What Does Mindfulness Really Mean Anyway?

Sunday, April 5, 2015 - 6:41am

What Does Mindfulness Really Mean Anyway?

There is no doubt that “mindfulness” is having a moment in the spotlight. Back in November 2013, David Hochman wrote a New York Times feature titled “Mindfulness: Getting Its Share of Attention,” indicating the initial surge in the mindfulness “trend.” In his article’s first sentence, Hochman invites readers to consider the funny question, “What is the sound of one hand texting?”

I find that funny because the question is both earnest and ironic. Mindfulness — an expansive term that refers most generally to the state of “being present” — includes the practice of tuning into our sensory experience with more presence, too. In other words, it allows us to listen to “the sound of one hand texting” as opposed to just hearing it.

But the question is ironic because of Hochman’s focus: how mindfulness is finding its way into our increasingly digital culture. He not only cites the vast array of companies — from Google to Goldman Sachs — whose employees tout the benefits of meditation for their productivity, but also argues that the specific reason mindfulness is having its moment is because technology has made us all so distracted. “The hunger to get centered is especially fervent in the cradle of the digital revolution,” Hochman argues. None of us can seem to pay attention anymore, so the so-called mindfulness revolution is gaining momentum as a way to stay connected to the here and now.

Anagarika Shri Munindra (Munindraji) at the Insight Meditation Society in 1978 with Sharon Salzberg.

I went to India in 1970 to learn meditation (it was pre-mindfulness revolution, for sure, so I had to go somewhere.) I came back in 1974 as a teacher, having been told to teach by one of my own teachers. In those days, at a party or some social situation, you never heard a word like mindfulness. If someone asked what I did and I responded, “I teach meditation,” they would usually look at me funny.

These days, the single most common response I hear is:

“I’m so stressed out, I could use some of that.”

I have a Google alert on the word "mindfulness." Every single day I read about new research and new applications in schools, at work, in hospitals, in the military, in breast cancer support groups, for caregivers — and much more.

I think this is a good thing. But what exactly does mindfulness really mean anyway? With its newfound, relatively mainstream support, mindfulness has become somewhat of a business and pop cultural buzzword. So now strikes me as a particularly good time to think about how we can come to understand mindfulness even more deeply.

Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein in India in the 1970s.

Mindfulness is not simply becoming aware of the temperature of my cup of coffee or hearing my coworker’s fingers type on the keyboard. It includes these things.

But most of us simply use the word “mindfulness” to suggest “knowing what’s going on.” The popularization of mindfulness mostly has to do with the particular benefits of this practice: when you more closely tune into the details of your life, you enjoy things so much more. You are more present with your experience: you smell the cup of tea you’re drinking as opposed to drinking tea while on a conference call, simultaneously checking email, and watching the TV on mute.

Mindfulness isn’t just about knowing that you’re hearing something, seeing something, or even observing that you’re having a particular feeling. It’s about doing so in a certain way — with balance and equanimity, and without judgment. Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention in a way that creates space for insight.

Let’s take an uncomfortable feeling, like anger. What does it take to work with the feeling of anger, rather than against it? Well, it takes mindfulness. If I am mindful of my anger, I can observe it with sensitivity, focus, and greater emotional clarity. I can see the sadness and fear within the anger, and ultimately see anger’s changing nature. This kind of realization opens our minds and hearts, and we can see, in fact, everything’s changing nature.

Mindfulness serves as the basis for insight — literally meaning it provides us a clearer vision (“sight”) or what is within. If we experience a difficult emotion or undergo a negative experience, we tend to want to deny or avoid the pain we feel as soon as it arises. But, when doing this, we don’t create adequate space for learning and growth. Reactivity doesn’t expand our perspective. Mindfulness transforms our tendency to react by enabling us to be more present and aware. This presence is the platform from which we can access more wisdom and compassion.

Sharon Salzberg in India in 1972 with Jacqueline Mandell and Dipa Barua.

