What is "mindfulness"?
The poet Mary Oliver writes: "To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work."
Mindfulness practice is the concerted effort to do this "proper work" well -- and to increase our balance, ease and joy as we do so.
What's so important about paying attention? Is this just a matter of stopping to smell the roses? of appreciating our life before it passes us by? Of living in the moment and experiencing what new age author Eckhart Tolle calls the "power of now"? Yes, and no. "Mindfulness" has become one of those words like "zen" or "nirvana" that have entered North American popular culture with a bang -- and have quickly come to mean a special sense of bliss, or calm, or peace... Basically these buzzwords stand for everything that modern, frenetic Western culture is not! Take a look, for instance, at the 2014 cover to Time Magazine's feature on "The Mindful Revolution." The image says it all, doesn't it?
But in fact, mindfulness does not describe anything particularly special. Mindfulness is an ordinary, everyday skill. All the same, there is excellent evidence that longterm mindfulness practice can actually change our brains and help us gain more resilience and ease in our lives -- more bounce, compassion and contentment.
(The scientific literature on this topic is vast; for starters, you can visit the archives of the American Mindfulness Research Association. For decades, U Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson has been a pioneer in this work; his 2008 article "Buddha's Brain: Neuroplasticity and Meditation" offers an accessible overview of the topic and is available online.)
Jon Kabat-Zinn's definition of mindfulness remains the best, and most profound. (Not surprising: JKZ founded the gold-standard curriculum in mindfulness education, "mindfulness-based stress reduction.")
To paraphrase Kabat-Zinn:
Mindfulness is the state of awareness that arises when we pay attention to the present moment, in a purposeful yet also open and nonjudgmental way.
Another scientist, Scott R. Bishop, puts it like this: mindfulness occurs when we monitor our present-moment experience through the lens of acceptance. Sounds easy enough, right? Just pay attention to the weather systems of your mind, to the climate of your heart, to the landscape of your body. That itch behind the left ear... that tightening sense of irritation as you wait at the checkout counter... that damp fog of sadness as a loved one says goodbye... Can you just notice these things, learning to "taste" them like a wine expert sniffs and sips a new vintage?
For most of us, it turns out to be quite challenging just to pay attention to our bodies, hearts and minds. Our attention wanders off, our judgments and reactions kick into gear. We quickly want to change the equation, somehow. And that usually means that we stop paying attention to the present moment. We stop being mindfully aware of our lives. Instead of us leading the life we want, life at that point starts to lead us ... through our own unconscious habits, patterns, reactions. We're on autopilot.
It's not so easy to pay attention to our lives -- or to do so "through the lens of acceptance." But the jury is in: we can practice mindfulness. It is a skill, like lifting weights, that just requires a bit of repetition and commitment. That's why a trainer, class, counselor, teacher can be so helpful. And life-transforming.