What is mindfulness, what is mindfulness meditation and how can you start practicing?

Published by Olivier Devroede on

What is mindfulness?

One of the questions I get asked a lot, is ‘what exactly is mindfulness meditation?’. The easy answer to this that mindfulness meditation is a set of practices that make you more mindful.

But then, what is mindfulness exactly?

As it turns out, this question is not so easy to answer. Mindfulness means different things to different people. Or so it seems. The reality is that mindfulness is a state with which you engage with the world. The state is rather clear when you experience it, at least to me, but not so easy to express in words. As we will see, there is a set of practices that leads you to ‘being mindful’, but there is no guarantee that everybody is led to the same state.

Mindfulness is a state of being. It does not require you to be in any particular pose. Just closing your eyes can greatly help bringing about this state.

So mindfulness is a state. A way of interacting with the world. Now that we have defined this, let’s see how some experts have defined this state.

The most known definition comes from John Kabat-Zinn, who started the modern western mindfulness movement:

Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.

John Kabat-Zinn

In my opinion, this definition needs some expansion, but let us first analyse it.

First, mindfulness is about paying attention. This implies a certain amount of focus.

Next, the definition tells us how we should be paying attention. We need to be on purpose. What it implied here is that one does not allow the mind to wander. It relates back to focus. And it also implies that we need to exert a bit of willpower to achieve it. We will need to turn our focus to what we want.

The third element states ‘in the present moment’ and this pertains to the habit of the mind to flee either into the past or the future. Being mindful implies that you are aware of what is happening right now and not lost in fantasies of the future or recollections of the past. A larger fraction of what you have to do in mindfulness meditation is to counteract this habit. Mindfulness meditation is 80% about bringing your mind back to the present moment.

Lastly, is said that all this should be done nonjudgmentally. Meaning that whatever arises in the present moment should be seen impartially. It should be accepted as it is. We should however be clear on what is to be accepted. We should not put up with other peoples bad behaviour or for that matters our own bad behaviour. ‘Nonjudgmentally’ refers to the quality of attention we bring to our own inner states. The main aim of doing this is to fully see whatever we are watching in order to study it fully. We have the tendency to want more of what we like and less of what we do not like. But the truth is that too much of a good thing can also be bad, like too much chocolate. And sometimes, when we are in pain, we add a lot of drama that is unnecessary. Paying attention in a nonjudgmental way allows us to discover these truths for ourselves. Once we truly see that a behaviour is bad for us, the behaviour tends to diminish. And that is the whole aim of mindfulness meditation.

What is lacking in this definition in my opinion, is a part that takes a lot of guessing out of the process. One of the questions that beginning meditators have is ‘Am I doing it right?’. How can you be sure that you interpreted the instructions in a correct way. I know in my beginning days I wondered a lot whether I was mindful or not. And I was waiting for this ‘state’ to appear. Whereas, in retrospect, I was doing it correctly.

How Can I experience this state?

But, How do I know if I am being mindful? I know that I am mindful when I pay attention and, moreover, I am aware that I am paying attention.

A good analogy is sitting in a chair. I can be sitting in the chair and talking to someone. But I could be talking to the same person walking around. If you are absorbed in the conversation, it does not make a difference. So, when being mindful, you would be having a conversation while being aware to be sitting in a chair.

If we generalise this, we would be paying attention to whatever is happening and at the same time being aware of the fact that we are paying attention to it.

Another definition

To conclude this part on what exactly is mindfulness, lets see what another important expert in the field has to say about it: Sharon Salzberg has written several books on the subject and is widely recognised as one of the experts of mindfulness meditation. Her definition is:

“Mindfulness isn’t just about knowing that you’re hearing something, seeing something, or even observing that you’re having a particular feeling. It’s about doing so in a certain way – with balance and equanimity, and without judgment. Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention in a way that creates space for insight.”

Sharon Salzberg

Here again, we here the echoes of the definition of John Kabat-Zinn. But she adds something. She add the purpose of the practice. The whole practice of mindfulness meditation is about gaining insight. More specifically, it is about gaining insight in yourself. In your inner working.

Now why would we want to gain insight into ourselves? If we take one more step back in the aims of this practice, we see that it is about being happy. Happiness is the whole point of mindfulness meditation.

This is achieved through letting go of everything that contributes to our unhappiness and to do more of whatever makes us more happy. Unfortunately we seem to be very poor at judging what is making us happy and what is making us miserable. It turns out that we need a lot of practice to to figure this out. No wonder there are so many self-help books out there. But, unlike most of them that teach a specific method that works well in certain situations, mindfulness is an underlying practice that is aimed at empowering any method that you want to use. Mindfulness will make all these methods works smoother.

Mindfulness meditation.

Now that we know what mindfulness is and what it is for, you might want to be more mindful. After all, who doesn’t want to be more happy?

Let us say that with the given definitions, you set out on an adventure and try to be ‘mindful’. You focus on something in the present moment. Since you are reading, let’s focus on the reading. You are not pulled away into future or past and you do not judge what I have written. Let us also assume that, as we are now being mindful, you are also aware of the fact that you are reading at the same time that you are reading.

Congratulations, you are now being mindful.

