use to do that! But why would we want to? Let's look at some examples...

  • Suppose a partner or friend says something that hurts your feelings. What if, rather than lashing out with anger, shutting down, breaking down, etc., you could peacefully and kindly explain that your feelings were hurt, and take steps to prevent that in the future? With enough sensory clarity, you would be able to detect the arising of the initial hurt quickly and clearly. With enough equanimity, you would be able to allow that hurt to arise without being compelled into any given action, empowering you to choose to look out for your needs in a way that simultaneously diffuses the situation.
  • Suppose you're feeling distracted at work. Thoughts and emotions are compromising your attention and productivity. With enough concentration, you could hold your attention on the thoughts and experiences that make up your work task at that moment. With enough sensory clarity, you could separate those thoughts and experiences from the distractions. With enough equanimity, you could allow the distracting thoughts and emotions to arise and pass in the background, not needing to indulge them, nor needing to fight them off.
  • Suppose you are in a period of grief or loneliness. Again, repetitive thinking and painful emotions might weigh heavily on your day-to-day experience. With enough concentration, you would have the freedom to divert your attention to whatever needed to get done. With enough clarity, you would be able to untangle the different sensory events--individual thoughts and feelings--that make up the experience of grief or loneliness, finding the intrinsic relief that comes from this untangling (and it is significant). You would also be able to see the arising and passing of individual waves of emotion, realizing that even in a "bad day" there are many periods of peace, and even happiness, humor, excitement, etc. With enough equanimity, you could allow pleasant and unpleasant feelings to arise and pass, maximizing your fulfillment from the pleasant ones, and maximizing the fluidity of the unpleasant ones.

All of this empowers us toward greater freedom. Freedom to be with experience as it is. Freedom to change what we have the power to change. Freedom to choose how we respond to situations.

For more on the issue of freedom, check this out. For more on equanimity, have a look at a recent blog post I wrote about equanimity. If you wanna go really deep, you can check out the very lengthy article my teacher Shinzen Young wrote on the subject of mindfulness.