(Insight Meditation Society.)

When I began meditation, I was 18 years old. I had gone to India as a junior in college. At the time, I knew I wasn’t happy but wasn’t particularly aware of my emotions. I didn’t really understand what was inside other than the fact that it hurt. Many of my closest friends are people I met at my first retreat in January of 1971. I’m somewhat famous amongst that group of people for once having marched up to my first mediation teacher and saying, “I never used to be an angry person until I started meditating,” thereby laying blame on him.

What I now realize is that I had always been hugely angry but hadn’t known it. Becoming more mindful of my pain meant seeing things I hadn’t noticed before. I began judging everything I saw, and mindfulness allowed me to identify that.

For me to come to a place where I actually could just be aware of suffering in a balanced way inevitably meant lovingkindness and compassion for myself. I think that’s true for many of us, if not all of us. That’s why I think it’s an implicit cultivation. We can’t be mindful, really, without compassion.

Mindfulness helps us create a certain kind of relationship with experience in order to make ourselves available for greater wisdom and insight. That way, we can see what we feel, even if its judgment, pay attention to it, and allow it to exist without condemnation, without that constrictive gesture of “pushing away.”

A retreat in India taught by SN Goenka, where Insight Meditation Society founders Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein met n 1971.

It may seem bizarre that something as clinical sounding as “paying attention” is essential for creating the space in ourselves for real, sustainable happiness. But actually, the difference between suffering and happiness all depends on what we do with our attention: do we position happiness as something outside of ourselves, or do we allow ourselves to look deeply within and feel whole as we are?

Mindfulness is what can permit us to no longer feel like victims of our negative emotions. Instead, it allows us to understand our intentions and gain awareness of our emotions as they arise. As they arise, we pivot, we continue to pay attention, and our world continues to open up.

Science agrees, which is undoubtedly part of the popularization. A 2011 study conducted at Mass General Hospital, with the headline “Mindfulness meditation training changes brain structure in eight weeks,” examined the brain structure of 16 participants for two weeks before and after they took an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Progress text at the UMass Center for Mindfulness (MBSR). Results showed measurable changes in participants’ brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress. Meditation actually produced actual changes in the brain’s grey matter.

Long story short: by practicing mindfulness, we aren’t simply just “more aware.” We open ourselves up to greater discernment, compassion, and an intelligent, empowered sense of choice.

This is mindfulness.

(Kristof Magyar / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).)

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Sharon Salzberg

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears monthly.

She is a meditation teacher and the cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. She is the author of many books, including Love Your Enemies, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, and Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement, and Peace.

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What Does Mindfulness Really Mean Anyway

That's a really good question. Perhaps it's the opposite of mindlessness.
It's interesting that when your mind is full of garbage, past and future events, resentments, regrets, worries, plan making and all the rest, they call that mindlessness. When your mind is focused on observing something that is going on in the present moment with no baggage or judgements, they call that mindfulness. Ironic eh?

This was posted on facebook by a friend of mine; I fascilitate a Great Courses class on mindfulnessin a senior citizen building. But I'm also a poet/writer who understands the profound in meditating- I read everything I find on the subject and pass it on to others. I just came in the back door of learning to act rather than react (ALANON) but from their it just became part of me. Thanks for the thoughts/insights you provide.

It is an interesting picture at the head of the article. The school where I work, where over 90% of the students are in poverty, experiences difficulties with students that struggle to maintain the emotional even keel needed to be academically successful. So, we are wading into the waters of "mindfulness" as a staff. We are being educated about mindfulness and practicing it ourselves, and learning some simple exercises we can do with children. The world they are entering is one of perpetual divided attention.

The picture is interesting to me in that an introduction to mindfulness can be done sitting in chairs just as well as sitting cross-legged on floor mats. So why are they sitting on floor mats?

