What is Mindfulness?

I think Jon Kabat-Zinn, developer of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Programme (MBSR), provides a really clear description of it: ‘mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally’. Meditation teacher, Rob Nairn’s description of mindfulness as ‘knowing what is happening while it is happening, no matter what it is’, has also stayed with me over the years.

My understanding of mindfulness has changed over time. When I first started practising mindfulness, I used to view the experience of boredom and irritability during meditation as indicators that I must be getting something wrong. Over time, however, I came to appreciate that mindfulness is not about emptying oneself of thoughts or feelings, if indeed that is even possible, but rather it is about being open to one’s experience in the present moment, without judgement.

The mind, given half a chance, will spend much of its time revisiting the past, or shaping and planning the future. Mindfulness practice can help bring our attention back to the present moment, which is after all where life is happening. Sometimes in formal mindfulness practice, which for instance can include sitting and walking meditation, it may simply be that the mind is busy, with little prospect of slowing down. However, noticing that the mind is busy, or noticing that there is the experience of restlessness or boredom IS being mindful.

The role of compassion in mindfulness

Compassion and kindness I feel are important dimensions of mindfulness, as in cultivating these, we learn to be a bit gentler with how we relate to our experience in the present moment. The mind automatically goes about judging so much of what it encounters, internally and externally. It grasps and holds onto what it likes and rejects what it dislikes. Sometimes we can be really quite harsh and critical in relation to what we experience within ourselves. Compassion and kindness can help temper and lighten how we are with whatever arises into present time awareness.

Mindfulness in a busy life

I think there is real benefit in formal mindfulness practice, such as sitting quietly and bringing one’s attention back to the breath each time the mind wanders, but the reality of modern life is that this is not always practical. Bringing awareness to whatever one is doing, i.e. knowing what you are doing whilst you are doing it, can be valuable too.

Bringing mindful awareness into one’s daily work routine can be beneficial, especially where a busy work day offers few opportunities to sit quietly and practice mindfulness. Simple things, like taking twenty minutes out at lunch time to walk outside can help clear a space that allows a return to the here-and-now. Attention brought to the physical experience of walking – which includes the sensation at the soles of the feet with each step, the feel of the arms gently swaying and the sensation of air moving across the face – can support a coming back to the present moment.

Bringing attention to sensations in the body can also be applied to the experience of sitting, if for instance one’s job involves much time spent at a desk. Noticing occasionally how it feels in the moment to be sat – such as the feeling of pressure under the thighs, sensation of support at the back and experience of contact with the floor at the feet – can serve to ground one in the present moment. Indeed, a range of possible ways exist to bring mindfulness into the work day. Meditation teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, explores a number of these in the Huffington Post article, ‘15 Practical Ways To Find Your Zen At Work‘.


Duncan Roebuck Counselling & Psychotherapy