The True Meaning of Mindfulness

Concerns of a Former Buddhist Monk

A psychotherapist commented to me the other day that, “Mindfulness has little or nothing to do with introspection. It’s about learning to be in the ‘here and now,’ living in the present moment.”

Such simplistic notions of mindfulness upset me, especially coming from a healthcare professional. The fact is, simplifying life isn’t simple—it takes lots of clear thinking. Watching the breath may distract us from our anxieties for a while, but to truly get past them we have to drill down. There’s no magic.

The present moment is not some sort of thought-free zone of undefiled experience. There’s crap in the here and now. And then there’s the sheer volume. You feel cold and shudder; you hear a leaf blower and react angrily; you remember your doctor’s appointment and just have to go over the details; you find yourself preoccupied by a long-forgotten argument. Meanwhile, moods fluctuate and, as every meditator discovers, there’s an endless stream of apparently random thoughts that aren’t actually random at all.

And that’s just one moment! We can’t attend to it all. The choice of where to place our attention is either made consciously, or it happens unconsciously. This is the crux. When mindfulness is absent, automaticity steps in and we’re drawn to the same old patterns of denial, escape, numbness, self-deprecation and fear of rocking the boat. 

In time, regular mindfulness practice lays bare the roots of automaticity. THAT'S ITS POWER—to directly and consciously undermine the whispering, self-limiting beliefs that are so harmful—especially, “I’m not good enough,” and “I don’t deserve better.” Without conscious attention, patterns of shame and guilt, as well as plain anxiety, effortlessly take over. Turning around and facing them is a big deal, the best thing we can do for ourselves.

Health professionals should never take this for granted. Indeed, they shouldn’t even talk about mindfulness until they’ve established a practice of their own and gained real clarity into their own mental patterns.