Back in 1979, when I started Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, I came up with an operational definition of mindfulness that still serves as well as anything else: mindfulness is the awareness that arises from paying attention on purpose in the present moment nonjudgmentally. That doesn’t mean you won’t have any judgments. In fact, when we start paying attention, we realize that we almost have nothing but judgments going through our heads. Just about every thought has reactive emotions associated with it: liking, disliking, wanting, rejecting, greed, aversion, and with plenty of delusion thrown in to leaven the pot. So mindfulness is about getting access to our own awareness with equanimity and without falling into a stream of conceptual thinking that goes on and on and on.
You could say that mindfulness is about cultivating a relationship of intimacy with oneself. But what does that mean? The body is really a big part of this because most of the time, except under very specialized circumstances, we tend to tune out the body completely. We’re in our heads most of the time because it’s challenging to stay in touch with the body. So a good place to start as a focus of attention is the breath. After all, as they used to say, you can’t leave home without it. And we’re always one breath away from not being alive.
The challenge is actually just experiencing one breath in and one breath out. And that means not thinking about the breath or patting ourselves on the back for how wonderfully we breathe or anything like that. It’s just the direct knowing of breathing. But breathing is just the object of attention. Mindfulness isn’t about the object: what it’s really about is the attending itself.
The message of mindfulness is an invitation to everybody to wake up to the true dimensionality of who we all are, and to move in a direction of maximizing the good that comes from our activities and minimizing the harm both to ourselves and others. And that could be done on a corporate level, on a national level, on an international level.
I think the reason we’re seeing so much interest now in mindfulness is that, as a species, we’re starving for authentic experience. But the impulse is to make mindfulness into a kind of catechism, in which some inner circle understands what mindfulness really is and everybody else is deluded. Instead, I think of mindfulness as a big umbrella. The difference between various traditions are unimportant as long as the focus is on creating greater well-being and minimizing harm.
–Jon Kabat-Zinn, “The Reluctant Guru,” Psychotherapy Networker