What is Mindfulness? Below is a transcript of the conversation presented by Brighton Mindfulness Centre, where Jon Wilde and Andy Darling are interviewed by Gerard Evans and discuss the question ‘What is mindfulness?’. The full one-hour video can be accessed by clicking here for our main Mindfulness FAQ page. Other Mindfulness questions are answered in this and other videos on this site.
What is Mindfulness?
Gerard: We are going to have questions that people have sent in wanting to know more about mindfulness, and we’re going to answer them to the best of our abilities. The first one comes from Claire in Walsall, who wants to know: what is the best definition of mindfulness? So Jon…
Jon: Very simply – and I do believe that mindfulness is a pretty simple practice, not difficult to understand – if you find yourself getting lost in concepts you’ve probably wandered up the wrong alleyway, because I think it can be defined pretty simply. Mindfulness to me is learning how to be present in our own lives. That pretty much sums it up for me. Somebody said to me recently, ‘How can we not be present in our own lives? How can we not be present? Surely we’re here.’
I always like the example of walking along a seafront because there’s so much beauty and so much life there. You can be walking on the seafront and, if you’re completely immersed mentally in ruminations about the past and speculations and worries about the future then it’s very easy not to be present in your own life.
Andy: I’d like just add in the notion of nonjudgmental presence and noticing. The term that I like is ‘nonjudgmental noticing on purpose’. In other words we need a bit of a purpose, a sense of purpose to actually be be aware that we are present. Maybe that’s the little jump we require – to do it on purpose.
Gerard: So what is being present?
Jon: I think another word for mindfulness is awareness. Where we’re bringing awareness to our present moment experience, where we’re being aware of what we’re actually experiencing, of what’s being experienced.
Living in the now
Gerard: So living in the now as opposed to focusing on the future or the past?
Andy: Yes. But we then we start thinking, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t be thinking about the future. I shouldn’t be thinking of the past.’ Sometimes those thoughts are necessary. As long as we don’t get overly caught up in those two. If we do have to plan, because of course we do, then let’s know that we’re planning. Let’s be conscious and present in the planning because the present is a great place.
Jon: I’d also like to say that there are two very different ways I think we can be mindful. I mean there may be quite a few ways but these two leap immediately to my mind. There’s one where we deliberately bring mindfulness to a certain activity. Say, for example, I’m about to sit down to have a meal. I decide I’m going to eat mindfully as opposed to shovelling the food mindlessly and thoughtlessly down my throat while I gawp at the television, for example. I could choose to do nothing but sit and eat, to chew, to smell my food, taste my food, swallow my food – to do that all mindfully. That’s one way where deliberately, on purpose, I’m being mindful about that activity.
Then there’s another very quite different way of being mindful which is simply noticing that we’re not being mindful. I’m walking along that same seafront and I catch myself as I realise that I’m not taking in anything that’s happening in front of me. I’m not noticing the beautiful sea and the swimmers, the speedboat going by, the yacht…
Andy: Hopefully the speedboat’s not hitting the swimmers.
Jon: Well quite. That will depend obviously on how mindful he or she was being.
Jon: But I’m not noticing any of that because I’m completely absorbed in thoughts about the past and/or thoughts about the future. So, for me, there’s a big element of mindfulness involved in simply noticing in the moment that we’re not being mindful, catching ourselves and allowing ourselves to come back to the present moment. The nonjudgmental element of it is absolutely crucial because we can find ourselves berating ourselves for not being mindful. As in, ‘Well, I’ve been practising now for four months. I shouldn’t be doing this.’
Andy: Yes, the idea that I should be mindful all the time. I agree entirely. I’d take it further and say there is a joy in catching ourselves in awakening. We keep awakening.
We drift off, we awaken
Andy: We drift off, we awaken. We drift off, we awaken. That’s the nature of being human. Because our minds don’t stop. We can’t expect to just stop it. That would be foolhardy.
Jon: It’s very powerful. I think ‘awakening’ or ‘waking up to this’ is not putting it too strongly. I think that’s precisely what it is. As we develop mindfulness skills, as we develop a mindfulness practice, I think there’s a big element of waking up. Waking up to what we are in the moment. Aiming to be mindful 24/7 is simply unrealistic. Our habits are very deeply ingrained and it may take a lifetime for us to undo those.
Andy: I think we’re doomed to fail (if we aim to be mindful all the time). Therefore, we give up on the process and the practice if we believe we have to meet this set target. It’s like being a black belt in mindfulness. We are doomed (if we start thinking that way). So let us look at the joy in awakening. ‘I am awakening’. It’s a present tense, present participle verb. ‘I am waking. I keep waking.’ That’s the great thing. That’s the joy.
The Joy Of Awakening
Gerard: I think (the element of) joy is important to emphasise to anyone who doesn’t know anything about it. Mindfulness is a really joyful, happy experience, at least it is for me. This whole thing (mindfulness) has taken a big weight off my mind. I am much more calm, relaxed and happy as a result of it. Just in case anyone was getting the impression this was all doom and gloom. I think it’s a really beautiful and joyful thing.
Andy: A very good point there, because a lot of people might say, ‘Why would I want to be present in this awful world?’ In fact what they’re talking about in terms of this awful world is more news stories and so on; things out there that aren’t actually in the molecular vibrational experience that they’re having right now. And there is immense joy (in seeing that). I’m sure you two have experienced this early on (in your practice). The sudden sense of being present, almost like a weight lifting. It’s immense.
Jon: Yes there’s a tremendous amount of lightness that comes with it. I mean the notion of travelling light. My practice, at the time we’re speaking, is getting on for four years old. I’m a relative newcomer to all this. There’s a feeling these days that I’m not dragging my past around with me, that the future itself is not some leaden weight that’s waiting to trip me up and bring me down. There’s a real sense of travelling light when you’re being mindful in your life.
Gerard: Yes, ‘light’ is a good word, isn’t it? Everything just seems easier.
Andy: Yes, there is an ease, a lightness.
Gerard: There is no future to be scared of; there is no past to be worried about. The (daily) news is just part of someone else’s narrative. It’s not that you have to ignore it. But you don’t have to be brought down by it all the time.
Arguing with the universe
Jon: I find, with practice, that I spend less time these days arguing with the universe. That, by the way, is an argument that no one is ever going to win. What I mean by that is that, when this present moment has arrived, there is no arguing with it. This is how it is. Half the thing with mindfulness is really being with that moment whatever it is, whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant. Simply realising that it’s here, it’s already arrived.
Andy: Yes, I think the alternative to that is saying, ‘It’s not fair.’ That’s the classic refrain of the toddler. Toddlers aren’t really the best people to go to for advice or for ways of being.
Jon: We can spend a lot of our lives wishing our lives away. People do and I certainly did for many decades. Wishing that the moment was other than it was. This moment is never going to be different from what it is. It’s a very human thing to want all moments to be pleasant and fluffy and cuddly and sweet-tasting and everything like that. But that’s simply not how life is.
Andy: There is always shadow. The sun casts shadow.
Jon: There is always shadow.
Gerard: Okay. On that note, let us move on to the next question, which comes from Brian in London. He’s asking, is Mindfulness a spiritual practice?