Thursday, January 27, 2011

What is mindfulness?

What is mindfulness? Such a basic question, right? Your comments made me think about exactly what mindfulness means. I'm an absolute novice at this (I'm even terrible at yoga) so I thought I should start at the beginning.

The first thing I did was Google "mindfulness" which brought up lots and lots of results. Mindfulness is apparently big business. I even tripped upon a local resource, the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Quite a mouthful. According to their website, mindfulness is
a way of learning to relate directly to whatever is happening in your life, a way of taking charge of your life, a way of doing something for yourself that no one else can do for you — consciously and systematically working with your own stress, pain, illness, and the challenges and demands of everyday life.
A particularly Western approach to mindfulness, I think. Very results-oriented. For that Center, mindfulness can help you better control your life. Interesting.

Wiki states that "Mindfulness...plays a central role in Buddhist meditation." It is one component of the Noble Eightfold Path, the Buddhist method for achieving the end of suffering. Psychology Today calls mindfulness "a state of active, open attention on the present . . . . mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience."

(This was part of my experience this afternoon. A gorgeous sculpture of twig and ice. Right outside my breakfast room window. A New England winter, even one buried in snow, glimmers with unexpected details.)

Seeing what I was doing, my husband rummaged in his bookshelves and dropped a book, The Dharma of Star Wars by Matthew Bortolin, in my lap. "I like to get my spirituality through popular culture," he quipped as he headed to round up two very riled-up girls for bedtime.

Now I was raised Roman Catholic, attending parochial schools through high school. As an adult, I edged into the Episcopal Church. The only Dharma I recognized was the female lead in the sitcom on air about a decade ago. This was relatively new territory for me.

Bortolin defines mindfulness as focusing "awareness on what is going on within us and around us at this instant." One of his suggestions to developing mindfulness is mindful breathing which Bortolin calls "a means of staying anchored to the present."

Reading this, my mind immediately darted back to various yoga classes taken through the years. (I can't stay mindful even while reading about mindfulness!) I felt the thin rubbery give of the yoga mat under my bare feet. I heard the teacher's voice intone in that soothing patter usually reserved for calming fractious horses, "Breathe in deeply through your nose. Feel the breath course through your body. Exhale through your mouth. Feel the breath cleanse." Instead, of course, I'd think, "I'm breathing so loudly. My sinuses must be congested. Should I take Allegra again? I don't think the Claritin is working anymore. And I have to remember to pick up some broccoli. . . ." So my track record at yoga and mindful breathing is not so good.

Bortolin's mindful breathing also brings me to lurahloo's question about breathing and whether it is just escaping to a non-distinct thought. Perhaps instead of "meditative" breathing, framing it as "mindful" breathing is helpful. For me, meditation suggests some alternate state of relaxation, not necessarily attention to the present. Bortolin states that noticing one's breath is a way to ground ourselves in the moment. I'll have to vacuum soon and try this. One benefit to my new mindful practice, my house will be so clean!


  1. Are you sure vacuuming isn't your new escape? ;-) Just teasing. Enjoying your journey once again. Sometimes I've felt that I'm too aware of what's going on inside me...So this is very interesting.

  2. That's it! I'll write a book: Vacuuming My Way to Nirvana. Can you be too self-aware? I think it's great to know what's going on inside, especially if you can be self-aware without falling into the "should" and "must" traps. I have a hard time with that.