There are many ways to understand mindfulness, but one of my favorites comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn, MD, who developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program (MBSR) for those with chronic pain and other conditions. We can think of his definition as the “what,” “when,” and “how” of mindfulness. He sums it up so beautifully when he poses that mindfulness is the act of –
“paying attention, in the present moment, without judgment.”
So, using this definition, what is mindfulness? The first component of mindfulness is simply the act of paying attention, or said another way, focusing our attention on something. This is much more difficult than it might first seem. For many of us, our days are spent with our attention on either the past or the future, both of which don’t exist – the past has already occurred and can’t be changed, and the future hasn’t happened yet, and we aren’t all that great at actually predicting it with a lot of success. Other times, we might be just daydreaming or checked out, not being in any particular place, and not paying attention to anything in particular.
What, then, are we supposed to be paying attention to? If we’re stuck chiefly thinking about the past and future, we rarely pay attention to the present moment. Mindfulness is about paying attention to just this moment, each as it passes. Mindfulness makes a big deal about the present moment simply because it’s the only moment we have to do anything about: the past is only made of our highly imperfect memories, and the future only represents our best guesses of what might happen. You might be aware of the concept of “flow” at work or another activity, which is a pretty good example of being in the present moment, but otherwise, its more challenging than you think to stay there, which is why there’s a practice of meditation to help us strengthen that muscle.
Finally, you’ll note that he says to do this “without judgment” – what’s that about? For now, just consider that throughout the ages, we have been more or less aware that for almost all our thoughts, we attach some judgment to it: lunch was good, but the meeting right afterward was frustrating. We get home from work and are happy to see our family, but we’re worried that one of the kids is struggling in school. This constant stream of judgments about everything that crosses our experience is exhausting and keeps us from fully bringing our wisest selves in figuring out what we need to do.
We’ll have more examples for all these in the coming posts, but for now, remember that mindfulness is simply the act of paying attention, to this moment, without so much judgment.