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What Is Mindfulness Anyway? My Year-Long Quest To Find Out

For some, mindfulness is a life-saving psychological tool that pulled them out of the depths of depression, for others it’s a way to disentangle from the grip of addiction. Some use mindfulness to face chronic pain or stressful emotions, while others use it to achieve peak performance at work.

Some believe that mindfulness is an innate human capability of such great import that it should be taught in schools and used in parliaments, while others see it as a marketing device, with which to sell mayonnaise and colouring books. No matter what you think mindfulness is or what it does, there’s no doubt that there’s a kaleidoscopic array of definitions, which are diverse and even divergent.

I set out to understand what mindfulness is when I embarked on my new film project, which involved committing to meditating every day for a year, while being tracked by a team of scientists. Given that what got me interested in mindfulness in the first place was the emerging evidence proving its life-changing benefits for mental and physical health, I first turned to the research literature for clarity, but was stunned to learn that in a similar way to how scientists are still defining complex ideas such as “intelligence” and “wisdom,” there’s no universally accepted technical definition of “mindfulness,” nor any broad agreement on it’s underlying concepts.

For me, the murky meaning of mindfulness was both problematic and concerning. Problematic, because if I was going to commit to a year-long self-experiment, I’d need to know exactly what it was that I was supposed to be doing. Concerning, because not having a unified definition diluted the significance of the “compelling” evidence proving its health benefits. In the same way that organic goji berries from the mountains of Tibet and hydroponic tomatoes grown in space are both called “fruit,” different types of practices can be called “mindfulness.” In much of the scientific literature we’re comparing the mindfulness equivalents of apples and oranges.

In my quest for coherence, early on in the filmmaking process, I traveled to the U.S. to interview some of the pioneers who paved the way for the recent “mindful revolution” in the West, including Jon Kabat-Zinn, the microbiologist-turned meditation teacher who designed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), the world-famous eight-week mindfulness course which is favoured by scientists who are interested in studying the effects of meditation. Kabat-Zinn’s definition is probably the most widely used and accepted by scientists and mindfulness teachers alike;

“My working definition of mindfulness – this is what I call an operational definition – is the awareness that arises from paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. It's an operational definition because when you put it into operation, then mindfulness arises within you. You don't need to understand it. The definition is just a finger-pointing at the moon and the proverbial, "Don't look at the finger. Look where the finger is pointing,” he explained.

Kabat-Zinn’s “operational definition" clarifies why, in psychological science at least, mindfulness can be regarded as a state of mind, a personality trait, a meditation practice, and a mental health intervention. He intentionally allows for multifaceted complexity so that it can be picked apart and studied in differing combinations such as acceptance, attentiveness, awareness, focus, curiosity, or attitude.

As to how all this played out in my real-life year of living mindfully, regular readers will know that there’s a big difference between understanding mindfulness in theory, and actually putting it into practice and it’s not surprising that I got stumped pretty early on. In my efforts to “be in the moment” I couldn’t work out exactly what moment I was supposed to be in.

This is how I learned that the popularised “present moment” interpretation of mindfulness is a misnomer. Indeed, despite the titles of best selling books such as Be Here Now and The Power of Now, scientists believe that being in “the moment” is probably impossible thanks to the hard-wired ways our brains process thinking and decision-making. At any given time there are an infinite choice of things we can pay attention to; sounds, smells, sensations, even our thoughts and feelings all happen in the “moment.”

This is where I found Daniel Siegel’s “Wheel of Awareness” metaphor for mindfulness to be helpful. Siegel, who is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine as well as a leading mindfulness advocate, has us think of our awareness as lying at the centre of a circle (the “hub”) from which, at any given time, we can focus on any amount of thoughts, feelings, and sensations circling us on the “rim.” Everything that we could be aware of is represented on the outer rim and the experience of being aware is represented in the hub. Mindfulness training is about intentionally connecting the hub and rim via a “spoke” of attention, which can be directed to focus on one point or another on the rim.

Framed in this way, mindfulness training can be thought of as intentionally calling on our awareness instead of being lost in thought out on the rim. This is why a variety of meditation techniques can be used to practice the skill, whether it’s a body scan, breath awareness, open awareness, or an infinite number of other non-judgmental awareness techniques. The point is to practice intentionally directing our attention and to become more connected with our awareness.

It’s interesting that just before I travelled to the U.S. at the start of my project, Jon Kabat-Zinn sent me a paper he’d written in response to some of the recent mindfulness criticism. In it, he expanded on his now famous definition;

“Just so it is clear what I mean when I use the word ‘mindfulness,’ I am using it as a synonym for ‘awareness’ or ‘pure awareness.’ The operational definition that I offered around the work of MBSR and the intentional cultivation of mindfulness (or access to mindfulness) is that mindfulness is the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non- judgmentally,” he wrote.

It’s the “awareness” part of his now famous definition that is often left off when he’s paraphrased. As a journalist who’s written a lot about mindfulness, I’m guilty of it myself and it’s taken me until now to really understand what he was getting at here.

Although I started my quest searching for “one true definition” of mindfulness to rule them all, I’ve stopped thinking about mindfulness as a “thing” that needs to be defined. Mindfulness is verb, not a noun; an activity not a destination. Perhaps it’s not even an “awareness practice,” but rather the practice of “aware-ing.”

Others have articulated this far better than I can. Dan Harris, the ABC journalist-turned meditation entrepreneur told me that practising mindfulness for him is like sitting behind a flowing waterfall, aware of the gushing water that are his thoughts and experiences. I also like entrepreneur Tim Ferriss’ analogy that being mindful is like sitting outside of a washing machine. When he’s caught up in his thoughts, he’s in the washing machine, but by being mindful, he’s able to step outside and be aware of his tumbling experiences as they occur.

After 542 days into what was supposed to be a year-long self-experiment, it finally makes sense to me as to why mindful awareness training has earned its multi-decade record in modern medicine and healthcare, and why it’s now finding its way into education, business, social justice, and politics, despite the breath of definitions, interpretations, and techniques.

With the help of good mindfulness teachers, depressed people can recognise that their despondency is something separate from themselves, addicts can develop distance between craving and behaviour, and chronic pain sufferers can disconnect their pain from its emotional overlay.

The practice of mindful aware-ing also means that in the same way that school children can be taught not to believe everything they first hear, they can also learn to not to believe everything they first think and feel. Our workplaces too can be transformed by employers, employees and colleagues with an ability to respond rather than react.

In an era of worldwide political volatility, environmental uncertainty, and technological disruption, when the World Health Organisation has warned that mental ill-health will be the biggest global burden of disease by 2030, I suspect the national and international political landscape would also look very different if it was populated by clear minded politicians with an ability to notice deeply and respond wisely.



Photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

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