What is mindfulness for you?

‘While mindfulness, a once obscure term, has quickly become a coin of the realm, I prefer to call it affectionate attention. Whatever its name, this quality of attention is profoundly liberating. ‘ John Prendergast

In the last few years, the word mindfulness has become so ubiquitous that it is difficult to know what it means anymore. It has come to describe almost anything which involves pausing for a moment, sometimes for no more than a minute. There seems to be a heartfelt longing for more mindfulness in the lives of many people, and there are many different pathways to cultivating a greater sense of being mindful. So rather than trying to find one ‘correct’ definition of mindfulness, it could be more useful to ask ourselves what mindfulness actually means for us – for each of us as unique individuals. Why did we become interested in mindfulness in the first place, and why are we intrigued enough to stay engaged with the idea?

For me, one of the aspects of mindfulness which I appreciate most is having a greater sense of connectedness to my life – feeling more present within my life, rather than rushing through it on automatic pilot ticking off a never-ending list of ‘things to do’ as I go. There’s also a greater sense of friendliness, appreciation, and engaging with challenges rather than avoiding or inflating them, and these are all welcome benefits of a regular mindfulness practice. So mindfulness for me could mean ‘being present rather than absent from my life’. Music, gardening, walking in nature – these all help to cultivate this sense of presence as well.

When I teach mindfulness, it’s not uncommon for participants to share that they somehow feel guilty for not being ‘mindful’ enough, for not making the time to meditate regularly, for finding themselves caught up in unhelpful patterns. Rather than trying to attain some idealised state of mindfulness it might be more useful to ask ourselves – where does my yearning for more mindfulness come from? What does mindfulness mean to me? What practices are helpful for me, and what seems to easily lead me into a sense of mindlessness? Sometimes there are powerful reasons why we may struggle with mindfulness. We may have experienced traumatic events, including being bullied, spending time in hospital as a child, or having a parent who was moody and unpredictable. Or our current life may be so demanding there seems no room left for us to pause and reflect.

It is our inner motivation, our inner call, which can best guide us on our mindfulness journey. What is this inner yearning about? And if we didn’t call it mindfulness, what other word or phrase might best describe it for us?

Mindfulness practice idea:

Set aside ten minutes or longer to explore the place of mindfulness in your life. You could start a sentence, ‘for me, mindfulness means…’ and go from there, either through journaling, meditation, or some other form of creative expression. What did you discover? Which words stood out for you?

Anja Tanhane


One of the more disconcerting effects of a regular meditation practice is the way in which it can undermine our solid sense of identity. Over months and years we notice that we are not our thoughts, we are not our roles in life, and we are not our bodies. Our emotions come and go, and something which seemed to overwhelm our entire life can be quickly forgotten as the next thought/emotion/distraction comes along. Nothing lasts, much of our experience seems to be the result of events outside ourselves, and our thoughts are often proved to be wrong or at least misguided. Most of our beliefs and behaviours are dictated by our cultural milieu, as anyone who has grown up between two or more cultures knows only too well. Who, then, are we? If you take away all these aspects of ourselves, which make us feel ‘this is me, this is who I am’, then what is actually left?

I wonder if this questioning of identity may be one of the reasons why many people, even those who’ve experienced the benefits of meditation, struggle with establishing an ongoing meditation practice. In theory it’s simple – just get up half an hour earlier, settle into your preferred meditation posture, and off you go. Twenty minutes or half an hour later you rise and continue with the rest of the day, knowing you’ve done something to improve your health, emotional wellbeing, cognitive ability, and interpersonal relationships. You appreciate life more, your brain is more active in the positive left-prefrontal cortex which elevates your mood, and you approach problems with greater equanimity and less anxiety.

In practice, however, it can be quite challenging to get into the habit of meditating every day. There may be a number of reasons for this, but a possible one could be that, for Westerners learning mindfulness meditation, it may feel like there is no framework to help us negotiate the questions around our identity which meditation can stir in us.

We do need to have a functional sense of identity in order to flourish in life, to feel grounded and present. Over time however, that sense of ‘I’ can become frozen. Meditation can allow our sense of self to flow freely, according to the conditions of life we meet. We become less rigid, and our sense of self may also feel more fluid.

It can be helpful, therefore, to be aware of activities which help to give you a strong sense of yourself, of being grounded without becoming rigid and caught in solidity. Some of these for me include writing, listening to familiar music, gardening and bushwalking. You will have your own activities which help you feel comfortable in yourself, without having to prove anything to anyone. Connecting with these activities on a regular basis, and consciously including them in your life, can go a long way towards grounding you in a sense of who you are – even as your meditation practice (and life itself!) unravels some of your more outdated assumptions.

Weekly practice idea:

Write down three activities which help you feel connected to yourself. Make the time for at least one this week, and notice how you feel before, during and after it.

Anja Tanhane