If the intent is to teach secular mindfulness without triggering opposition from those who see in mindfulness an agenda to teach Hinduism/Yoga or Buddhism, the cross-legged sitting on mats should be avoided, as well as the use of a
"temple bell" to start and end mindfulness periods.

It goes without saying that concepts such as Metta (the specifically Buddhist perspective on compassion), impermanence, no/non-self, dhukka/suffering, and release from the wheel of karma should have no place in a secular mindfulness curriculum.

While I would certainly agree with the last assertion that the Buddhist teachings of "Metta (the specifically Buddhist perspective on compassion), impermanence, no/non-self, dhukka/suffering, and release from the wheel of karma" may "have no place in a secular mindfulness curriculum" and clearly does not have a place in a public school curriculum, I don't see that such limits apply to sitting on a mat on the floor. First of all, the position is directly related to the connection between and integration of body and mind, which is basic to any "mindfulness" training. Secondly, for most Westerners at least, this is an unusual position, and taking such an atypical position underscores the sense that, in what we might call a formal mindfulness practice, or meditation, we are deliberately stepping aside and doing something that is different from our normal behavior. I approve entirely of teaching the practice to schoolchildren and think that understanding teaching someone to sit cross-legged on the floor with an erect but relaxed back and pay attention to their breath as a threat to secular culture is really grasping at straws in terms of argumentation.

We seem to mostly agree. Whether or not kids sit cross-legged on the floor is ultimately not the issue. The issue is much larger. It's about whether mindfulness can be taught in a truly secular way.

I respect Sharon Salzberg very highly as a master teacher of Buddhism.

She teaches Vipassana - Buddhist insight meditation - which the popular culture understands as "mindfulness".

The question for me is whether Vipassana/mindfulness can translate into a secular context with integrity. This question of integrity of practice was the theme of the 2013 ACMHE conference in Amherst.

To me, integrity in mindfulness education means that it must be truly secular, and not just have a thin veneer of secularity laid on top of what is fundamentally Buddhism. Said in another way that my Buddhist friends will understand, "secular mindfulness" should not be a "skillful means" to actually teach Buddhism.

I know from my own teaching that mindfulness can be secularized into a technique, but that's not what it is in Buddhism. In Buddhism it's a life path, not a technique.

A life path is what Sharon Salzberg describes in her essay this week.

It includes much of what we seem to agree shouldn't be taught in a secular context.

When she says: "This kind of realization opens our minds and hearts, and we can see, in fact, everything’s changing nature", I understand her as pointing to impermanence.

When she says: "This presence is the platform from which we can access more wisdom and compassion", that's pointing to Prajna (look it up on Wikipedia) and Metta.

When she says: "We can’t be mindful, really, without compassion", that's Metta again.

When she says: "But actually, the difference between suffering and happiness all depends on what we do with our attention...", I understand that "suffering" as "dhukka".

So, for me, the question becomes, not: "should we have the kids sit cross-legged on a floor mat or not", but rather: "how can we create a mindfulness curriculum for the public sector that is really, truly secular?"

i do so agree
It may be the last bastion of the separation of church and state. And if it can be written as clearly as you have. Then it is possibility. I rejoice in that. Thank you.

Len, you wrote: "To me, integrity in mindfulness education means that it must be truly secular, and not just have a thin veneer of secularity laid on top of what is fundamentally Buddhism." I worry more about the opposite: that a fundamentally spiritual practice will be stripped entirely of its spiritual orientation in order to make it appropriate in a secular context. I seem to recall this as a strategy for promoting Transcendental Meditation many years ago: the sense of the messaging was "Oh, sure, it has Hindu origins, but that doesn't matter to us; we're just using it as a way to relax." I would submit that this kind of messaging leaves beginners unprepared for the (to me, wonderful) side effects that a spiritual practice might bring--e.g., insight.

Is there a way to meet in the middle somehow: to make any given practice accessible in a secular context while preserving its essential spiritual character? I can easily see the need to transcend the trappings of a particular religion as it applies to the practice, but can our secular spaces accommodate something that is overtly spiritual?

