Mindfulness is mostly just being present. Mindfulness is being 100% devoted to the experience of this moment…and not resisting or denying anything in the moment. For example, eating with mindfulness is “just eating”. Not judging, labeling, or otherwise reflectively thinking about the experience. Eating with mindfulness is seeing the food that you are eating, smelling the aroma of the food, feeling the texture of the food in the mouth, experiencing the taste of the food, hearing the sound of eating the food, etc. Totally accepting the experience as it is…not wanting it to be other than what it is…with curiosity and kindness.
If you start thinking about it, then you are less present. This would be the start to getting lost in thought. However, there is an opportunity here to be mindful of the thoughts – allow them, accept them, and let them go. Returning the focus onto the experience…moment to moment. Thought is never about the here and now…and getting lost in thought is losing mindfulness.
Mindfulness is very natural and easy when you are being present. There should not be much effort in being mindful – just a little attention. If you are working at it, you are likely thinking again. You are thinking about being mindful…not being mindful. I fell into a similar trap. For years, I tried to be present…and in working at it I was thinking about being present…but I was not really being present (feeling/experiencing the moment).
You can not try to be present or try to be mindful…that is the mind trying to fake it. You can only be present or be mindful…or not be present/mindful.
Some think that mindfulness is like a mental acknowledging of everything that happens. You pick up a book and mentally you think “I pick up a book.” That is not mindfulness…that is mental commentary. Such mental commentary is not needed. You can mindfully pick up a book by just fully experiencing picking up a book.
Memory of the actions do not matter. I know some people get caught in thinking they were not mindful because they do not remember. Remembering does not matter.
Think of it this way. Say you are leaving to go to work in the morning. You exit your home, close the door, and lock the door. Then you go to the car and drive to work. At work, you may not remember if you locked the door. So was this mindful?
If you did not lock the door and you were supposed to, then you were not being mindful because you did not do what you were supposed to do because you were not aware of what was happening. If you locked the door, but while doing so you were preoccupied with where you were going…then this is not being mindful. If you locked the door and experienced locking the door at the time – with attention on locking the door, instead of thinking about where you needed to go – then this was being mindful…even though the memory of locking the door is absent.
I have heard mindfulness described as awareness, with attention, in the present moment, and with an attitude of non-attached equanimity. Attention does not necessary mean memory of it. Memory is about the past. Attention is about the present.
In this day and age, we have come to believe that unless an action is recorded…it did not happen. Like someone has a great party and wishes someone brought a camera. Unless there are records, we are not satisfied. However, records are not needed. We don’t need to remember or have memories about something to prove that we were aware and attentive of it at the moment. Mindfulness is not about memory or remembering.
A beginner’s mind is letting go of the past and experiencing something as if for the first time. Eating an orange like you have never tasted an orange before. It is possible to lock the door to your house like you have never done it before. How much pressure is needed to turn the key…does it stick at all or is it smooth? This is mindfully locking the door. A beginner’s mind is needed to be mindful. If we are mechanically locking the door – because it is something we have done hundreds of times before – we are not really being mindful.
However, do not become attached or overly fixated on deliberate attention. It is possible to go too far with being deliberate. Zen Master Bankei spoke about the Unborn Buddha Mind. He pointed out that while hearing his talk (or reading this blog post) and intending to hear/read, if a crow caws…you hear it automatically and immediately know it is a crow. You didn’t intend to hear it. That is hearing with the Unborn Buddha Mind…no deliberate intent is needed. If you didn’t hear the crow caw, then you are not being mindful…but lost in a world of thought in your head.
It is possible to have attention without being too deliberate about it. Just being open to the experience at hand – lightly guiding the focus of attention to the action at hand…eating an orange, locking the door, etc. You don’t need laser focus, which would be tunnel vision…and losing awareness and mindfulness of the surroundings.
Think about a small wild cat outside in the forest. It finds a mouse’s hole and it sits and waits. It’s attention is on the hole for when the mouse comes out. But it also has to be aware of its surroundings…bigger predators, birds of prey, etc. that might be looking at it as food. If it is mindful of only the hole and over-focused, it becomes lunch for another predator. Too little focus on the hole and too focused on the surroundings, and it may miss the mouse jumping out and go hungry. This is a good pointer to the balance I am trying to point to for mindfulness.
So in summary, mindfulness is a cat watching a mouse’s hole.