You may have seen this meme before: a stick person is walking with a dog (or sometimes a child or other person). There is a thought-bubble from each. The person’s bubble is full of people, cars, music, food, clothes, mail, gadgets, etc. The dog’s thought bubble reflects just the scene ahead – trees, sun, earth. The caption says “Mind Full or Mindful?” (You can search for it if you’re not familiar.)
The idea of mindfulness has surged in popularity over recent years. There are so many apps, books, programs. Mindfulness is in hospitals, sports teams, therapies, workplaces. With all this news and excitement, I occasionally feel like people may have an unclear understanding of what mindfulness is and why it is useful.
As part of the training program I’m in, we each wrote an essay starting with the line “Mindfulness is…”, completing the sentence with a concise and clear description of our understanding of the core features of mindfulness practice as we understand it. Then we continued to unpack our opening sentence to explore various facets of this practice. So here’s the definition I provided:
Mindfulness is the awareness that can be cultivated through paying attention to what is happening in the present moment, internally and externally, with an attitude of friendliness and curiosity, and with an intention of developing a wise understanding to respond more skillfully in the world.
Going back to the image of the person and the dog, the dog exhibits some part of this, in that they are paying attention to what is happening in the present moment – externally at least (trees, sun, earth). I’m not sure if the dog exhibits other aspects of mindfulness. Joseph Goldstein calls this “Black Lab Consciousness”
Very often people [describe] mindfulness [as] living in the present moment: when you’re mindful, you’re in the moment. But that, although necessary, is really not sufficient to describe what mindfulness is. Because there’s a kind of mind that I call Black Lab Consciousness—most people are familiar with black labs… Very playful dogs, a joy to watch. When we’re watching them, they’re very much in the present moment. They’re right there with what they’re doing, but they don’t look very mindful. Mindfulness has to mean something more than simply being in the present moment. But that’s the starting place, we connect with what’s happening.Goldstein, Joseph, and Robert Wright. “Joseph Goldstein on Insight, Happiness, and the Power of Saying ‘It’s OK.’” Robert Wright’s Nonzero Newsletter, 4 Jan. 2020
I use the phrase “awareness that can be cultivated.” For example, my body has been breathing since I was born. Most of the day I am completely unaware of this natural occurrence. When mindfulness is present, there can be an awareness of the sensations of breathing. As I practice more, I can have more moments of awareness. (Note: Some teachers will use awareness and mindfulness interchangeably. Other teachers will have some distinctions. It’s always good to ask your teachers how they define these terms.)
There is also an aspect of how we are being present. I use the phrase “with an attitude of friendliness and curiosity.” Curiosity can help us stay with our intention of being present. In my experience, this attitude makes the world more alive. Without curiosity, one tree is just like the next, but with curiosity, this tree that’s outside my window is dynamic, changing, a teacher.
The attitude of friendliness is helpful when our attention strays from the present moment, as it will. Instead of chiding myself about being the world’s worst meditator because I can’t pay attention to even one breath… we can welcome the attention back. For example, Sharon Salzberg suggests
instead of chastising yourself, you might thank yourself for recognizing that you’ve been distracted, and for returning to your breath. This act of beginning again is the essential art of the meditation practice.Salzberg, Sharon. “The Magic Moment.” Lion’s Roar, 13 Feb. 2019
We can pay attention to what is happening internally — body sensations, feelings, thoughts, emotions — and externally — what we perceive others may be experiencing.
One thing I think is important is to look at the why of mindfulness. I find that many of the popular definitions of mindfulness miss this aspect. (This article has several definitions.) The phrase I use is “with an intention of developing a wise understanding to respond more skillfully in the world.” Or as Sharon Salzberg says, “In the end we don’t meditate to become a great meditator — we meditate to have a better life.”
Many people turn to mindfulness as a practice to reduce stress and improve resilience. In my experience, one of the things that causes me stress are some habitual tendencies to grasp after what is pleasant and push away what is unpleasant. With mindfulness, we can interrupt these reactions with just enough of a pause such that we can discern: what other options might be more skillful in this moment?
Here’s a poem from Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, which invites us to find this pause where discernment can arise:
Filling My Purse with Commas
All afternoon, each timeahundredfallingveils.com/2019/06/26/filling-my-purse-with-commas/
I think I should hurry,
I pull out a comma,
such humble punctuation,
and invite it into the moment—
and the comma does
what it always does, which
is to invite a pause, a small pause,
of course, but a pause long enough
to breathe, to notice what else
is happening, a slight
suggestion that right here
is a perfect place to rest,
yes, how funny I never noticed
before that the comma itself
looks as if it’s bowing, nodding
its small dark head to what is,
encouraging us to find
a brief silence and then,
thus refreshed, to go on.
Today, I invite you play with a moment of mindfulness in your day and see if anything from the definition I provided resonates with you. If you have questions or insights to share, feel free to reply by email or post a comment below.
With good wishes,