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What Is Mindfulness?

Simple line drawing of a brain with the question "what is mindfulness?" above it and "paying attention, on purpose, non-judgment" as the answer

As I understand it, mindfulness is paying attention, on purpose, from a place of non-judgment. What do I mean by this?

Paying attention

What I mean by paying attention is that I'm tuned into what is happening right now, in the time and place I am inhabiting. As Narayan Helen Liebenson says, "it's [insert action] and knowing I'm [insert action]." For instance, it's typing this sentence and knowing I'm typing this sentence. For you, it's reading this sentence and knowing that you're reading this sentence.

Maybe you've experienced, like I have, some moments of "auto-pilot." Sometimes I experience this as I drive home by taking the same route I've taken dozens of times. Maybe I'm coming from a really pleasant coffee/breakfast/lunch with a friend, and I'm thinking about something we discussed. Maybe I'm thinking about stuff I need to do when I get home. Maybe I'm ruminating about an unpleasant interaction from earlier in the day. Whatever the reason, it often arises when I realize that I've been driving home, but I don't have any recollection of part of the journey. And, actually, the practice of mindfulness occurs in that moment of realization that what I intended to pay attention to (driving) was not what I was paying attention to, and then bringing my awareness back to driving. (I'll go deeper into this in a future post about practicing.)

On Purpose

What I mean by on purpose is that there is intention to my paying attention in a non-judgmental way. [The lawyers (and aspiring lawyers) among us are likely now squirming a bit because the difference between intentionally doing something and unintentionally doing something in some circumstances is the difference between murder and manslaughter. I get it-- this is hard for you! Please stay with me.]

One really beautiful part of intention is that when I realize I've shifted into "auto-pilot" unintentionally, I can note it and begin again, with the intention to pay attention on purpose.


What I mean by non-judgment is that as I'm paying attention, on purpose, I can note what's happening from a place of not getting tied up in judging what's happening as good, bad, difficult, ugly, etc. In my experience, the moment I get tangled up in judgment is the moment I move from mindfulness to "auto-pilot." This can look like this, inside my head:

The vet just said my cat's blood work is a little off? Oh no! This is bad! When we had this happen with another cat, we ended up giving her medicine, which she hated, and then I hated giving it to her, and then Mark hated giving it to her, and then Mark and I would argue about who had to give her the medicine, and then we had to give her special food while trying to keep the other cats from eating it, and then that cat stopped eating, and then she died. OH MY GAWD MY CAT IS GOING TO DIE TOMORROW AND I AM SO UPSET AND WORRIED!

Meanwhile, the patient and compassionate vet is explaining options, and I'm missing it because I'm tangled up in judgment, which has led to story.

Please be clear: I am NOT saying that judgment has no place OR that feelings aren't going to arise. It does and they will. What I'm saying is that mindfulness is paying attention, on purpose, from a place of non-judgment, in the midst of noting the feelings arising and noting the judgment.

Present-Moment Awareness

Another term I use for mindfulness is present-moment awareness. This isn't uncommon among people who practice mindfulness meditation, and we often use present-moment awareness rather than mindfulness at Thought Kitchen.

One reason I tend to use present-moment awareness is that it's more accessible to my understanding of paying attention, on purpose, from a place of non-judgment. Another reason is that mindfulness is a term that's used quite a lot and has many different meanings. I've also experienced confusion about mindfulness and mindfulness meditation.

There's no right or wrong answer here. What I'm hoping you remember is: if you read or hear present-moment awareness here or during Thought Kitchen offerings, it's synomynous with mindfulness.

Paying attention, on purpose, from a place of non-judgment

Curious to learn more, discover supports, and practice? Cool! I've got some resources for you!

Kitchen Essentials is a free, 7-day course that shares our essential ingredients and practices to support your journey to mindfulness and connection.

Every Wednesday morning, 8:30-8:55 am Eastern, our Thought Kitchen community practices together at the Weekly Sangha Sit. Come join us!

Have questions or comments? I'd love for you to leave them in the comments!

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