12 Ways to Describe Mindfulness for Beginners
Dissatisfaction with ‘What You have’ and ‘Who You are’
How and what we think color our feelings and experiences, loading them with ideas and concepts. When based on faulty views, it often lands us into the whirlpool of anxieties, apprehensions, imaginations and fantasies. In today’s world where people are submerged in materialism and consumerism, family culture is giving way to aloof individualism, religious identity is only reflected by a set of distinct dogmas and where education means textbook knowledge dictated by needs of the job market it is difficult to find people with properly cultivated mind and right attitude towards who they are and life.
The problem is further compounded by the nature of today’s lifestyle. Modern life is too stressful and things move too fast for our comfort. People are pushed into a high technology and fast-paced life whether they like it or not. This certainly affects them – it demands constant adjustments and gives a feeling of being driven. This instills a sense of insecurity (fear of losing out in the race for material success, money and name) and makes them restless, generating stress and tension. Sooner or later, it begins to affect their health and well-being. Ultimately people look for relief and turn to meditation for peace, relaxation and some sense of happiness.
In the Western societies the cultural attitude is highly competitive. It demands that people constantly change the current situation, following the role model celebrities from different societal spheres and their idealized images. Once people start comparing themselves with ideals there is no way out. There is always the pressure of ‘I should be better than me’ or ‘Tomorrow must be better than today.’ The endless pursuit for ‘better’ generates the feeling that you are never good enough, no matter how hard you try. This is a life of constant craving to get better and chronic dissatisfaction. Not for a minute you are satisfied with who you are or what you have. Can such a mind ever feel happy or satisfied inside? Never.
While it is difficult to change the society suddenly, it is possible to bring necessary changes at the individual level to enjoy some peace and satisfaction. The practice of mindfulness or Vipassana meditation, which is based on mindfulness, makes it possible to maintain sanity in the highly insane world by properly cultivating the mind.
Disciplined and Cultivated Mind
A cultivated mind is a disciplined mind. It doesn’t react to what is happening around it but responds at the right time and in the right manner. It is sharp enough to recognize various feelings and emotions oozing from within and notices the flow of thinking dictated by them but does not react impulsively on it. It is a mind which is mindful of the consequences of its actions and would refrain from all acts that create ill-will and harm him or others. It is a mind that knows itself fairly well and tries to operate within its capacity. In nutshell, a cultivated mind is a discerning mind that operates from insight of practical reality.
Revival of Vipassana Meditation
Vipassana meditation (also called insight meditation) is a wonderful tool to cultivate the mind. Its foundation lies on mindfulness and was initiated by the Buddha 25 centuries ago. He first perfected it and applied it one himself to get rid of all his defilements and then taught others. However, the technique remained confined among limited Buddhist monks and out of the reach of common men, but fortunately it was opened for lay people in the middle of the last century. It is now becoming popular across the world.
The western world also began tasting its flavor in last few decades. Some psychiatrists also discovered beneficial therapeutic elements in the art of mindfulness. Living in highly stressful societies they are naturally inclined towards using it for stress reduction and things like PTSD and depression. However, the real potential of the practice of mindfulness is immense, as any devoted Vipassana meditator can testify.
I know from personal experience of over last 20 years that it can transform people if they practice sincerely. The best part is, it does not demand you to believe or not believe anything. Therefore, people from all religions, faiths, nationalities and race are whole-heartedly accepting it around the world. Many Westerners still attach the label “Buddhist” to mindfulness and Vipassana meditation. It is, however, unfair to compartmentalize something which is inherently universal and good for the whole humanity.
What is Mindfulness
The art of mindfulness is the gift of Buddha to the mankind 2500 years ago. The word ‘mindfulness’ attempts to capture the meaning of the ancient word ‘Sati’, from the Pali language spoken by the Buddha. ‘Sati’ provides the basis of meditation the Buddha taught to the humanity and is best described in one of his most important discourses called ‘Satipatthan Sutta’ [see 4 basic ways of mindfulness]. Serious meditators often refer to this discourse for better clarity. Other words (and phrases) pointing to the sense of “Sati” are attention, awareness, alertness, conscious awareness, presence of mind, mental presence, present centeredness, etc. English dictionaries typically define mindfulness as
"a mental state achieved by focusing one‘s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations." - Online Oxford Dictionary
However, the best way to grasp the concept correctly is to learn mindfulness meditation under an experienced Teacher. That is, someone who practices and knows the subtleties of the practice - it is quite different from book knowledge.
In the traditional literature, this is called Vipassana (Insight) meditation; here “insight” means experiential understanding of one’s own being and of things “as they really are”. The practice of Vipassana meditation indeed develops insight into what goes within and has profound impact on the practitioners.
Rather than dwelling in the past or the future, mindfulness offers the art of operating in the present moment in a non-reactive and non-judgmental manner. Only in the ‘present moment’, you have the power to make changes to the situations affecting you. Nothing can be done in the future or past, as we don’t and can't live there! If you can grasp this, you have grasped the art of living. Yes, it is a technology of living; not a philosophy for mere intellectual entertainment or debates.
