Mindfulness – Exactly What the Heck Is It?

Over the last several decades, the concept and practice of mindfulness has spread throughout the Western world, and is now being taught in academic, medical, corporate, and even military circles, not to mention across the sporting world.

So with all this talk about mindfulness, we should probably stop and insightfully ask, exactly what the heck is mindfulness, and where does it come from?

A (very) brief background

As I mentioned in my post Practical Zen in a Nutshell, central to the core of Buddhist teachings are what are known as the Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths essentially hold that life is full of suffering (mental anguish); suffering comes from attachment to desires; suffering is alleviated by detachment from desires; and detachment from desires comes from living life from a certain point of view.

Well, that ‘certain point of view’ is what is known as the Noble Eightfold Path, and mindfulness (or more specifically Right Mindfulness) is the seventh part of the Eightfold Path. The eighth part is Right Concentration (more about that in a second). The Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path are so central to Buddhism, that they are said to have come from Siddhartha Gautama (a.k.a. the Buddha) himself some 2,500 years ago.

In the ancient teachings, Right Mindfulness is essentially about mind-body awareness in the present moment. Right Concentration is about singleness of mind, or one-pointed attention.

So if that’s the (very) brief historical background, how is it being treated in the modern day?

Modern mindfulness

While I’m a big fan of modern mindfulness, and mindfulness meditation, the only reservation I have with the modern mindfulness movement is that it takes mindfulness out the Buddhist context from which it sprang (apparently to appeal to a wider audience), and often overlooks other crucial aspects of teachings central to Buddhism in general and Zen in particular. This may be an unfortunate necessity in order to reach some, but it dilutes much of the practical wisdom of Buddhism (which I simply consider to be the psychology of the East).

These critical and often overlooked aspects include the Four Noble Truths themselves which are key to understanding how and why we create our own mental anguish, a clear and understandable relationship between formal meditation and mindfulness, and even the relationship between attention and awareness.

And there is also little or no mention of the Noble Eightfold Path which, as we’ve seen, is exactly where mindfulness was originally to be found.

There is also little agreement these days as to an exact definition of mindfulness. Many of the definitions include the concept of awareness, others include attention but not awareness, some mention neither, and some mention both.

So we ask again, exactly what the heck is mindfulness, and how can we define it in practical, usable terms?

After years of research and study, and trying to put it all together so that it makes practical sense, I believe that “mindfulness” if it’s going to be understood and employed in a meaningful way, is actually a combination of the seventh and eighth parts of the Noble Eightfold Path, specifically, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

One way of looking at it would be “mindful concentration”. The reason they need to be employed together is that if you employ only awareness, you have a wide scope of what’s going on, but are not focused on anything (seeing the forest but no particular tree).

On the other hand if you have your nose pressed up against a tree but can’t see anything else, you certainly have concentration but no awareness of the forest. What’s needed is both concentration on a particular tree, and also an awareness of the forest.

Practical Mindfulness

So, can we be more precise and set out a practical definition? Indeed we can and here it is:

  1. Paying focused (one-pointed) attention to what we’re doing (or experiencing) in the present moment,
  2. while maintaining a compassionate and non-judgmental, spacious awareness of our thoughts and feelings (that’s technically the end of the definition but in practice we go to point 3),
  3. Then, when distracted from what we’re doing, describe the thought or feeling that took us away, and gently return to what we’re doing or experiencing.

Now if you’ve read my post Meditation (the “M” word) you’ll have noticed a distinct similarity between the three step process of meditation, and this three step process of mindful concentration (which we can just go ahead and call mindfulness for short, and to come into line with common usage).

Remembering that ‘Zen’ means ‘meditation’, the reason that meditation and mindfulness are linked is that in the stillness of meditation we hone our powers of concentration and awareness, while in mindfulness we take it to the streets and apply it in our daily lives.

Mindfulness, therefore, is Zen in action.

In the next post we’ll take a look at meditation and mindfulness side by side, flesh out mindfulness a bit more, and then see how mindfulness can be applied in school, at work, in relationships, and essentially in every moment of our waking lives, moment by moment.

For more on the Noble Eightfold Path see:

That’s it for now. Thanks for stopping by and see you soon.





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