What is Mindfulness? (Hint: You’re Probably Wrong)

By: Adam Katzen
October 17, 2017

Most religions have the same components. There are guidelines for ethical conduct, something bigger than self… most talk about kindness, forgiveness, compassion and generosity.

But there is one thing that sets Buddhism apart from most religions. That is mindfulness.

So what is mindfulness? If you took a straw poll and asked this question, my guess is most answers would be wrong. What do you think it is?

Mindfulness is simply what you keep in your mind. That simple.

The truth is that we are always practicing mindfulness. The question is, are we practicing right mindfulness or wrong mindfulness?

The Buddha explained that we have wholesome and unwholesome roots inside of us. Wholesome roots are skillful qualities that reduce suffering and unwholesome are unskillful qualities that create suffering.

Our minds are always full of something (you can probably fill in the blank there), so we need to be conscious of what we’re holding in our minds – whether we are nurturing wholesome or unwholesome roots.

That’s the difference between right and wrong mindfulness.

Most people in the West think of mindfulness as being fully present in the moment, allowing thoughts to come and go without judgement or stories. That is actually equanimity, to accept everything as it is.

But even if that was the correct definition of mindfulness, there are a million things going on in any one moment. What do you keep in your mind?

Imagine you are at the beach. A lot is happening.

You feel the sun and wind on your skin, the sand beneath your feet. You hear the waves, and children playing. You smell the sea, taste the salt on your lips. You’re having thoughts and feelings…

That’s an awful lot to keep in your mind in any one moment. I certainly can’t be aware of all that at one time. Can you?

What you chose to focus on, how you think and what you let into your mind shapes your reality. It determines how you experience, what shows up and the results you get in your life.

As it’s explained in the Four Noble Truths, your mind is what creates suffering, and it’s also what can end your suffering. It’s the only thing we are truly in control of. Here’s the problem.

Your mind is like a castle that’s constantly under siege. You’ve got people coming and going, commerce taking place, work being done, ideas being discussed… There are events taking place outside that affect the mood inside… armies are trying to get in and take over…

Practicing Right Mindfulness is like building an impenetrable wall and having a wise and skillful gatekeeper to decide what gets in and what doesn’t.

Your castle is all you really have, and it’s your duty to furnish it well.

Simply staying present and letting everything come and go is where most people begin to practice mindfulness. And to become aware without judgements and assessments is good practice. It’s a start.

But if you want to end suffering, equanimity is not enough. That’s because it can be misunderstood and misused.

To be accepting of thoughts, speech, actions, effort… that are unwholesome, you will likely continue to experience discontent. By keeping the gates to your castle wide open and letting everything pass, you’re simply planting more seeds of suffering.

You have to train your mind to be skillful and wholesome.

The Buddha likened the practice of mindfulness to a goad. If you don’t know what a goad is, congrats… you live in the 21st century. I had to look it up too.

A goad is a pointy stick ancient farmers used to poke animals and train them to do what the farmer needed them to do.

If the practice of mindfulness is like a goad, your mind is like a gigantic, wild water buffalo you are trying to get to plow a field so you can feed your family.

If the buffalo is all over the place… or lazy and won’t move… but you’re like,

“Eh <shrugs shoulders and puts hands out>, water buffalo will be water buffalo… I’ll just let him keep doing his thing”… you’re probably going to suffer when the crops don’t get planted and nothing grows.

On the other hand, if you can train the buffalo to work in a wholesome, skillfull and beneficial way – gently poking it with the goad when it is off track – you may have a bountiful harvest.

Right Mindfulness is not simply observing without preference. It is the practice of developing skillful qualities that relieve suffering and abandoning unskillful qualities that create suffering.

This is a process, and it’s not easy. The good news is that there is a detailed roadmap to cultivate right mindfulness, train your buffalo and protect your castle (I love it when disparate mixed metaphors come together in seamless harmony).

Next week in Introduction to Meditation and Buddhism we will begin a 5 week series on how to cultivate mindfulness. It’s free and all are welcome. I hope you’ll join us.

For now, I would invite you to simply become aware of what you’re keeping in your mind… and whether it’s causing suffering or relieving suffering.

Want to learn more about Buddhism? Join us every Monday at 7pm for Introduction to Meditation and Buddhism. It’s a donation based class. For more info, visit our Events Page on Facebook

Adam Katzen is just as unenlightened as the rest of us. He writes a little bit, has meditated for a while and studied Buddhism from time to time. Adam leads our Introduction to Meditation and Buddhism class Mondays at 7pm. Word on the street is he also helps grow businesses, build organizational cultures and coaches executives on mindful leadership. To get in touch you can email him at akatzen7@gmail.com.