Do you ever sit down to meditate and find your mind wandering off again and again? Or maybe you find your mind stuck on one thought that keeps repeating itself over and over, like a broken record.
Does a minor conflict or a little bump in your road sometimes set off a huge feeling-like sadness, fear, or anger-that you can't get rid of? Does that feeling linger way longer than it should, so that it colors everything you do?
Do you have recurring physical pains, emotional conflicts, or negative thoughts that are perpetual thorns in your side?
Or maybe you have a more subtle feeling that is with you when you wake up every morning. It could be self-doubt, mistrust, or anxiety that keeps you from doing what you really want to do?
Perhaps, you feel one way one moment and completely different the next, like you're a bunch of different people wrapped up in one skin?
If so, you're not alone. We all go through these things.
What if there was a practice that could help you with every single one of these issues?
According to three prominent meditation teachers, that practice is "mindfulness."
You've probably heard the word, but do you know what it really means?
Let's begin with a definition from Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. Kabat-Zinn is a mindfulness pioneer who has successfully used this technique in clinical settings to help people cope with stress, anxiety, pain, and illness. He is Professor of Medicine Emeritus and founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
According to Kabat-Zinn:
"Mindfulness is awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally." (p.1, Mindfulness for Beginners)
From this definition, we see that mindfulness has to do with a certain way of paying attention to your experience. It is about consciously holding your attention on what is happening in the present and having an attitude of unconditional acceptance.
Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader Sakyong Mipham differentiates two aspects of mindful attention: mindfulness and awareness.
He says: "Mindfulness is what we use to hold our minds to any object-the breath, a rock, or a banana-and awareness is the intelligence that tells us what we're doing... " (P.50-51, Turning the Mind Into an Ally) Awareness is the ability to know where our attention is at any given time.
In other words, according to Mipham, mindfulness is the ability to place your attention on something and hold it there, while awareness is the ability to know where your attention is. Awareness tells you if you are "staying with" the object of your attention or wandering away from it.
Shinzen Young takes us deeper into mindfulness by describing it as a set of inner skills.
He says, "mindful awareness is defined as: three attentional skills working together: Concentration Power, Sensory Clarity, and Equanimity." (p.7, Five Ways to Know Yourself: An Introduction to Basic Mindfulness)
These three skills of mindful awareness are something anyone can learn. They become tools in your self-management toolkit:
"You can think of Concentration Power as the ability to focus on what you consider to be relevant at a given time.
You can think of Sensory Clarity as the ability to keep track of what you're actually experiencing in the moment.
You can think of Equanimity as the ability to allow sensory experience to come and go without push and pull." (p. 7, FWTKY)
Now, can you start to see why Mindfulness is so important?
It enables you to concentrate on what is most important to you, get very clear information, and not get overwhelmed by your thoughts, feelings, sensations, and experiences.
Imagine what power that gives you!
For example, have you ever been so focused and immersed in something that time seemed to fade to the background? At this moment, you were perfectly concentrated, in the flow, and highly-effective at what you were doing.
Concentration Power enables you to "stay with" what is most important to you and let go of the rest. Through mindfulness training, you grow your concentration power, so you can enter a "flow" state, at will, any time. When you do that, you find yourself better able to stick with your best intentions and achieve what you truly desire.
If you've ever experienced moments of heightened sensitivity to details, when the world felt more "alive," you've experienced Sensory Clarity.
Sensory clarity enables you to discover the important details in any situation, so you gain insight. You see what you need to see, right when you need to see it.
If you've ever suffered physical, emotional, or mental pain and had a moment when you let go of resisting it or identifying with it, so that you simply observed it and allowed it to flow through you, you had a moment of Equanimity.
In this moment, you realize that you "have" thoughts, feelings, and experiences, but these do not define you. You are a conscious presence who can choose to "inhabit" or "detach from" any thoughts, feelings, and experiences. With that realization, you become a "calm inner witness" to whatever happens. You have equanimity.
With the skill of Equanimity, you no longer feel the need to avoid or push down your negative thoughts and feelings and you aren't strongly swayed by them either. You discover a balanced "middle position," where you can witness whatever is happening and choose how you relate to it. The moment you do this, you find an amazing sense of ease, freedom, and joy.
Enjoy your practice!