Confession: I totally stole mindfulness shmindfulness from the Meditate This! podcast (which I can’t recommend highly enough!). And don’t get me wrong — I am a BIG FAN of mindfulness. But the word mindfulness is starting to feel like one of those terms that should be on “Business Meeting BINGO” like… synergy, or bandwidth, or “think outside the box.” As David Gelles says, “Mindfulness” is at risk of becoming the new “organic.” And I think that’s a real shame, because mindfulness is NOT just a label to slap on anything that seems remotely spiritual. I don’t want to see it turned into just another buzzword. Mindfulness shouldn’t be watered down that way. It’s even being called McMindfulness. To this I say: NO.
How do we define mindfulness? Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction describes it as “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.” It sounds just lovely, no? (It is.)
Dr. Michael Baime makes a good point regarding why people typically flock to mindfulness. Most say they want to learn to be mindful so they can alleviate stress in their lives. But, as Dr. Baime says, “Nobody has ever told me that they are stressed because they do not witness ‘the unfolding of experience moment by moment.'” I mean really. Who talks like that? But that is exactly what mindfulness is all about! He refers to it as “practicing aliveness” because this is how you find your life. You stop operating on automatic pilot and start noticing nuances, details of your everyday experience. When you are not paying attention to the present moment you are literally absent from your own life. For example, think about the last time you drove home from work. Were you on auto-pilot? Or were you taking the time to notice all the things around you & how they made you feel? When you sleepwalk through your day (and you’re probably surrounded by other sleepwalkers!) you miss so, so much. Practicing mindfulness is a way to reconnect with what is most vital and alive in your experience. It is how you fully experience yourself and your world.
Mindfulness is a very soulful, transcendent practice, which can seem really intimidating. But what I love about the Meditate This! podcast and others like Gabby Bernstein, Marianne Williamson, Deepak Chopra, and Dr. Wayne Dyer is that they make it accessible. Anyone who has picked up a book like A Course in Miracles hoping to dive right in can attest that it’s… intense. It can make you feel completely overwhelmed and almost unworthy of being a part of the mindfulness culture. But when you have resources to turn to who break it down, tell you how truly easy it is to be mindful, and consistently remind you that they are real, flawed people, too, mindfulness feels like it’s within your reach.
At its core, mindfulness is a spiritual practice. And I think that’s why this attempt to package it into some snazzy, lucrative “soft skills” corporate workshop — McMindfulness — bothers me. Mindful Politics. Mindful Leadership. A Mindful Nation. All promoted as Buddhist-inspired by their corporate sponsors. As Purser & Loy explain, the rush to secularize and commodify mindfulness into a marketable technique may be leading to an unfortunate denaturing of this ancient practice, which was intended for far more than relieving a headache, reducing blood pressure, or helping executives become better focused and more productive. Admittedly, I’m a recent student of mindfulness practice, but even I know that mindfulness is meant to liberate us from negativity and toxicity, awaken us from a life of thoughtless routine, and steer us toward a life of purpose and intent. Framing it as a technique for making employees work more efficiently and calmly in uber-stressful environments doesn’t nearly do it justice.
I think I’m so sensitive about the issue because — and I truly mean this — mindfulness has changed my life. Being mindful allows you to get up close and personal with yourself. Sometimes you like what you see, and sometimes you see things that make you cringe. But the ultimate goal is to be able to witness your moment-to-moment non-judgmentally. To notice experiences as they happen, watch them pass through you, and then cease to exist. On a cognitive level, mindfulness is an awareness that some experiences are pleasant and some are not-so-pleasant, coupled with the ability to not react on an emotional level to these experiences (which is called “equanimity,” a stillness and balance of mind). This is REALLY HARD TO DO. To bear witness to some really shitty things that happen in your day and NOT react. To stay present, pay particular attention to each moment, and to consciously direct your awareness. And being mindful and being aware are not the same thing! By way of example, Bodhipaksa explains that knowing that you are eating is not the same as eating mindfully:
“When we are purposefully aware of eating, we are consciously being aware of the process of eating. We’re deliberately noticing the sensations and our responses to those sensations. We’re noticing the mind wandering, and when it does wander we purposefully bring our attention back. When we’re eating unmindfully we may in theory be aware of what we’re doing, but we’re probably thinking about a hundred and one other things at the same time, and we may also be watching TV, talking, or reading — or even all three! So a very small part of our awareness is absorbed with eating, and we may be only barely aware of the physical sensations and even less aware of our thoughts and emotions. Because we’re only dimly aware of our thoughts, they wander in an unrestricted way. There’s no conscious attempt to bring our attention back to our eating. There’s no purposefulness. This purposefulness is a very important part of mindfulness. Having the purpose of staying with our experience, whether that’s the breath, or a particular emotion, or something as simple as eating, means that we are actively shaping the mind.”
Living mindfully means you are concerned with what’s going on rightnowthisverysecond. The past no longer exists. The future is just a fantasy until it happens. It’s not real yet. Worrying about the past or spending time future-tripping pulls you away from the present. Practicing mindfulness means you anchor yourself in the present — when you feel your mind wandering you yank it back with all of your might to what you’re experiencing right now. Which also means you can let go of stress and anxiety. You become free. Your existence is calm. You are content.
As I’ve mentioned before, it’s just that simple: Stay present. Is it easy? No. That’s why it’s called a mindfulness practice. But it’s certainly not a practice that can be packaged and sold to/for/by corporations. Couching it that way cheapens what is a deeply spiritual relationship with the self & an awareness of your place in the universe. So I encourage you to explore the practice and make it work for you — you don’t need to pay a corporate trainer or attend a workshop in order to do this! Look for guided meditations (there are a ton of free meditations online!), practice yoga, spend time in nature, play with your dogs… there are any number of things that can keep YOU in the present. What works for one person may not work for another. But I’m here to tell you that it’s worth finding your personal key to mindfulness. It adds such an extraordinary layer to life.
Sat nam, friends.