Two Types of Meditation
All forms of meditation can be grouped in two categories: One that lead to concentration and focus on a single object and another type that develops insight. The first category is better known to people. It involves concentrating the mind on some object such as the breathing process, mantra or an image. As the concentration deepens the mind becomes one-pointed and tranquility develops. It is this type of meditation people of different traditions and faiths know.
The other type of meditation is Vipassana meditation or insight meditation. Here the effort revolves around mindfulness (attentiveness, awareness), not concentration. Mindfulness primarily involves developing awareness into what is happening ‘right now’ in an objective and dispassionate way. It includes all sense perceptions, thoughts etc while avoiding all secondary processes (eg. Labeling, judging, evaluating, and so on). It aims to avoid ‘doing’ and promote ‘being.’ This form of meditation is the discovery of the Buddha and has the clear goal of liberation from all defilements that confines you in the cycle of birth-and-death.
Let’s make the distinction between concentration and mindfulness clearer.
Mindfulness is NOT...
Mindfulness is NOT…
- Forming opinion
- Escaping from reality
Concentration vs Mindfulness
Concentration is related to focus on one object; it is kind of one-pointedness of mind. The mental effort involved in concentration is to push aside all mental contents and ‘force’ the mind on the desired object. It requires will power and determination to keep the mind pinned on one item to the exclusion of everything else. An ideally one-pointed mind is a concentrated mind totally absorbed on one object; it knows nothing beyond that. Then, a person lives on an elevated plain of expanded consciousness which is highly energetic and is free of the mundane feelings of insecurity, anxieties, and worries.
Mindfulness, on the other hand, cannot be cultivated by struggle or force. It only grows by observing and accepting things as they happen, by letting go and by just settling down comfortably in the moment. Whenever attention goes astray it is mindfulness that brings the attention back. Therefore, mindfulness means having the mind and the body together in the present moment. This ‘presence of mind’ (awareness) is the prerequisite for any type of meditation. When mindfulness blossoms the mind is a perfectly detached knower and equanimous. Such a mind is ideal for practice of vipassana meditation leading to development of ‘insight.’
Comparatively speaking, concentration is exclusive; it aims to focus on one item to the exclusion of everything else. Mindfulness, on the contrary, is inclusive and all-encompassing. It not only takes note of the concentration but also looks beyond that. For instance, if you are trying to concentrate on breathing, concentration will only notice the breathing. But the mind in the state of mindfulness will distance from the process and note the breathing, be aware of the effort involved in concentration to focus on the breathing, explore the degree of concentration and also take note when the mind wonders away from breathing. It is again mindfulness which redirects the attention to the breathing.
Developing the faculty of mindfulness helps in the development of concentration also. If the awareness is well developed it quickly notices the distractions and you pull-back to the object of attention. It means better concentration (less time is spent in mental distractions). This in turn assists the development of mindfulness. The better is the concentration, the less chance there is to indulge in the distractive thinking. You quickly note the distraction and return to what you should be doing.
From the beginners’ perspective mindfulness involves two things: (1) to maintain the presence of mind in the present moment and (2) be neutral and non-judgmental towards thoughts, feelings and perceptions [everything that arises in the mind]. Let us see the practical descriptions of mindfulness in different ways so that its meaning becomes clearer and clearer.
1. Mindfulness involves seeing things as they really are, not as one would like them to be. You just perceive without adding or subtracting anything. You try keeping it “mere observation” and “bare observation”. You train to see all thoughts or feelings without judgment or evaluation.
2. It is an impartial watchfulness without prejudice or bias. You merely perceive and take note. You don’t cling to good mental states and don’t avoid the bad states. You train not to form opinions or ideas. You don’t play favorites. You register just like a camera!
3. Mindfulness is developing present-centeredness. It is the observation of what is happening right here and right now. It is riding the ever-flowing wave of time and staying in the present moment and watching everything from there. It is staying clear of the memories of the past or ideations of the future – no ruminating, no dreaming and no imagination.
4. Mindfulness is being ever ready to observe whatever comes up in the present moment in whatever form. It also involves letting go of the present moment as it turns past. Thus, it is observing and letting go simultaneously without break (continuously). It is a wakeful experience of life, an alert but detached participation in the ongoing process of living.
5. Mindfulness is a relaxed attention in which “nothing can offend”. You are surprised by nothing and shocked by nothing. You remain neutral to everything. It is a mental ability to observe without criticism or evaluation. With this ability, you see things without preference or prejudice. You suppress nothing, promote nothing. You don’t decide or take sides. You affect nothing; and nothing affects you.
When we let go of wanting something else to happen in the moment, we take a step towards embracing the ‘here and now.’
How Disciplined are You?
