The word mindfulness is tossed around so much these days that it’s become difficult to define. So many people use it in so many different ways, promising so many varying positive results, that I’ve stopped using the word at all. Because I’m not sure what it means.
Most people think mindfulness has a lot to do with meditation and comes to us from the eastern, primarily Buddhist, tradition.
It can either be a way of life enabling a person to bring their full attention to every task, a therapy to treat everything from chronic pain to anxiety, or a practice a person does for a few minutes each day in the hope of getting some relief from stress.
As an intervention for mental and physical health, mindfulness meditation has been well-researched and seems to be beneficial to most who practice it, if they stick with it.
This evidence-based success, though, has led a lot of poorly trained teachers to overpromise too many results for too little effort. An entire industry has been built up around mindfulness meditation, selling everything from apps to retreats to furniture, and unfortunately, many people who don’t find meditation a calm, relaxing experience quit, thinking it just doesn’t work for them or that they’re doing something wrong.
I believe this follows the lack of a clear definition of the word. Mindfulness meditation is not always pleasant, and it’s not supposed to be, at least not as religious traditions have been teaching it for millennia.
Most secular teachers insist mindfulness is the nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. This is troublesome because it implies that mindfulness is not possible when we’re not in the present moment, like when we’re planning or reviewing things, or when we have a judgment we have to make, like what dog food to buy or whether or not to try and beat the traffic light.
This definition reinforces the notion that mindfulness is a practice that you do for a fixed period, then you get up and do something else. That just doesn’t seem very, uh, well, mindful.
Troublesome for many Christian people I encounter is the idea that mindfulness is borne out of Buddhism. It is a plank in the noble-eightfold path that is central to Buddhist life, but meditation as practiced by many who speak of mindfulness has deep roots in the Christian tradition.
In fact, the first use of the word mindfulness in the English language was in the Wycliffe Bible in the 14thcentury. No one in the west was attending Buddhist retreats then, not for hundreds of years.
Some philosophers are critical of mindfulness meditation practices such as sitting with the attention focused on the breath which they see as an attempt to escape from temporality that results in a complete lack of awareness of the present moment as the attention is focused on the breath and one’s inward experience rather than what is going on in the world.
Mindfulness is also used by scholars like Ellen Langer who research and write of therapies for everything from addiction to aging without referring to meditation or eastern thought.
So how can we define a word that is used in such diverse systems of practice, therapy or spirituality?
I think I’ve found it.
Buddhist scholar and teacher John Peacock defines mindfulness as: “the realization of where you are right now, and where you don’t have to be.” This, I believe, covers all the bases.
Peacock’s definition addresses all the promises and criticisms of various schools of mindfulness in a phrase that everyone who practices and promotes mindfulness can agree on. It also answers the people who disagree with mindfulness as presented by many secular teachers today.
It definitely clarified things for me. If this definition of mindfulness can gain wide acceptance, I just may start using the word again.
George Hofmann’s book Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis is available wherever books are sold.