We need to decide why we want to teach mindfulness. Is it to enhance attentiveness, focus, and to promote relaxation and stress reduction? Or is it to promote spirituality? Or maybe both?

In the public sector we can make the case that enhancing attentiveness, focus and promoting relaxation/stress reduction are worthwhile goals, and that we should devote time, money and effort to them.

It's much more difficult to make the case that teaching spirituality is worthwhile.

The first problem that teaching spirituality faces is: whose definition of spirituality do we teach? If we teach Buddhist spirituality we will face severe opposition from those who will say we are promoting religious practice in the schools, and also from those who don't want their kids exposed specifically to Buddhist theology/philosophy and practice.

We could try to secularize mindfulness so as to disconnect it from Buddhist forms and practices, somehow still keeping its tight connection to compassion (however we end up defining compassion). Then we'd have a "truth in advertising" issue. People will ask: what does compassion have to do with mindfulness? In my opinion the answer is "nothing" - there is no necessary connection between mindfulness and compassion, unless we are promoting a Buddhist understanding of mindfulness.

I think that the way to make mindfulness truly secular is to teach it as a technique, detaching it from compassion education. If the technique has positive spiritual side-effects that's great - the students can consult their parents and spiritual advisors about them, because that advising function probably doesn't belong in the public schools.

And if we think that compassion training is truly necessary, we can leave it to the SEL (Social and Emotional Learning) folks.

How is Buddhism spiritual? I've never heard any Buddhist teaching say anything about spirit or God. Groups have turned it into a religion, but groups have also turned "science" into a religion. Buddhism is a psychological philosophy that was created to improve peoples lives just like "science" is a mechanistic philosophy that was created to improve peoples lives. Both are atheistic and both have been turned into a religion by some. There is nothing inherently spiritual about compassion, equanimity, non-judgement or moral values. They all have been shown by observation and statistical analysis to be beneficial qualities to cultivate in ourselves and others.

This is a common misconception in the US. It still surprises me when I encounter it.

Have a look at the Pure Land, Soka Gakkai, Shin, Tibetan and Thailand's Forest tradition (Hinayana) groups to get a sense of how very diverse Buddhism is.

Buddhism is one of the world's great religions. Even the western forms of Zen here in the USA - which perhaps have the fewest religious forms among the Buddhist communities - has a priesthood with robes and special rites of ordination; incense, food and water offerings; prayer services; bowing and prostration before an altar (which often has a statue of the Buddha); a practice of taking vows; religious holidays; ritual ceremonies for major life events including weddings, funerals, births, death memorials and others; and a theology that includes impermanence, no/not self, the identity of form and emptiness, escape from the karmic cycle of birth, death and re-birth; and much, much more.

Other groups have beliefs in gods, demons and other heavenly beings (especially among the Tibetans);

In the Mahayana forms there is even a theology that includes what could easily be called God: the Trikaya - the three bodies of Buddha. (See Wikipedia for a nice description of the Trikaya as it's understood in the various Buddhist communities.)

And they even have a version of heaven: the Pure Land.

Wow, Buddha started all that?

Yes, I think you're spot-on here, Len. You're certainly correct about the public sector, in which the separation of church and state must apply--and your thought about the "positive spiritual side-effects" is probably the right way to manage that aspect of the issue. Thanks for your good thinking.

These are good questions. But if one asked, "what is really, truly secular," the answer may be that one has already fallen into dualistic categories.

Coming from a place of legitimate ignorance--as a non-Jew and non-Buddhist-- might one dare ask, who really cares about Pali terminology anyway, and how does it impinge on the Establishment Clause? Whence the resistance to expedient means? Remember that the first amendment also allows the free exercise of religion as well, although Buddhism need not be considered a religion in a conventional sense.