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6. Applied to meditation, mindfulness points to the meaning of the Pali word ‘Sati’. It implies attention, awareness, and conscious presence of mind. It is knowing, but not thinking - you can ‘know’ that you are thinking and even watch the birth of a thought, it duration of stay and its disappearance. Of course, it needs training. During practice you will be required to catch the mind thinking. It is merely watching or observing without getting carried away by thoughts, memories, or concepts. Sati is the foundation of Vipassana (or insight) style of meditations.
7. Mindfulness means registering experiences, but not comparing them. It does not evaluate, label, or categorize them. It is not reflection or analysis. Instead, it is a direct experience of reality as it unfolds, keeping away the thinking process.
8. In mindfulness meditation you watch the universe within, paying no attention to the world outside. In meditation, you are your own laboratory. The internal universe is constantly giving you a wealth of information on the dynamics of how you relate to anything and everything. Now you have the opportunity to witness it. Thus, it is an impartial examination of the constantly changing inner world. It results in correction of your attitudes and gives you a new way of being in a detached manner – which implies experience of freedom and liberation. Your disengagement with yourself is liberation. Simple! You don't have to be a Saint or recluse to experience it - it is here and right now!!
9. As a meditator, you are both the observer and your own object of observation simultaneously. You start out as a doer who does everything habitually – whether thinking, deciding, or reacting. Mindfulness promotes you as a “watchman” who observes or as a “witness” who merely witnesses. With practice, the role of “witness” takes precedence and the “doer” becomes subordinate. You begin to react less and respond more. It is sign of a real strong personality!
10. Mindfulness weakens the egoistic attitude of “I am doing” or “I am deciding” and frees you from identification and provides space to shape a neutral behavior. It is seeing everything without reference to the concepts of 'me', 'my' or 'mine'. For instance, if there is headache, an ordinary mind would say, "I have a headache." But if trained in mindfulness, you would simply note it as some kind of sensation in the head. You are no longer carrying the burden of 'I'. This is a very important shift in the attitude. You learn to see sensations and feelings for what they are - impermanent, rather than labeling them as headache or pain. You just observe what is there without evaluation, ideation or conceptualization. You don’t play game of labels.
11. Mindfulness is like sitting beside a river and watching the water flow. You watch the flow of thoughts, feelings, ideas, and tendencies as they appear in the mind and go. It is a dynamic process of examining the flow of life, firmly established in the “here and now”. Mindfulness is all about ‘knowing’ from a safe distance. You take the mental step backward from own desires, cravings and aversions so that you can just look and say, "Oh, this is how things are and this is how I really am." It is nonegoistic alertness which identify with nothing, likes nothing and dislikes nothing. There is no 'me' in a state of pure mindfulness. As opposed to the driving seat of a ‘doer’ you settle down in the backseat as a mere ‘watcher’ or ‘knower.’
12. Mindfulness is observing the passing flow of experience moment by moment. It is observing all mental-physical phenomena taking place inside right now. It is seeing the true nature of all phenomena – arising, staying for some time, and passing away – impermanence. It is only through actual training in mindfulness you can ‘realize’ impermanence; else it remains an illusory and obscure concept – given by the Buddha and debated by intellectuals. Yes, there is a big difference between ‘knowing’ with the mind and ‘realizing’ with experience. This is exactly the same difference as you find between a preacher who only ‘preaches the words’ and a saint who actually ‘lives the preaching’!
How Mindfulness Benefits You
In mindfulness meditation, your inner universe is your laboratory. You start out as a doer who does everything – thinks, feels, decides and reacts. Mindfulness promotes you as a “watchman” who observes. With practice, the role of “watchman” takes precedence and “doer” becomes subordinate. You begin to react less and respond more. It gives you freedom and wisdom to shape your behavior.
It leads to improvements in your cognitive functioning; you don’t over generalize (things are actually not that bad), you are aware but don’t react because you can tolerate unpleasant thoughts and feelings and enables you space to choose your response as opposed to habitual reactions. The practice of mindfulness relaxes the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) which is believed to be responsible for ‘nerve’ related health problems such as blood pressure, heart disease, digestive tract, chronic pain etc. It also promotes alpha brainwaves and increases heart/brain synchronization.
Mindfulness broadly relates to these four attributes: Impartial watchfulness, Choiceless observation, Seeing things as they really are, Awareness of the present moment and Observing without bias.
Mindfulness gives you the real perspective and understanding of yourself. The state of mindfulness enables you to see yourself exactly as you are, you see your own selfish behavior, and you clearly see how your likes and dislikes dictate your actions. You begin to realize how you hurt yourself and others, and pierce through the layer of lies that you normally cover yourself with. You clearly see your vulnerable self behind the persona designed to deceive others. The net effect of such realizations is that mindfulness develops your wisdom.
- The Mindfulness in Education Network
For efforts to introduce mindfulness in the educational settings
- Why Meditate? | The Chopra Center
Connect daily with your center of stillness for some time. This will make you feel centered and balanced.
- Mindfulness therapy can treat anxiety, depression
Medical science is discovering what the meditators throughout the world already knew for ages. But it is good that the technique is providing relief from human suffering in the West too.
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