Originally posted in 2020, we revisit this article to unpack mindfulness with Willem Kuyken - Ritblat Professor of Mindfulness and Psychological Science
Answering this question is a bit like answering the question, “What does a lemon taste like?” The best way to describe the taste of a lemon is to hand someone a slice of lemon. The same is true with mindfulness. Our website has an introductory mindfulness practice if you’re completely new to this and many other mindfulness practices where you can “taste” mindfulness. But if we are to use words to define mindfulness then being mindful is to be aware of our experience, moment-to-moment, in a quite particular way, with curiosity, with kindness and with care. Mindfulness also has a purpose or intention – to help us suffer less, enjoy greater well-being, make better choices in our lives and provide the basis for a meaningful and rewarding life. Finally, it has an ethical compass and set of values that help us make choices and guide our learning. This ethical compass and set of values shape our awareness, our words and our actions. Enaya Ali describes mindfulness as helping her to learn.
Mindfulness is a natural quality we all have; there are people who perhaps are more naturally mindful than others. But mindfulness is also something we can learn. Enaya learned through her school offering mindfulness training to all the students. Mindfulness skills need to be learned and practiced, starting with baby steps, progressing to using them with ever more challenging situations as our skill and confidence grows. In time they become a part of us, how we think, speak and act. Because they’re foundational skills, they can be used throughout our lives and even in the most challenging situations. Paula Kearney, the school teacher who taught Enaya’s mindfulness course said she wished she’d learned mindfulness much earlier in her life, it would have helped her at school and college.
We can develop mindfulness; it can be cultivated through mindfulness practice. A question I am often asked is, “What is the difference between mindfulness and meditation?” Meditation is a way of cultivating mindfulness. Instead of the word meditation, which can have all sorts of religious overtones, I tend to use the term mindfulness practice.There are many different mindfulness practices, each has a particular purpose and form. Some steady our attention, some develop attitudes like kindness, some develop deeper understanding, and so on. Most often people think of mindfulness practices in terms of formal practices where we take a time out to focus on something like our breath, for example. Traditionally these practices can be just a few minutes, but they can involve intensive periods of practice over a few months or for dedicated monastics years even. But there is another equally important set of mindfulness practices which we integrate into our day to day lives, that don’t involve taking any time out, but rather, involve us relating to everyday life in a different way, with present moment awareness, interest and care.
Mindfulness training is a bit like physical exercise. Physical exercise can improve our strength, flexibility and cardiovascular fitness. Different physical regimes are used for these different outcomes, resistance training for strength, yoga for flexibility and exercise that increases heart rate for cardiovascular fitness. Training is adjusted for different outcomes; you might be training for a 5k or a marathon, for example. Mismatching the training to where we’re at can be dangerous, for example going from zero exercise to too much can lead to injury, or worse. In America, each year there are people who suffer heart attacks when they use their snow ploughs at first snow fall and their cardiovascular fitness is not up to the arduousness of snow ploughing.
Mindfulness practice has many parallels. Different mindfulness practices produce different effects, training needs to be adjusted, what works for one person won’t work for another. The mind is complex and sensitive. Mindfulness practice needs first to do no harm. At times of a lot of change or adversity it can be helpful to protect the mind by turning away or keeping busy. At other times the same strategy can make things worse. But, over time we can learn when each strategy works best, when is best to turn towards something and when is best to turn away? Particular mindfulness practices also come in differing lengths. Each has the same intention, but a bit like physical strength and working out in the gym, the longer versions can strengthen our mindfulness muscles more. But also like physical exercise it is better to do what is realistic and doable, that’s why we offer practices of different lengths.
The difference between mindfulness practice and physical exercise is that the learning in mindfulness can’t be undone. If we stop exercising, we tend to lose the gains. Learning through mindfulness practice to relate differently to our bodies and minds is a lesson that can’t be reversed. We may forget to practice, or be caught up again in old habits, or find that our attention becomes more easily hijacked, but that ability to bring awareness to our experience and relate to it differently will always be there. We’ll always know we can step back from franticness, autopilot and dissociation, that the ability to steady ourselves and bring awareness in the present moment is always there.
If you’d like a deeper dive into the question of what mindfulness is, and isn’t, you can read the chapter “Mindfulness Unpacked” from Willem Kuyken and Christina Feldman’s book Mindfulness: Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Psychology. It is freely available on the Guilford Press website, here.