Why not consider Zen, which purports of be part of Buddhism, but according to some of its prominent proponents (e.g., D.T. Suzuki), counts sutras and sastras as waste paper? It is remarkable that so many practitioners of western Buddhism hail from Ashkenazi backgrounds--bright people all-- and the statistics bear this out. Why is that?

Here's a tentative answer to the original query: Buddhism is not the answer. Nothing is the answer. And that is an answer that Buddhism would likely accede to. But the final word should be left to a real, true Buddhist perhaps, secular or religious.

Secular Mindfulness curriculum is taught so amazingly well through Mindful Schools out of Oakland. Growing Minds in Milwaukee is also teaching mindfulness in schools with great results. Happy kids, happy schools, happier world.

I find it interesting that the Quiet Time program in the San Francisco schools is based on TM, and not on mindfulness.

What if you are of a certain age where this would prove uncomfortable to say the least

i have thought that for some time but never seen it written down by someone.

Maybe the picture is at a private school and not a public school. Interesting to see how intention can be projected onto a seemingly innocuous picture. By the way, the article is pretty good.

They're in a gym- there are no chairs/desks. Maybe there are more kids in there than fit in a classroom. The gym is an open, uncluttered place compared to the classroom. Kids start sitting cross-legged on the floor in kindergarten or preschool; mindfulness didn't bring it about.

I'm so happy to see you here, Sharon!I am really looking forward to reading your weekly posts; this is so exciting.

A college teacher once told me that the phrase, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" is actually a mistranslation; the original was "What is the sound of one pair of hands clapping." You can't put sounds into words that easily. Nor can you clap hands while texting.

It's important to note that when Mindfulness is taught in the US, it almost always has a Buddhist orientation - it is decidedly not secular.

It generally includes the Buddhist versions of compassion, impermanence, no/none-self, and the nature of suffering. These don't belong in programs taught in the US public sector, including schools.

I find it hugely ironic that the three founders of IMS are all born-Jews (Jack Kornfield included).

I wonder how differently they would have turned out if their parents had given them good Jewish educations.

Do any of them have anything left of their Jewish practice? Last I heard, Sylvia Boorstein (one of the founders of Spirit Rock Meditation Center, a West Coast analog to IMS) was a member of a Conservative Jewish congregation.

I think you're overly concerned Len. It's much harder to become a Buddhist than you seem to think. I loved meditation when i discovered it and i loved the philosophical and psychological aspects of Buddhism, but confronted with the reality of becoming Buddhist, it was easy to see it wasn't my path. Still, the insight into ourselves and the calming of our minds, the expansion of how we see the world and view others, are wonderful and worthwhile and really aren't going to turn us all into Buddhists. The easy religion in the Americas is Christianity if you want to be worried about one. Just go to church on Sunday, own a Bible, maybe rail against social issues.


A good article about a practice worth considering.

A clear, beautifully written essay. I loved the photographs.

Beautiful! I have found with my practice that I am less and less a victim of the negative emotions. They are there, but I can be with them rather than react. Wonderful article, thank you.

This is why I always groan inside when I hear people say they tried meditation but they gave up because they are not very good at it.

Small children at school are often asked to sit on their mats, frequently in a circle, when something interesting is going to happen, an enchanting story is about to be told, or they are going to be allowed to rest for a few minutes in the middle of a busy day. I think mats could work quite well in a children's secular program since it seems that many already have a connection to the practice. .

meditation isn't for a specific benefit.
it can be used for a specific benefit and perform very well.
but meditation is about opening, learning about letting go,
and learning about acceptance of things the way they are.
That happens to mean jumping off the cliff, not knowing what will happen,
being open to this creation, to this beautiful/terrible world.
It's not about control. Getting your specific benefit is still about control.

Gary, your thinking here touches on something behind my earlier comment: that tailoring the practice for a secular application--as is necessary for use in public schools--doesn't make the practice any less spiritual. I'd think at least some children will experience the "positive spiritual side-effects" that Len Moskowitz cites so eloquently in his comment, precisely because it's difficult to separate the spiritual from the spiritual practice. What the implications of this are for the separation of church and state, I have no idea.

