The notion of focusing on the present moment is the essence of mindfulness practice. In common modern usage it refers to an awareness of the sensations and thoughts that are occurring in the immediate moment. But, in more traditional usage coming out of the Judeo-Christian or Buddhist traditions that form of awareness is only one form of present moment awareness. In addition there are two other forms of mindfulness; an ethical awareness of the present and a spiritual awareness of the present. These latter two will be discussed in future posts. For now we will focus on the modern notion of mindfulness.
Jon Kabat-Zinn proposed what is probably the most widely accepted definition of mindfulness as “the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.”
In this definition mindfulness involves intentionally distributing attention to the present moment. It’s something that we actively choose to do. The requirement of volition makes it different from orienting to a sudden stimulus in the environment, which is reflexive. It is also different from mundane everyday present moment awareness that occurs as we navigate through our everyday lives. This usually occurs without an active distribution of attention and frequently is done without thought as we execute well learned behaviors on “autopilot”, e.g. driving. Most importantly, it lacks the focus that mindfulness brings to bare on the present moment.
The attentional focus of mindfulness is expressed in two forms of mindfulness practice, focused attention and open-monitoring attention. Focused attention involves paying close attention to a single object of meditation, e.g. the breath, a mantra, a prayer, etc. While open monitoring involves simply, quietly watching everything as it arises and falls away and not specifically focusing on anything. Both of these forms of mindfulness particularly as practiced in the west are focused on the physical world with no reference to ethics or non physical, spiritual phenomena.
Where mindfulness of the present moment as its practiced diverges radically from everyday mental content is that it’s performed non-judgmentally. Our everyday observations of experiences are fraught with judgments. We’re constantly classifying things as good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, liked or disliked, etc. We rarely see hear or feel anything without some our minds proclaiming some kind of judgment on it.
Ceasing judging in mindfulness is challenging. Our minds are programmed to evaluate everything. That’s an adaptive strategy and helps us detect problems and prevent issues from arising. But, it is strongly embedded in our thinking and trying to stop it can be very difficult and can take years of practice. This can be devilishly tricky as our minds get involved in judging whether were judging or not.
This is what we try to do in our contemplative practice, to develop mindfulness of the present moment without judgment. But, this is where it ends in modern mindfulness practice. It obviously can produce great benefits for the individual’s health and well-being, but somehow this seems to be lacking something. We are left better, but somehow not fundamentally changed. Somehow we’ve neglected to develop morally or spiritually.
Regardless, practice developing mindfulness and reap its rewards.