What is mindfulness?

Wearing a 128-channel geodesic sensor net, Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard sits in a soundproof room and talks with Dr. Richard J. Davidson.

Why Is Mindfulness A Valuable Practice?

One of the great values of mindfulness practice is that it helps us become aware of habitual and problematic behavior. Once we become aware of our behavior, we have choices that were not previously available to us, and we can decide to take action that is in harmony with our personal life values.

What Is It?

The terms insight, wisdom, and self-knowing—associated with mindfulness—refer solely to what is experienced from moment to moment. This is very different from the type of intellectual insight and self-knowledge one acquires through exploring family-of-origin history in traditional psychotherapy. Self-knowing, as opposed to self-knowledge, refers to present-moment awareness of our thoughts, sensations, and emotions. The kinds of insight and wisdom referred to in “insight” meditation (a synonym for vipassana) are unrelated to theoretical, intellectual insight or knowledge.
Mindfulness is the ability to pay attention, nonjudgmentally, to the activity at hand. This allows us to avoid obsessing about the past or worrying about something that may occur in the future. It allows us to courageously stay with difficult emotions, rather than to use distraction or sublimation to avoid them.
Mindfulness is a practice rather than an idea or concept. The term mindfulness is used in various ways. More than any other individual in the world, Jon Kabat-Zinn has successfully integrated mindfulness into Western mainstream medicine. He and his colleagues have used the term to refer to both a state of mindful attention and the entire practice, which he describes as a way of life. It involves a deep commitment to the study of direct experience and consciousness, and leads to the cultivation of insight and wisdom. The practice of mindfulness provides us with a means to directly observe the nature of our thoughts, sensations, and emotions in real time. The practice also allows us to see how thoughts, sensations, and emotions affect us psychophysiologically. In a 2003 study by Kabat-Zinn and a 2008 study by Antoine Lutz Davidson demonstrated that mindfulness capitalizes on neuroplasticity, leading to the kinds of anatomical and physiological improvements in the brains of long-time mindfulness meditators.
Kabat-Zinn has defined mindfulness this way: “It is the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment, nonjudgmentally.” This definition describes what is meant by the practice of cultivating mindfulness through both formal and informal mindfulness practices. Mindfulness is both goal and method. It includes numerous practices, and it is also an outcome. He also describes it as “a living practice, a way of being.”
Kabat-Zinn makes it clear that the essence of mindfulness is denatured or lost if viewed as a concept rather than as a practice and way of life. The practice, in his words: “emphasizes that it is a living, evolving understanding, not a fixed dogma related to a museum honoring a culturally constrained past.” What he is referring to is that many people study Buddhism, but they get none of the benefits that are available only by practicing mindfulness. He further explains:

The heart of mindfulness-based interventions lies in a deep silence, stillness and openheartedness that is native to pure awareness and can be experienced directly both personally and interpersonally. The consequences of such cultivation may go far beyond symptom reduction and conventional coping adjustments, defining new ways of being in the body and in the world that are orthogonal to the conventional perspective on both health and well-being.

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