“Mindfulness means being awake. It means knowing what you are doing.”
– Jon Kabat-Zinn
Asking someone to define mindfulness is kind of like asking, “What does chocolate taste like?” Or “What does your favorite song sound like?” Definitions can only give you a small idea of what the real experience is like. Just reading about mindfulness without experiencing it yourself is like going to a restaurant to read the menu, without tasting any of the food. Just as the point of going to a restaurant is to taste the food, the point of mindfulness is to experience it for yourself.
That said, there are some descriptions of mindfulness that might be a good place to start. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” (1994, 4) is simple and to the point. Mindfulness is all about paying attention to the present moment. Mindfulness is about shifting out of autopilot and awakening to the here and now. Mindfulness is about freeing yourself from regrets about the past and worries about the future.
Please note: Mindfulness can be beneficial for people who have trauma related disorders. However, practicing mindfulness exercises may cause some people to re-experience traumatic memories. Guidance by a skilled mindfulness instructor is recommended.
Here are a few other ways of describing mindfulness:
“Concentration plus attention”
People in every culture around the world have recognized the wisdom of openhearted, present-moment awareness, whether or not they called it “mindfulness,” for thousands of years. Everyone can be mindful. You have probably already experienced moments of natural mindfulness. Perhaps you’ve had times, without even trying to, when you were deeply aware of what you were doing; the only thing that mattered was the present moment—the past and the future seemed to disappear—and you were filled with gratitude for being alive. Maybe this happens for you when you play sports. Or maybe you experience this kind of awareness when you play a musical instrument, when you pet your dog or cat gently, or when you listen to your favorite song. Whether you realized it or not in those moments, you already know how to be mindful!
Breathing: The Heart of Mindfulness
You breathe in and out about twenty thousand times a day. How many of those breaths are you consciously aware of? How many of those breaths do you really enjoy? If you’re like most people, the answer is “not many.” The foundation of all mindfulness practices is to bring your awareness to your breath. This is also known as “coming back to your breath.” Your breath is a wonderful gift that brings your mind and body together in the here and now. You can start to bring yourself back to the present moment, and begin to free yourself from stress, with as few as three mindful breaths. Right here. Right now. Give it a try.
Informal Mindfulness: Don’t Wait—Meditate!
Informal mindfulness involves bringing mindful awareness into everyday, routine activities that you already do. Being mindful as you simply go about your day can be a source of joy as well as stress relief. Any time you are sitting, you can follow your breath, smile, and come home to the present moment. You can practice doing this while sitting on the bus, sitting in a car, or sitting in the classroom. You can also bring this same mindful awareness to any other activity of daily life. You can touch the present moment deeply as you brush your teeth in the morning. You can let go of stress by being mindful as you put on your clothes, tie your shoes, or walk to class. Try informal mindfulness for yourself. What are you waiting for?
You can try more ways to practice mindfulness with these free guided meditation recordings.
Frequently Asked Questions
Got more questions about mindfulness?
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(Excerpted and adapted from The Mindful Teen by Dzung Vo, MD)