What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the practice of intentionally bringing awareness to what we are doing, as we are doing it, and observing each moment non-judgmentally. This ability to calmly observe our physical sensations, emotions, thoughts, and behavior is an essential skill in working with stress, pain, and discomfort of any kind. Yet the value of mindfulness is by no means limited to stress management; it can bring much richness, appreciation, and joy to the full spectrum of our life experience.

Mindfulness in daily life

We can be aware of any ordinary activity that we find ourselves doing throughout the day- such as showering, standing in line at the bank, or drinking a cup of tea. Mindful tea-drinking means we explore the process with an attitude of curiosity; we gently bring attention to every part of the body involved in the action, and to all the senses that may be stimulated- taste, touch, seeing, smelling and hearing. How is it that we bring the tea from the table to our lips, and into the mouth? What sensations are there as the liquid moves over the tongue, and as it passes down the esophagus when we swallow?

The point is not that we like the taste of the tea, though that is fine too; it is that we taste it fully, and have awareness of the whole process of drinking.

Mindfulness reveals to us the many complex physical movements and steps involved in the simplest daily tasks. For instance, try doing one of the following activities slowly, with careful attention to detail:

  • Washing your hands
  • Brushing or flossing your teeth
  • Putting on a pair of socks
  • Pouring a glass of water
  • Eating a small piece of food
  • Using a key to open or close a door

In daily life we do these things over and over, more or less automatically. But if we slow down and do them mindfully, they become fresh and new. We return to a child-like state of wonder, as if we were doing something for the first time. In the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, we “cultivate intimacy with the ordinary.” [1]

Being mindful and aware during our daily activities needn’t take any extra time, either– it only requires that we shift our attention into the present moment. For example, while walking from point A to point B, we may be moving quickly and thinking about any number of things. In a kind of bubble, we are closed off to the external world, and to the living animal body that is in motion. But with a simple shift of attention, we can feel our feet and legs moving, and notice our facial muscles and breathing. For the moment, we are whole– and we can still get to our destination in the same amount of time.


Mindfulness, perception, and concentration

Mindfulness is an essential stress management skill because it trains us to perceive our experience in detail. This is important because we need a precise awareness of our physical sensations, feelings, and thoughts, in order to recognize what stress reactivity feels like within us. Without awareness, there is no meaningful change.

The heightened awareness that we develop during quiet moments of practice is a power that we can call on later, in times of stress. The stronger and more consistent our mindfulness becomes during our regular practice, the more awareness we can bring to our distress. Even if we don’t like what is happening in a stressful situation, we can still have a clear understanding of how we are responding internally. More knowledge of ourselves helps us to see the bigger picture and gives us options instead of feeling trapped.

Along with sharpening our perception, mindfulness training develops our power of concentration. Whatever we choose as the object of our attention- breathing, sensation, activity, even our heartbeat- we train ourselves to keep focusing on the object. When we notice that we have forgotten our target and are thinking about something else, we gently bring our attention back to the point. Over and over again, we calmly return to the point of focus. Gradually, we become able to direct our attention where we choose– an essential ingredient in learning new, healthy habits.


Mindfulness and stress resistance

By gently focusing on our sensations, thoughts, and emotions, as they change from moment to moment, we learn that it is possible to watch without reacting. For example, if we feel an itch on our arm, we normally reach out and scratch the itch immediately. But, as an experiment, we could try mindfully observing the itchy sensation for a few moments. What exactly does it feel like? Is it focused in one small area, or does it spread? Is it a strong vibration or a weak one? Does the itch change if we feel the bare sensation without reacting? And, what kind of thoughts or emotions come up when scratching is delayed?

Without judging, without rejecting, without holding on or looking for a particular sensation, we simply feel what is happening in the moment. By doing this, we notice the mind’s tendency to grasp or reject certain kinds of experience. And this is the root of the stress reaction: a rejection of inner sensation or outer circumstances.

The simple act of non-judgmentally observing our inner experience strengthens our resistance to stress.

Gradually, our awareness builds and becomes larger than the stressor. We discover that we are not the stress. In fact, we are the awareness that gently holds the stress, like a loving mother who gently holds her crying infant. The open sky of our awareness is sometimes filled with sunshine, sometimes filled with clouds and rain. Like the weather that comes and goes in the sky, stress comes and goes in the open space of our awareness. And like the changing weather, stress is a temporary state.

[1] UCSD Medical Center (Nov. 1999). Coming to Our Senses [Series: Health Sciences Journal, show ID 9375]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qvXFxi2ZXT0 Jon Kabat-Zinn, PH.D., is Professor of Medicine Emeritus and founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.