As a new practitioner of mindfulness, I have written a poem entitled "The Watcher Within" to help me understand why and what I am doing...or should I say being. Here is the poem:

Who is the I in me
The watcher within
The one aware when
My mind begins to wonder
Here, there and everywhere
Who with gentle breath and tender touch
Stills my mind and guides me back to now
Call the I what you will
The East's suffering self
Or the West's sentient soul
Either way
Does being mindful really have the power
As some say
To make us whole
If we learn to pay attention
And intentionally inhabit each moment of the day
Instead of letting our minds stray
And wander away

thank you

Mindfulness is a"must" skill to learnif one wants peace and joy.

I'm so very pleased you have joined On Being and I look forward to reading you each Sunday. As a lover of contemplative prayer and a Spiritual Director, the practice of being present, open, gentle with my thoughts, available to greater wisdom (in my case, God) has become the core of my life and a challenge I'll live into for the rest of my life. Your first essay is a wonderful reminder that there are many ways to compassion and wholeness. Thank you.

An excellent piece and we will look forward to reading more of your work...thank you, Sharon and On Being!

The practice of meditation and mindfulness is now being proposed for training new police officers. I am a retired officer and early in my career "stress management" was the rage. Fortunately one element of this instruction was meditation as a means of becoming centered and more world-aware. As you rightly elaborate, compassion and emotional control are core requirements for viable meditation.

How can mindfulness be positively presented as a useful practice in the law enforcement field, which is highly structured and grounded in "reality"? I am struggling with this.

I so apreciarte your clear description of where mindfulness takes us. For me, it consistently helps me to arrive at the intelligent and empowered sense of choice.
As a Transpersonal Counselor and Quantum Coach, I marvel with meditators as they journey to make choices consciously, then take intelligent actions.
My personal challenge is to practice mindfulness regularly, at a dedicated time, and not to pretend that reading about it brings me the same benefits.
I must offer you gratitude for the Silent Meditation Mindfulness Retreat that you offered last November, together with Sylvia Bornstein.That practice reset me.
Thank you for your dedication to empowering so many of us!

Munindraji taught us all how to eat mindfully.America is now obese because people are distracted and stressed and they are not aware of what they are putting in their mouth. Meditation and mindfulness works if you bring it into your everyday life. Living mindfully means taking care of your body as well as your thoughts.

This is enlightening.i had not as clearly seen, the way mindfulness is a part of working with anger, or even recognizing anger. Very helpful

Another way of thinking about mindfulness (and meditation practices) is that we are seeking a safe place inside, or a state of mind that corresponds to being calm, open, curious, and playful.

interesting. would like to read again, being more mindful!

thanks for sharing, a beautifully written article

Sharon, Thank you! I was disappointed in Virginia Heffernan's NY Times article. I usually love her writing so much.I like how you gently set matters straight without getting into it with her. If I could just get to that point.

Sharon Salzberg's writing seems to make me pause and understand the choices I make. The line in the traditional Irish folk song, The Parting Glass, "For all the harm that ever I have done, alas it was done to none but me." She helped me pause and understand that anger is a feeling and I can try to understand it, and ale good choices with the feeling.

In being present to yourself you can be more present to others

I began a meditation practice in the late 80s to help me with the stresses, the anger and fear, of teaching school. My first and most enduring lesson was in how badly it hurt to be angry and how being mean made it so much worse. Conversely, I learned that it feels really good to be kind to myself and others. I learn and relearn all the time. There is so much that provokes anger and fear.

I believe our task for the second half of life involves the letting go of all the layers of our "false" selves we so diligently acquired in the first half of our lives. Mindfulness meditation has been central in my letting go of the baggage that once seemed so important and paying attention to what's real.

Great overview of Mindfulness...