There are any number of good definitions of mindfulness, but one I find particularly useful to work with is this one by Jon Kabat-Zinn:
‘Mindfulness is an awareness which arises through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally, to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.’
Therefore, in order to be more mindful, all we need to do is to:
• Be aware
• Pay attention on purpose (that is, actually remember to pay attention)
• Be in the present moment
• Be open to this moment in a non-judgemental way
• And go with the moment to moment flow of experience.
So honestly – how hard can it be?
Of course, what anyone who has ever tried to be mindful for more than a few moments at a time knows, living mindfully is not easy at all. This can be frustrating, because mindfulness isn’t exactly rocket-science. It seems patently obvious that the present moment is the only one we can ever be in – where else could we possibly be? We have taste buds, so eating mindfully and really tasting our food shouldn’t be an issue. Most of the time we’re not comatose or under a general anaesthetic, so you’d think being aware should not be an issue. We were taught at school to pay attention, so we’ve already learnt how to do that. And yet, and yet…
Given the benefits of mindfulness are so well documented (better health, more positive emotions, less stress, improved interpersonal relationships, greater efficiency at work, clearer thinking etc), why didn’t our brain simply evolve to be more mindful? Why do we need to go through the rigours of a regular meditation practice and attend courses and retreats – a discipline which many people find difficult to sustain even when they’ve had first-hand experience of the benefits? There is no simple answer to this question, but our brain did evolve over tens of thousands of years to help us survive in tough physical environments rather than complex modern technological societies. What served us well on the open savannah – constant alertness, embedding negative experiences deep into the brain so they can be recalled in an instant, being able to react without thinking to perceived danger – is often less than useful in the modern office.
It is up to us to experiment with our lives, to find out, through trial and error, what works well for us and what doesn’t. However, its’ much easier for us to gain insight into this when we are mindful of our moment to moment thoughts, feelings and sensations. It would have been nice to evolve with a more mindful brain, but really we’re fortunate to have ended up with the amazing human brain we do have, and if our brain needs the occasional time out to meditate, to rest and recharge, then why not allow ourselves this space in our lives?
Weekly practice idea:
Ask yourself from time to time – why is it difficult to be present right now? Be open to the answers which emerge – there is no right or wrong answer, only a gentle but persistent exploration of what takes us away from present moment experience.