Living a Mindful Life: What is Mindfulness?

This post is the first in the series Living a Mindful Life.  Over the next several weeks, we will engage our left brains as we learn more about mindfulness and meditation, and I will share strategies for incorporating a mindfulness practice into your busy life!

Mindful Life

The “What” of Mindfulness

This post is all about engaging the left brain ~ we’re learning exactly what mindfulness is!

I have read many books and articles about mindfulness, and found varying definitions. I wrote my own definition {which I also share on the side of every page of this blog}:

Mindfulness Quote

Let’s break that definition down.

“Purposeful awareness.”  It’s not just paying attention like you pay attention to a teacher’s lecture in class or to your spouse in conversation.  It’s “meta-awareness” ~ it’s noticing where your attention is focused.  So when you are paying attention to your teacher, you are aware that you are paying attention.  While driving, you don’t just “keep your attention on the road,” you become aware of the movements of your hands on the steering wheel, the motion of your neck as you check for traffic, the sounds of the road humming beneath you….  You are paying attention on purpose.

In a book I read to my children, Mindful Monkey, Happy Panda by Lauren Alderfer, the monkey with the {not-mindful} monkey mind is portrayed like this:

monkey mind

And the happy panda tells him:

happy panda

In each moment, you are focused on the task of the moment.  For example, when you serve dinner and your child immediately responds with, “But I hate chicken!!”, you pay attention to your body’s response ~ the anger and frustration that bubble up, the racing pulse, the “I worked so hard on this dinner after a long day…” thoughts that enter your mind ~ and you are aware of feeling anger.  {Hypothetical situation only ~ I have no personal experience with this}.  And just in case you feel like reacting based on that anger {again, no first-hand knowledge here :)}, you learn that you need to…

“Accept what is, without judgment.”  When I first started practicing mindfulness, I thought it was about seeing how everything in every moment was amazing and wonderful.  One of my books suggested bringing mindful attention to washing the dishes ~ noticing the water, the soap, etc.  So I tried it, and my inner monologue went something like this: “Oh, the water feels so nice and warm, and that soap smells so good, and this feels so relaxing…” It was weird and bizarre, and felt mildly inappropriate.  Bringing mindful attention simply means noticing and accepting what is.  Noticing the sensations without ascribing a positive or negative value to them. Just noticing that there’s water on your hands, or the scent of the soap.  Noticing it, and not judging.  No creepy narration {that’s the left brain intruding!}

“It is about being aware of our thinking, and responding skillfully to challenges.” Bringing this type of mindful awareness to something like dishwashing or the laundry is a relatively easy way to start your practice, as it doesn’t really involve a lot of emotion.  And paying mindful attention to small tasks can help you tackle the bigger challenges, like stopping destructive habits like rumination {churning negative self-talk over and over in your head}.

It also helps you to become aware of the actions of your mind, the moments when your attention drifts.  You start observing your monkey mind, which may go something like this while washing dishes: ”My hands feel the warmth of the water, I breathe in the clean scent of soap…. oh, but did I pay the water bill last week?  What should I make for dinner tomorrow?  I need to make those dinner reservations for Saturday, and, ugh, those prescriptions need to get refilled….”   When you notice that your attention has drifted, you non-judgmentally bring your attention back to what you are doing. And noticing that your mind has wandered is actually a good thing! You noticed it! You’re being mindful!

mindful monkey

The “monkey mind” ~ from Mindful Monkey, Happy Panda by Lauren Alderfer

And this awareness of your thinking helps you with the more challenging situations, like your ranting three-year-old.  You are aware of your emotions, and you accept them, without judgment.  Sarah Napthali, in her book Buddhism for Mothers, recommends naming and greeting the emotion you are feeling.  ”Oh, hello anger, I see you are here…”  I admit, I feel really goofy doing it, but it helps!  Just like the pleasant sensation of your hands in warm water while washing dishes is fleeting, so is your anger at your toddler.  Instead of letting your emotions take over, you acknowledge them, and take a pause to respond skillfully.  Just a small moment to stop and breathe reminds you that yelling back will make it worse, and gives you a chance to respond, instead of reacting in anger. {Suggestions for getting three-year-olds to actually eat their dinner will need to be reserved for a later post.}

“It is about being fully present and waking up to the joy that is right in front of us!”  I know I said not to judge what we observe, but mindfulness does make us more aware of the small joys we may otherwise be too distracted to see.  Sometimes I’m so distracted as my thoughts wander while I do the dishes, that I don’t see the beauty in my children playing together just outside the window in front of me.  Non-judgmental awareness doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the goodness that we see.  In fact, mindfulness makes us realize that the goodness has been there all along.

Mindfulness also teaches us that the good moments are just as fleeting as the bad ones.  We learn to both appreciate the relief in knowing that the negative emotions will soon disappear, and acknowledge that we cannot cling to moments of joy {“I want things to stay this way forever!”} that we know will also inevitably change.

Mark Williams and Danny Penman, in the book Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World, describe mindfulness as follows:

“You come to realize that thoughts come and go of their own accord; that you are not your thoughts.  You can watch as they appear in the air, and watch again as they disappear, like a soap bubble bursting.  You come to the profound understanding that thoughts and feelings (including negative ones) are transient.  They come and go, and ultimately, you have a choice about whether to act on them or not.  Mindfulness is about observation without criticism; being compassionate with yourself…. [Mindfulness] begins the process of putting you back in control of your life.” [emphasis added]

I know this post is getting long, but it just feels wrong to speak of mindfulness without quoting the venerable Thich Nhat Hanh.  This is from his latest book, Peace is Every Breath:

“No matter what you’re doing, you can choose to do it with your full presence, with mindfulness and concentration; and your action becomes a spiritual practice…. Mindfulness is the energy that makes us fully present, fully alive in the here and the now.”

Want to get started right away?  Check out this article from the Huffington Post about five ways you can integrate mindfulness into your everyday life.


Next in this series: Living a Mindful Life: Why Mindfulness?  We’ll explore the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of living mindfully!


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Sarah Rudell Beach

Sarah is a writer, teacher, and mother. At Left Brain Buddha, she writes about her journey to live and parent mindfully, joyfully, and thought-fully in her left-brain analytical life. When not working, she enjoys dancing, reading, and hanging out with her little Buddhas.
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  1. I love this post, and also hold the practice in high esteem (though flawed execution, often!). It’s something I hope to help instill in my children, and I love your thoughts on that. We recently read Thich Nhat Hahn’s A Pebble In Your Pocket together and I was struck by the ways in which his work resonated with my children.

  2. Thanks, Lindsey! I’ll have to check that book out, I use the pebble meditation cards from one of his other books with my daughter when she needs to calm down. He’s got such great ideas for kids and grownups!

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