Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally”.
We can see how this trait was reinforced by evolution: As our distant ancestors roamed in the wild, they had to be actively engaged in hunting or foraging, and careful not to be hunted by predators. They were very much “on purpose, in the present moment”. We are not talking about some mystical, esoteric way to “be here now”. We are talking about having to pay attention to what is happening here and now in order to get what you need. As to the “nonjudgmental” quality: You cannot be fully engaged with your environment if you are second-guessing yourself or what’s happening around you.
This quality of engagement differs from the way we might take a walk in the woods today, following a blazed trail in a State Park. Not only are we not threatened by wolves, our survival doesn’t depend on finding food or shelter in these woods. We can afford to be distracted, to act mindlessly, as opposed to mindfully. And so we often do. Not just when we take a walk in the woods, but in so many aspects of our lives. Just think about how often we experience ourselves as bored, i.e. disengaged.
Mindlessness is not a flaw of character, but a consequence of the way our mind functions. Our brain is geared to organizing information in terms of action-oriented patterns. It automatically jumps to conclusions: e.g. “this is a good fruit to eat, pick it up” or “this is a dangerous predator, you need to escape”. This is very efficient, but the drawback is that we stop paying attention as soon as we feel we have identified a pattern.
One of the great benefits of civilization is that we live in a more forgiving world. We don’t need to be as engaged in survival as our ancestors in order to survive. But not having to be engaged is also one of the great curses of civilization: We lose out on the physical and emotional benefits of the natural balance that was achieved when we needed to be more active and more engaged. Just as we now need to be more physically active, we need to be more engaged with our lives.
How do we build on our natural ability to be mindful? Meditation is, of course, one way to do so. But mindfulness is not limited to what happens in meditation. There is a distortion when we only focus on the people who meditate a lot. It is as if we only talked about opera singers when we talk about the human activity of singing, omitting the whole range that starts with people singing in their showers. Or if we only looked at Olympic athletes when discussing the benefits of physical exercise. So we take a broader approach: We explore mindfulness as our ability to creatively interact with what we encounter in our life. This includes the practical realities of everyday life, the emotional growth that results from taming our reactivity and increasing our resilience, how we make sense of the world we live in, and our search for meaning and purpose.
We are talking here about mindful interaction and inner connection, in a way that enhances our ability to take appropriate action, as opposed to being an escape from the challenges and complexities of everyday reality. Awareness of others’ needs does not come at the cost of ignoring ours, or vice versa. That would be dissociation. Mindfulness is the ability to be aware of both. And grace under pressure does not mean losing the ability to fight back: We go beyond the knee-jerk reaction in order to more effective in getting what we need.