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I think Jon Kabat's Zinn's definition of mindfulness is a good ground for understanding mindfulness: paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment to whatever is being experienced with openness, receptivity, and non-judgment. This definition weaves together mindfulness as both a kind of awareness and a practice. Mindfulness involves the ability to self-regulate attention, that is, to aim our attention in an intentional way. However, how we pay attention is also important. Paying attention to whatever is being experienced in the present moment means that we include both what is pleasant and unpleasant in our awareness. Learning to greet our experience however it is (since it is already what is happening) rather than demanding that it be different is an essential aspect of mindfulness. Mindfulness includes the capacity to accept what is happening, not as approval or resignation, but as a full acknowledgment of the truth of the moment. Finally, how we greet the moment is as important as how we pay attention. Meeting our experience with a sense of openness, receptivity, and gentleness (rather than resistance and reactivity) allows for the possibility of really seeing our own habits of thoughts, emotions, and actions. Being able to pause and see with clarity creates the space to respond with conscious wise action rather than with our automatic habits of thoughts and reaction.
Professionally, I teach a graduate course at ASU titled "Mindfulness, Stress, and Health" that includes an experiential component of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program as well as a scholarly component focused on the science of mindfulness. I also teach an undergraduate course at ASU on stress prevention and reduction that includes a component focused on mindfulness and compassion practice. I also teach MBSR in the community when I am able. I have also worked with graduate student thesis and dissertation projects that include a focus on mindfulness. On a more personal note, I also use my own mindfulness practice in my administrative work to help me try to respond to interactions, problems, and decisions with less reactivity, more clarity, and increased openness.
Mindfulness has been a transformative force in my life. Mindfulness practice has played an essential role in helping me get less caught up in my own perceptions, interpretations, and stories and stay closer to just what is happening in the present moment. This shift has helped me be less reactive to events and, when I notice myself reacting more habitually, to recognize it more quickly. Additionally, because mindfulness practice includes an aspect of compassion practice, when I do find myself being more reactive and not so mindful, I am more able to simply recognize that this is the nature of mind, to not give myself such a hard time, and to return again (and again and again) to present moment awareness. Mindfulness has also given me the gift of resilience in the face of difficulty. Mindfulness practice has offered the possibility of being able to be present to unavoidable pain and discomfort without adding to my stress and suffering with ongoing negative commentary. This was especially important during my experience of a cancer diagnosis and multiple surgeries.
Mindfulness has the potential to fundamentally transform our society. Mindfulness practice offers the possibility of helping us see directly, through experience, what thoughts and actions lead to greater well-being for ourselves and others and how our thoughts and actions may be resulting in less well-being for ourselves and others. So much of the suffering in our society is a result of confusing emphemeral pleasure and security with what brings genuine happiness. Enhancing our capacity to accept the inevitable difficulties that come with this human journey (e.g., loss, change, illness, injury, aging, death) without grasping for the things that cannot provide sustainable happiness (e.g., possessions, power, ideologies, etc) is the balm our society needs to heal its divisions and create the conditions that serve to enhance everyone's well-being.
In many ways, mindfulness is emerging in our western society as a counterbalance to our 24/7, materialistic, disconnected, sound-bite milieu. The acceptance of mindfulness-based programs will continue to grow as mindfulness research continues to provide sound scientific evidence for the efficacy and mechanisms of mindfulness. Mindfulness training is likely to continue to be applied in areas beyond clinical settings, such as schools, worksites, and first responders, and to become more available to individuals through local and online programs with qualified mindfulness facilitators. Perhaps, in the future, we will be able to look back and remember a time when mindfulness practice was limited rather than the norm.