What the heck is mindfulness?

4 Things you need to know before getting started

what is mindfulness

Photo by Ashley Batz

Guest post by Jeremy Lipkowitz

I’ll be honest with you, I have one of the coolest jobs in the world. I’m a Mindfulness Teacher. That means I get to teach mindfulness techniques to students, parents, school teachers, business men and women, people sitting next to me on the airplane… basically anyone who will listen. When I explain that I’m a mindfulness teacher, I sometimes get asked,

"Ok - but what does mindfulness really mean?" 

You might have wondered this yourself at some point. After all, mindfulness is everywhere these days.

TIME magazine, Forbes, NY Times, HuffPo.

They’re doing it at Google, Facebook, Duke, UCLA… even the US military is doing the mindfulness thing.

And yet, while almost everyone has heard of it, not everyone knows what mindfulness is.

Most people, if you ask them, will have some vague notion. “It’s something about stopping your mind from thinking, or trying to be calm… Right?”

I'm going to answer that question for you. I'll give you 4 essential things you need to know about mindfulness, and lay out useful tips to get started. 

Even if you already know what mindfulness is, I’ll point out some important aspects of the practice that are commonly missed, even among people who have been practicing for years.

So, back to the vague notion. Does mindfulness mean that you stop your mind from thinking? Or that you try to force yourself to be calm? Or that you sit in full-lotus position and do an astral projection? No, no, and definitely no.

Mindfulness is simply being aware of whatever you're experiencing in the present moment - without judgement- and with kindness toward whatever arises.​

Let’s break this definition down, piece by piece. First up:

1. Be aware of whatever you’re experiencing...

What’s an experience? It's anything that gets seen, felt, heard, thought, or processed in your mind. From sensations in the body that the mind picks up, to the feelings of sadness or anxiety that come and go throughout the day. All of these are experiences.

The simplest experiences to start with when learning about mindfulness are physical sensations in the body. We’ll leave the more difficult experiences (e.g. thoughts, feelings, and emotions) for later, as they’re tough to be aware of without getting sucked into them. For now, we’ll focus on the relatively neutral sensations in the body.

You can check this out right now, wherever you’re sitting. Put your hand on your belly (even if you feel funny doing it, just try it!). Take a few deep belly breaths. Feel the movement of your belly going up and down? When your attention is right there, simply feeling the sensation in the belly, that’s being mindful. Great work!

2. In the present moment...

Mindfulness isn't just being aware of your experiences, but doing so in a particular way. First, make sure it’s an experience going on in the present moment. For physical sensations, this is fairly obvious. Just check, are you feeling a sensation right now? If so, then it’s a good object to be aware of.

For thoughts or emotions, you can do the same test. You can’t be mindful of something you felt yesterday – that’s just remembering a feeling. However, you CAN be mindful of how you are currently feeling about how you felt yesterday.

Mindfulness is trying to tap into the texture of the feeling itself, which can only be done in the present moment. A good way to practice this is simply to ask the question, “How do I feel right now?” or “What’s going on in my body right now?”

3. Without judgement...

Judgment (particularly self-judgment) is HUGE in our society, and not in a good way. Almost all of us are too hard on ourselves. Unfortunately, this tendency to be overly self-critical comes out in our meditation practice.

Let’s say you sit down on a floor cushion to practice mindfulness for 5 minutes. You start focusing on your breathing, and after 30 seconds, you notice a little pain in your low back from sitting cross-legged. Immediately, your mind starts spinning.

Pain again? Why does my back always cause me trouble when I’m trying to do something? I bet if I didn’t have so much pain in my body, I could actually focus and get enlightened in no time. My body's just not cut out for this mindfulness thing. I’m no good at it.

This is awareness with judgement.

How would this differ with some real mindfulness added into the mix? From what you learned in Step 1, you first notice the pain in the low back. Then, see if it’s possible to be aware of the pain, without judging it as “bad”. This might look something like, “Oh, there’s pain in my low back. What does it feel like? Hmm.. a little hot, and there’s some throbbing there too.”

You might be thinking, “But Jeremy, I’m not a robot. How am I supposed to not think my pain is a bad thing?” Well, I will be the first to admit, it’s not easy. In fact, learning to meet your pain (both physical and emotional) without pushing it away is one of the most difficult things you will ever do. But you get better with practice (trust me, I’ve gone through it).

This is the basis of neuroplasticity and mental training; the ability of the brain to develop new skills and tendencies in response to training.

If that still sounds too tough, just start with the intention to see if you can approach your experiences with curiosity, rather than judgement. You might surprise yourself.

4. ...And with kindness towards whatever arises.

This is the aspect of mindfulness that is most commonly left out, and it’s actually one of the most important things to remember! Inclining the mind towards kindness is what makes the practice of mindfulness enjoyable and refreshing. It also makes your mind a more pleasant place to live in (which is good, since you’re stuck there for the rest of your life).

How to do this? Just try to be gentle and friendly toward yourself: “Lost in thought again, eh, Jeremy? That’s alright. Let’s see if we can bring the attention back to the breath.” That’s honestly how I talk to myself when I practice. Try it out! It’s way nicer than being harsh and critical.

Again, just as with non-judgement, learning to be kind is not easy. Be patient with yourself. But just remember:

If there’s no intention to be kind or gentle, then it’s not really mindfulness.

It’s just awareness.

what is mindfulness

Photo by Ariel Lustre

Now you know the 4 core aspects of mindfulness. You’re a mindfulness pro. And if you forget all of that, just remember – be kind. With that in mind, you’ll never go wrong.

Try it out!

See if you can practice the following mindful breathing exercise for 30 seconds today:

Find a comfortable place to sit, either in a chair or on a cushion.

Keep your back straight, and your arms in your lap or on your legs.

Gently close your eyes, and feel the sensations in your body associated with breathing.

Feel the chest and belly rising with the in-breath, and falling with the out-breath.

See if you can stay with the sensations in the body.

When your attention starts to drift away, gently bring your attention back to the breath.

For more ways to practice mindfulness, download your (FREE) guide, 6 Easy Steps for Practicing Mindful Breathing.

.   .   .

Jeremy Lipkowitz is the founder of Untangling the Mind, a blog about understanding the way your mind works so you can let go of unwholesome mental habits and cultivate the habits that will improve the overall quality of your life. 

He is a mindfulness teacher at The American School of Bangkok, Thailand, where he currently resides. 

With a masters and bachelors degree in Genetics, Jeremy combines his science-based expertise with his curious hunger for personal development and mindfulness meditation to help others master their minds and achieve true happiness. 

Click here to learn more about Jeremy and his services.


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