Truly you are! There is actually not at lot more to the practise than this.

So, what is the problem? Well, I dare you to read up to the end of this article while maintaining this state. If you are anything like me, you had lost this state of mind, well, 1 sentence after I wrote ‘Congratulations’ :-).

I have never seen anybody that could be mindful for more than a couple of seconds without the proper training.

This training is referred to as ‘mindfulness meditation’. Mindfulness meditation is a set of practices with the aim to make you more mindful. More specifically, to make you more mindful throughout the day, so also when you are not practising. This is an important point.

Two ways of practicing

Traditionally, mindfulness meditation is split into 2 parts. They are called ‘formal meditation’ and ‘informal meditation’.

Informal practises are short exercises that can be performed during your day to day activities. They are aimed at practising your new skill in easy real life situations like brushing your teeth or doing a walk.

For the formal practises you need to set aside some longer period of time during you day to devote solely to your mindfulness exercise. Typically this practise takes 30 to 45 minutes. Especially in the beginning this type of practice is difficult to schedule. Let’s face it, who has 30 to 45 minutes to spare out of their busy lives? But here, you need to ask yourself what your aim is with this practice. If it is something that will enhance your well-being, isn’t that worth spending this amount of time. Ask yourself what other activities that do not contribute to your overall happiness could you do less. Like watching this show on television that is ok, but not brilliant.

Mindfulness meditation exercises.

I will devote the rest of this article to limited set of practices that you can try right now.

One word of caution before you begin: try to do these practices without judging them, or yourself. These practices are deceptively easy. But do not be fooled, they have been proven scientifically to work in improving a whole range of mental and physical problems. So give them a try before discarding them. Also avoid to look for to quick results and do not judge yourself for not doing the practices right. As the practices are really simple, I am convinced you will do them correctly! As do all of my students. So give yourself some slack if you do not see any improvements right away.

Short formal mindfulness meditation

– Find a quiet spot where you will be undisturbed for 10-20 minutes. Unplug the phone. Set your mobile to mute. If you live with other people, tell them that you do not wish to be disturbed for a short period of time.

– Sit upright in comfortable chair and close your eyes if you feel comfortable doing so. Closing your eyes has the advantage of shutting out a lot of possible distractions. It is not mandatory as one can also be aware of whatever you see, but especially in the beginning, it is easier to close ones eyes.

– Begin by noticing the fact that you are sitting. How does it feel to be sitting in this chair or stool. Feel how your buttocks touch the chair. Maybe your back is also touching the chair. Feel how that feels. Now direct your attention to your feet. Are they touching the ground? How does this feel.

– You will be noticing all kinds of physical sensations when you are being aware of your body sitting. Some might be pleasant, some might be unpleasant and some might be neither. If you find yourself becoming aware of the ‘pleasantness’ of your sensations, try to stay neutral about these. Just notice the fact that it is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Try to refrain form doing anything with it, like pushing away the unpleasant feeling.

– Now, start noticing your breathing. Be aware of the inflow of the breath. Notice the outflow of the breath. Do not try to control the flow of the breath. Just be aware of it. In the beginning, not controlling the breath that you are closely attending to is not an easy thing to do. But that is OK. Just keep at it and you will get the hang of it.

– Once you start following the breath, you will see that all kind of thoughts and emotions will pull you off the breath. You will start thinking of all things, except the breath. When you notice this, just gently come back to the breath. Maybe notice any feeling of impatience or disappointment because you lost the breath. If you have these emotions, just notice them, without judging them, or you, and gently come back to the breath.

This is the whole exercise. Do this for 15 to 20 minutes.

Informal mindfulness meditation exercises.

There are literally hundreds of informal mindfulness exercises. Here are only a handful of them to get you started. They are given such that they can easily be spread over the entire day.

– In my mind, the best moment to do an informal mindfulness meditation exercise is when you are lying in bed. So when you wake up or go to sleep. I do them both. When I lie in bed, I immediately start noticing the contact of my body with the mattress, with the sheets, with my pajama. I Then start to focus on my breathing, just as in the formal meditation. I do this for 5 to ten minutes and I am them ready to start the day, or go to sleep

Mindful eating. In my mind one of the most difficult, but highly rewarding practices.

– Another great opportunity to practice mindfulness is in the shower. Feeling the water run down my body is great. Noticing the sensations of the heat relaxes me and makes showering even more enjoyable than it is. For me, it is a great challenge to not start thinking over all I need to do for the day in the shower. When I do this, I loose all the enjoyment of taking a shower. Practising mindfulness makes showering so much more enjoyable!

– Lastly, I would suggest mindful eating. Beware, as this is THE most difficult exercise given in this page. Even after so many years of practising, I found this one difficult. To do the exercises, become aware of what you are eating. Notice you bringing the food to your mouth. Be aware of starting to chew on the food. Notice the smells. Be aware of the taste. Notice also how the taste, smell and texture of the food are changing as you chew on them. Maybe also notice that in the beginning the food is interesting, but after a few bites, you start to not care any more and you might start eating faster. Do this for 5 minutes in every meal.

Ending words

So, I hope you found this article interesting. Feel free to leave a comment if you tried, or are going to try to exercises. Let me know how it went.

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.