Discover the Purpose of Mindfulness Meditation

Published by Olivier Devroede on

When you start a practice that will take up a substantial amount of time, like mindfulness meditation, you would at least want to know what you are aiming for. I at least do.

So, let me summarize by paraphrasing the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn:

The true goal of mindfulness is to increase our awareness of the present moment, in order for it to be used in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.

Now, this is a lofty goal, but what does it really mean? Read on to find out!

The definition of mindfulness according to Jon Kabat-Zinn

I have a full article that has an in-depth analysis of the definition of mindfulness according to Jon Kabat-Zinn. I will only summarize the points here that are relevant to understanding the goal of being mindful.

Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. Mindfulness is used in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

In essence, mindfulness is a simple faculty that all of us have already built-in. It is the simple act of paying attention to whatever is going on at this very moment.

It means that we notice what is going on in our lives now. We notice what is going on in the world around us and we also notice what is going on inside of us. Ideally, we also notice in which way the outside world affects us and how we react.

But, in order to be called mindfulness, it needs to be deliberate, or on purpose as Kabat-Zinn calls it. So this pretty much excludes daydreaming (not that there is something wrong with daydreaming, it is just not mindfulness).

Kabat-Zinn also adds the purpose of mindfulness in his definition: it is there for self-understanding and wisdom.

What are self-understanding and wisdom?

We are very much creatures of habits. So much event that we do a lot of things without even knowing why or how we do them.

Everybody has the experience of driving a road that you know very well and to arrive at the destination without even knowing how you got there.

In mindfulness training, this is called the ‘automatic pilot’. It has a lot of disadvantages to rely too much on the automatic pilot. One obvious is the automatic eating of junk food to comfort oneself.

What is self-understanding?

‘Understanding’ a photo by Sebastien Wiertz

When we start to become mindful, we get off more and more from autopilot and start to notice how we habitually behave in our daily life.

In the view of Culadasa, there are several levels of mindfulness. Here are the first two:

1) Being mindful in daily life allows you to control your automatic responses and align them with your values and vision of yourself

2) Applying mindfulness provides new information to our subconscious programmed responses, which allows them to change or remove the unhelpful responses completely


We here immediately see a beautiful purpose to practice mindfulness: we start to truly see how we react, so we can change our behavior and align it more with how we think we should act.

This is something I often see, people tell me they are a certain way and then half an hour later, they do something that is the exact opposite of what they told me.

This is not because they are liars. No, they just did not notice that their behavior is not in line with what their true purpose is. Usually, these are very sincere and very lovable people. They just lack a little mindfulness.

In the phrasing of modern neuroscience, we have a lot of subconscious behaviors that overpower our conscious decisions.

So in scientific terms, the first goal of mindfulness is to regain control over our subconscious programming. The reason to do this is because our subconscious programming has evolved over millions of years and has served us well in surviving the situations that arose at that time.

But evolution did not prepare us for modern life and society as it is now. So we need a more deliberate way of proceeding. Hence the need to regain control of part of our subconscious patterns.

What is Wisdom?

We can have all the knowledge in the world, but it meant nothing without the wisdom to know what to do with it. Marie Osmon. Photo courtesy of Michael Fisher

Let me cite Culadasa again, now from his fourth level of mindfulness:

Mindfulness meditation will eventually lead to you observing Insights into how your mind really works, which will change your most fundamental view of reality and yourself, thus leading to profound changes in subconscious drivers.


Wisdom follows from observing ourselves, the world, and the interaction between the two.

The insights that we call wisdom are just deeper and therefore they have a greater capacity to transform us.

As an example of wisdom, we can look at the three marks of existence from Buddhism. These are fundamental qualities that the world exhibits.

The three are:

  • Impermanence
  • Unsatisfactoriness
  • Not-self

Simply stated, these characteristics state that everything changes, that by chasing the pleasures of the world, we will never get lasting happiness and that we should not take things so personally.

When we reflect on these statements, we see that if we could really fully grasp them in our everyday perception of the world, we would be much happier.

We would not fret about whatever the neighbors are thinking of us, or whether the economy goes up or down. These are the way the world is and there is nothing that can be done about it.

Why are self-understanding and wisdom the goals of mindfulness?

Throughout the previous sections, I have already given the answer as to why the true purpose of mindfulness is self-understanding and wisdom. I briefly summarize them here:

  • Through self-understanding, we start to learn about what makes us tick and are able to change our behaviors
  • We are able to reprogram our old unconscious and automatic behaviors
  • We start to see the world as it really is: ever-changing.
  • We take things far less personal
  • Through the combination of self-understanding and wisdom, we become at peace with how things are

To summarize this list, we can say that in general, achieving more wisdom and self-understanding leads us to be happier.

And this is precisely the ultimate goal of mindfulness: happiness.

Mindfulness achieves this goal by showing us how we make ourselves unhappy. Later on, it lets us change these behaviors through the advent of wisdom.

The benefits derived from being mindful are countless

An Abacus to count the many benefits of being mindful (I agree, the joke could have been better 😉 ). Image courtesy of Scott Kidder

I would like to repeat that the ultimate goal of any spiritual practice should be happiness. And by this, I mean long term happiness.

That is the real promise we get from mindfulness meditation, that it will make us more happy humans.

Now, although it is the case that mindfulness increases happiness (and many scientific studies have confirmed this, just have a look at this paper or this paper), I’d like to caution you.

In the media, a lot of positive things have been said, as though mindfulness would be a cure-all or the solution to all people’s problems.

First, this is not true. Even while doing mindfulness, you will encounter a lot of problems. You will be able to handle them better, sure, but problems are seldom fun to deal with. I happen to have a great story that you can read in my post on doing mindfulness while being sick.

The short of it is that the symptoms of the illness are not necessarily reduced, and the duration is not less either, but the experience of the pain is changed somehow.

It is as if the pain is … less painful. More bearable.

Second, approaching mindfulness meditation with this kind of goal in mind will severely reduce the effectiveness of the practice.

The whole practice relies on the mind healing itself at its own pace. there is not a lot that can be done to speed things up.

That is why in the east they emphasize so much the need to practice without expecting any rewards. Trying too hard is not getting you anywhere.

I think it is far more useful to temper your expectations. Like in Dan Harris’ ‘10 % happier‘ (this is a link to the book on amazon).

For westerners, we would not do the practice if there is no short term gain at all. So I think setting a realistic goal for our mindfulness meditation practice is the best way to go.

Featured image by David Chico Pham

Olivier Devroede

Hi, I’m Olivier Devroede and I have been meditating seriously since 2009. Due to the great benefits I have seen in meditating, I decided to become an MBSR trainer myself and start a blog.