What is mindfulness?

by Cat Enright

You probably hear this word, mindfulness, almost too often now, and may still wonder what it means. According to John Kabat Zinn, founder of the Center for Mindfulness Medicine at the University of Massachusetts, mindfulness is “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”

Before practicing mindfulness meditation, I assumed that the practice was mind-centered because of its name, and was happily surprised to learn that it is body-centered. “Paying attention” is also known as feeling: feeling your body, right now, with a minimum of judgment or commentary. This might mean feeling the sensation of your feet on the ground or the touch of your breath inside your body.

Meditation

“I just can’t meditate. I can’t quiet my mind, not even for a moment!”

I hear this all the time from students. The mind’s habit is to go elsewhere, to other times and places, everywhere but here and now. That is not a problem! This is just a condition of having a human mind. Through practice we learn to notice the minds wanderings non-judgmentally, with kindness, and then bring the focus back into the body and the breath. At least half of meditation is this coming back, choosing the present with an open heart.

Kindness

For many of us, the kindness is a major obstacle. We are used to working hard, accomplishing things, and being rewarded for this. If you want to work hard, focus on kindness as the heart of your practice. You could call it acceptance, forgiveness, or compassion.

Why do we need to practice kindness? Our human minds have a negativity bias. As we’ve evolved we have had to prioritize safety to survive. The mind is always scanning for danger, looking for parts that need to be put in order or fixed, which develops our skill at noticing what’s “wrong.” We turn this keenly focused lens on ourselves and may only notice what we see as mistakes, only having awareness of the parts we want to improve.

Imagine having an antique teacup, painted with intricate detailed patterns, a delicate gold handle, shaped to your fingers, and your eye goes to the tiny crack. It fixates here, maybe missing everything else. It’s common to have this same experience with our yoga and meditation practices – and indeed, in all of life. In meditation we may only notice that the mind wandered. If we want to experience kindness we have to practice, again and again to balance the mind’s habit toward being critical. We have to meet the mind where it is, notice the attitude we have toward the mind, and choose kindness.

A short practice for you

Sit comfortably, on a chair or cushion. Invite a balance between elegance and relaxation in your seated posture (this makes a difference). Take some deeper breaths. Start to notice where you feel your breath: in your nostrils? Your throat? Your chest? Abdomen? Just notice the feeling and let go of thinking. Keep redirecting your attention to sensations of your breath. Your mind will start to go elsewhere. Remember, this is not a problem but a part of the practice. Regard your mind as you would a small child or a puppy and awaken your natural kindness. Guide the mind back to the feeling of your breath. Allow your body to relax more and continue to watch your breath. When the mind wanders again you might even gently smile, as you would with the young child or puppy, and keep coming back to yourself, to the moment.

Click here to learn more about Cat Enright and see her teaching schedule.

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