Mind-FULL or Mind-LESS?
By Chanda Murphy, PhD
A former student of mine was doing some mental training for athletes when he gave me a call to meet for coffee. His first question for me was, “Why do you call it mindfulness when really you want someone to be mindless?” After giving him a quizzical look, he explained his thoughts, clarifying that he thought the point of mindfulness was to completely clear your mind. So why call it mind-FULL?
I was immediately reminded of the psychologist Ellen Langer’s description of categories in her books on mindful learning. We tend to take words and put some sort of restrictions or defining limitations on what they mean, thereby creating labels. I think that is what has happened to mindfulness. We have tried to constrict the definition of mindfulness when we actually can’t. Mindfulness is defined and used in many different ways, depending on the perspective in which you are using it. Mindfulness can be interpreted many different ways, from traditional explanations that extend from Buddhist traditions to secular traditions that Thich Nhat Hanh initiated and Jon Kabat-Zinn brought to the United States.
So maybe first it’s easier to talk about what mindfulness is not. It’s not necessarily associated with a religion and doesn’t have to be spiritual. It’s not sitting in lotus pose and meditating for 30 minutes, although it can be. It’s also not a personality trait that requires you to be zen 100% of the time. It’s also not a concept, buzz word or fad that should be used to sell vegan mayonnaise or any other product. Mindfulness has been around for thousands of years and it’s not going to go away.
So what is it? The simplest definition that we like to use is Jon Kabat Zinn’s, and he says mindfulness is being aware and non-judging of the present moment. So think about that. How often are we even aware of the present moment? How many times have you washed your hair twice in the shower because your mind was wandering and you couldn’t remember if you already did it? Or how many times have you had to re-read a page in a book or magazine you just read because you weren’t fully paying attention (maybe you have even re-started reading this article a couple of times already)? How many times have you been walking down the street, grocery shopping or at dinner and seen everyone engaged in something on their smartphones rather than what is going on around them in each moment. So just being aware is the first step in a society that is moving faster than we can keep up with.
The second part of that definition is non-judgement. If we are aware of the current moment, many times we are putting some sort of emotional label on it. For example, if it’s pouring outside, we may immediately get frustrated with the fact we are getting soaking wet. Or if you are in an uncomfortable situation with a colleague, you may immediately shut down and assign a negative label to the other person (i.e. why is he/she so stubborn). Instead, we can try to be accepting of whatever is happening in that moment, not labeling it, just allowing ourselves to be. It is not an easy task. That is where meditation can help, but that is an article for another day.
We challenge you to work on being more aware and non-judging of as many moments as you can throughout the day. While walking from your car next time, take in your surroundings through all of your senses instead of being on your phone or distracted in thought. While talking to a friend or colleague, really engage in the conversation, listening to each word uttered. While washing the dishes, think about the action you are doing as you wash each dish. When eating your next meal, try not to do it while watching tv or looking at your phone - actually experience the food you are tasting. See how being in the present moment feels, especially in a society that wants us to continue to do things faster and stay busier.
Through this section of the website we will continue to share our tips and tricks for living a more mindful lifestyle. Just remember it’s all about practice, and no one is ever going to be mindful and non-judging 100% of the time (I’m pretty sure I answered a couple of text messages and got frustrated with my child at least a few times while writing this article), but we can all work on making our lives (as Dan Harris puts it in his book) at least 10% happier.