To understand mindfulness, it helps to explain it in different ways. I cover an authoritative definition, and unpack why there is much more to it than it seems at first. Understanding what mindfulness is – both in the moment and over time – enables us to practice it with greater benefits.
- What is mindfulness? A great place to start is to look at it as two words in one, Mind Fullness, as compared to mind distractedness or mind scatteredness, or what-the-heck-is-my-mind-doing-ness. You get the point. Mindfulness implies a mind that's full. Fully present, fully engaged, operating at its best, and enabled to engage other minds in the best ways possible. You've already had spontaneous types of mindfulness experiences, maybe when looking into the eyes of a loved one, your sense is full, or entirely absorbed when staring at the sea or walking in the woods, or listening to music, utterly enthralled.
Or, as time disappears while you're totally engaged in a favorite activity. When you've been entirely and directly connected to your present experience, immersed in the moment, that's a form of mindfulness. It's a form, although mindfulness as an intentional, repeatable practice that enhances quality of life in a cumulative, sustained, reliable way, is more specific. Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the most influential and prolific mindfulness researchers and teachers in the modern era, gives this definition, mindfulness is "paying attention, on purpose, in the present "moment, non-judgmentally." It's about pure awareness, clear, vivid, moment-to-moment awareness, without evaluating, explaining, or interpreting, but instead, fully being.
Being a fully present human being, not a human avoiding, not a human denying, not a human wishing-things-were-different. Of course, these distractions happen to all of us. Clinical research shows it's natural, it's normal brain functioning for the mind to wander in ways that often create discomfort, dissatisfaction or disconnection. It's what the human brain does. Put another way, no one can cure the human condition. But we can wake up from a trance-like trend of thoughts, feelings or actions that make us sidetracked, depleted, partial people.
When we're mindful, we're not partial. We're fully engaged, attentive, awake, aware. We're not drifting among might-have-beens from yesterday or overwhelmed and undone by tasks of today, or paralyzed by unnerving maybes of tomorrow. We're directly connected to what's real, what's actually happening right now, the heartbeat of life staring us in the face. Of course, what's staring at us isn't always pleasant. Real life is often hard, and mindfulness isn't a remedy for reality, it's a means to make the most of the only reality we ever have, right now, this moment.
And there's more. It gets really interesting, even paradoxical. While mindfulness focuses us on the present moment, it's not static, it's dynamic. Its effects aren't short-sighted, they're expansive. That leads to a second important way of understanding what mindfulness is. Practiced routinely over time, focusing on the moment leads to impact that's much more than momentary, and that's why it's called a practice, practicing mindfulness. It's a skill we keep improving over time, and its positive contribution to our experience keeps growing to us and the people around us.
With remarkable consistency, people who practice mindfulness over time agree that, as we focus more on moment-to-moment awareness, as we get better at it, and as it accumulates over time, it leads not only to fuller, more authentic moments, but fuller, more authentic days, years, and lives. So what is mindfulness? It's two words in one, and one word to understand in two ways. First, something you do now that can enhance the quality of the moment. Second, something you do over time that can enhance the quality of your life.
Pointing to the importance of being more fully present over time, Annie Dillard said, "How we spend our days is how we spend our lives." We can adapt her insight to mindfulness. How we live our moments becomes how we live our lives. What is mindfulness? Fuller moments, fuller lives.
UCLA professor and executive coach John Ullmen, PhD, explains the fundamentals of mindfulness and provides step-by-step methods that anyone can use. Every technique is confirmed by research and validated in practice to give you results for dealing with stress, anxiety, fear, worry, and self-doubt, and for increasing confidence, peak performance, and connection with others.
- The fundamentals of mindfulness and practicing mindful meditation
- Dealing with unwelcome experiences, such as stress, fear, and self-doubt
- Strengthening your connection with others
- Mindfulness for peak performance
- Practicing mindful leadership