“Do you have patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?” – Lao Tzu
What does it really mean to practice mindfulness?
(1) Nonjudgmental Observation
Mindfulness involves the ability to observe your own experience without getting caught up in assigning judgment to any of it. It is about cultivating an attitude of taking an active and curious interest in things precisely as they are, with no efforts to change or deny any of it. There is no fear of what may arise in one’s experience, nor is there agitated surprise by the unexpected.
There is a sense of noticing thoughts, feelings, sensations, people, and events just as they are – noticing them fully. Through this balanced observation comes an increased awareness of impermanence, intricacies, and nuance. There is no need to reject things that are unpleasant, because the judgments of “good” and “bad” are set aside in favor of openminded, curious observation.
If we are unable to accept all of our qualities fully, it is quite difficult to observe them with nonjudgmental curiosity. This form of acceptance involves noticing when we are experiencing unpleasant or difficult thoughts, feelings, and sensations, and practicing taking an active stance of acceptance toward them. In order to become more mindful, we must be willing to accept the fact that we will not always experience pleasant states of being.
Mindfulness allows us to sit with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings with a greater sense of calm… less fear and resistance. No matter what our internal experience is, mindfulness involves taking an actively accepting stance. There is no pride and there is no shame as a result of our internal state – purely acceptance of all that “is.”
(3) Impartial Watchfulness
Mindfulness does not take sides or get stuck on “needing” to perceive situations in particular ways. Because mindfulness involves not being so “attached” to the need for certain viewpoints, we are more free to see reality precisely as it is. This openminded attitude allows greater possibility for coming up with solutions and ideas that are creative and truly in our best interest. Through viewing reality in this open and impartial manner, we have a greater wealth of potential directions at our disposal, as opposed to becoming latched on to a particular direction that the ego has decided is “best.”
Consider how very difficult it generally is to be impartial regarding our own experience. It is often far easier to view things “objectively” when reflecting upon a friend or coworker’s situation. When it becomes about “us,” objectivity usually goes right out the window. Mindfulness allows us to become more in tune with the internal observing self that we all possess. It allows us to view our own thoughts, feelings, and personal dilemmas with as much clarity and openness as we may be able to experience for another person.
(4) Nonconceptual Awareness
Another English term for the Pali word sati (which means mindfulness) is “bare attention.” There is no thinking or involvement with cognitive processes in the way that most of us are used to. Mindfulness simply looks and observes. It does not get caught up in ideas and memories, nor does it feel the need to label or categorize them. It is free from assigning meaning and fusing with thoughts and feelings – it is pure awareness.
Through mindfulness, we have the opportunity to experience what it is like to observe all things as if for the very first time. It allows us to look upon the familiar and unfamiliar with a pair of fresh eyes, wonder, and curiosity. It is not “trying” to see or not see anything at all. It is not attached to what it “needs” to notice or not notice because it has no agenda. Imagine what it might be like to be able to untangle yourself from your entrenched patterns of thinking and feeling in this way. What might you see that you have never even noticed before?
(5) Present-Moment Awareness
Mindfulness rests in the here-and-now… this very moment. This pure awareness lives only in the current moment when you are aware of your breath, the sensations in your body, and your experience as you read the lines on this page. Through mindful awareness, we have the opportunity to reconnect with the present moment in a whole new way.
This choice to become more present to our lives is a wonderful way to snap out of the sense of being on “automatic pilot” that many people in our fast-paced Western society experience. Rather than living in a mental dream of the past or future, mindfulness is a tool to bring you to back to this moment – back to your life.
To illustrate the difference between present-moment mindful awareness and being mentally or emotionally distant/removed, choose a memory from your past to reflect upon. Imagine the qualities of that time in your life… what you were feeling, thinking, and experiencing. Can you picture it fully? Now… become aware that you are remembering it. This awareness is happening in the present. This ability to notice your thoughts as they are happening is what it means to engage in present-moment awareness.