People often ask me what mindfulness is. This is a tricky question. I have found that a short answer is wholly inadequate and the more fulsome one* causes eyes to glaze over. Mindfulness is not easily put it into words and is better understood by evoking the actual feeling of being fully at peace in oneself and awake to all experience, maybe by recalling a memory from our childhood.
I now realise the pertinent question is not what but why. Why mindfulness? The “why” is more accessible, and can motivate us. Actually, it’s the whole point.
The University of California, Berkeley has a dizzying list** of reasons why to practice mindfulness, citing the researched benefits. When I read that list, a lot of it rings true to me: better sleep, happier, more focus, more decisive, more compassion for others and myself. The list does go on!
But if I am really honest, I practice mindfulness because I need to. This became very apparent to me over the recent months of Covid, when so much in the world was changing, threatening, uncontrollable, uncertain and, to be honest, disorientating. During this time my simple clear inclination was to practice mindfulness. Covid was the ultimate “‘stress test” and mindfulness passed the test.
I could see that mindfulness helped me to be steadier in the face of it all, and I was motivated to practice and to connect with mindfulness teachings. While I prepared to lead a mindfulness session in response to Covid-created stress I was aware that this was not some airy-fairy personal naval-gazing exercise. People really needed tangible tools to handle the stressful environment.
That lies at the root of my “why.” Mindfulness helps me deal with the difficult stuff in my life. Many of us “suffer the slings and arrows” of life that can leave us reeling. Mindfulness helps us to shift out of that state and into stability. And that is one of the key reasons that those of us who have felt the benefit of mindfulness in our lives go on about it rather a lot!
My confidence to deal with difficulty largely answers the question why I would spend time every day sitting on a cushion. The ability to untangle troublesome experiences or gain perspective on something painful underlies much of the research showing that mindfulness is helpful in meeting many different health and wellbeing needs. What the difficulty actually is becomes less important than whether we really notice what is going on, and how we respond.
So now I might give up on defining mindfulness when someone asks me. I could just say: “Well, it gives me strength and confidence to deal with life’s ups and downs.”
I leave you with a quote from the wonderful Jack Kornfield that meant a lot to me through recent months:
We can choose to live in our fears, confusion, and worries, or to stay in the essence of our practice, center ourselves, and be the ones on this beautiful boat of the earth that demonstrate patience, compassion, mindfulness, and mutual care. [He was referencing how if one person is calm in the boat, it calms everyone and the boat doesn’t capsize]. If you want to live a life of balance, try this: Turn off the news for a while, meditate, turn on Mozart, walk through the forest or the mountains and begin to make yourself a zone of peace. Let go of the latest story. Listen more deeply. When we react to insecurity with fear we worsen the problem—we create a frightened society. Instead we can use courage and compassion to respond calmly with a fearless heart.
*fulsome mindfulness definition: Mindfulness means intentionally maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, with curiosity through a gentle, kind, non-judgemental lens.
** University of California, Berkley list of reasons to practice mindfulness: