What is Mindfulness?

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Human minds are exceedingly busy. Studies have estimated that we have something like 60,000 plus thoughts a day – without even trying! The stream of consciousness is actually a mighty river. The surprising thing is that we are often not aware of the content of our own stream of consciousness, that is, until we stop and pay attention. Most of us wake up in the morning (there are, of course, teenagers) and thereby become conscious, and then go about our daily routines and activities on a kind of automatic pilot. But stopping to pay attention to what is happening in the present moment is something different, something that we call mindfulness.

Would you accept as completely true that all that has happened in your life, from birth to mere seconds ago, has already happened and is not subject to revision or change of any kind? What has happened has happened. We can know the past but we cannot change it. Would you accept as an indisputable fact that beyond this very moment resides the future, and that the future is not a place or time that we can inhabit, ever, except in our imagination? We cannot know or be in the future, even though we like to think that we can. We often and must plan for the future, but that planning always happens in the present.

If you accept these facts, that the past is a done deal and that we can’t know what will come in the future, then we are left with some pretty interesting implications. One is that we exist and that life is lived only and always in the present moment, here now. We exist in a three-dimensional space, not one that includes the fourth dimension, time. Time travel happens only in our mind, within our imaginings or those of science fiction writers and movie makers. Next time you check your watch, you’ll find that it’s now once again. It’s always now. Check it out!

Mindfulness is the intentional act of paying attention in the present moment, knowing what is happening now, which is literally where you live. However, much of the time our minds mindlessly wander off trying to undo the past, dreading the future, stressing. Our mind can be gripped by any thinking or emotion or gut sense you can imagine and we may not really notice, unless we pay attention.

To be mindful is also to be honest. Whatever is happening in a given moment is indeed what is happening, and so the accurate and honest paying of attention is to note just what is occurring, nothing less and nothing more. To judge or deny is usually to invoke a wish for our mind to be otherwise, to begin to disappear from the present moment into desires, aversions and distractions. To judge is to disrupt attention to what is already here.

Mindfulness is like an internal GPS – we could call it our Grounded Personal Sense. We have this ability to just look and see what’s going on right now. Most of us want the ‘full function’ GPS that effortlessly navigates us to some destination (like to be kinder, sober, rich, famous, illness-free) – good luck with that!

Mindfulness has recently become a huge focus for research, and its application to living well and healthily seems to be limitless. It’s like suddenly discovering that we have muscles, and that there are all kinds of things that we can do with them. This GPS of ours is a big deal. We’ll visit this in more detail next time.