In the past few weeks, I ended up answering the question, “What is mindfulness?” a few times. I realized that my answers have 3 different flavours. So I thought, I might as well pen them down and invite inputs. Here they are:
Present-moment-awareness: This is perhaps the most commonly used definition of Mindfulness. To quote the widely cited paper “Mindfulness: A proposed operational definition” by Bioshp et. al. from the journal “Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 2004”1 – Mindfulness involves two things (1) observing and attending to the changing field of thoughts, feelings and sensations from moment to moment and; (2) with an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness and acceptance. For example, as I type this, I hear honking of cars, chirping of birds, clicking of the keyboard, I feel the movement of the breath, movement of the abdomen; I observe thoughts about mindfulness etc. It is a Sunday morning, no hurry and that makes the environment conducive for being mindful. What about a Monday morning while stuck in traffic? That is what one should try and see. The key resource here is attention and it can be completely hijacked by thoughts and emotions to the extent that no attention is left to observe.
A variant of this flavour is “Mindfulness is attention to the movement of thought” or “Mindfulness is attention to the train of thought as it moves from one station to another.” Just like we are aware of the movement of body parts like hands and legs as they move, we can be aware of the movement of thought which involves subtle material movement of chemicals, electrical signals through the neural network. This definition is advocated by Jiddu Krishnamurti2 and his collaborator David Bohm. Bohm called it proprioception3 of thought.
Seeing false as false: Mindfulness is being aware of the possibility of a cognitive illusion while thinking. Kahneman’s “Thinking, fast and slow” shows us that a large part of our thinking is automatic. It is also subjected to cognitive biases especially when we navigate the uncertainty around us. The fast and automatic thinking mode creates what is called cognitive illusions4. For example, when we read the Google story, we feel that we know what caused the success of Google. Kahneman calls this “illusion of understanding”. We are subjected to many such illusions – like “illusion of skill”, “illusion of control”, “illusion of time” etc. We are mindful when we are aware of the possibility of these illusions while we are thinking. It is similar to the awareness of being fooled while watching a magic show5. For example, as I write this blog, I might be under the impression that the three flavours of mindfulness will be useful to the reader. But I may be currently subjected to the “overconfidence bias”. Who knows?
I first encountered the term “seeing false as false” in the book “I am that” by Nisargadatta Maharaj. In answering the question, “When do I know I have discovered the truth?” Maharaj said, “Truth does not assert itself, it is in the seeing of the false as false and rejecting it. It is useless to search for truth, when the mind is blind to the false.”6
Notice wasteful thoughts: Mindfulness is noticing that the current thoughts (or train of thought) are wasteful or not serving any useful purpose. “Will readers like this blog?” Dwelling on this thought may lead to some changes that may improve the blog. However, an excessive and repetitious thinking like this is not going to serve any useful purpose. I might as well do my best in writing the blog and leave the rest to the readers. Moreover, if I get a specific comment about some sentence or a paragraph not being clear or even incorrect, it will be good to be open to modifying it. To quote Nobel Laureate John Nash who recovered from schizophrenia, “It is a matter of policing one’s thoughts trying to recognize paranoid ideas and rejecting them, just the way somebody who wants to lose weight has to decide consciously to avoid fats or sweets.”7 For Nash, the recognition started with ideas related to politics as wasteful.
Eckhart Tolle often uses the term “thoughts that serve no useful purpose”. For example, here is what he said during a conversation with Oprah Winfrey, “[Worry] It serves no purpose, because it doesn’t get you anywhere. It’s similar to the complaining. It has no useful purpose. It doesn’t bring about change in any situation.”8
In short, we looked at the three flavours of mindfulness: present-moment-awareness, seeing false as false and noticing wasteful thoughts. They are overlapping. And none of them involves a specific posture, closing of eyes, a quiet room etc. It is a state you can be in anytime, anywhere. Hope you find some of these flavours useful.
1. “Mindfulness: A proposed operational definition” by Bishop et. al., Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, September 2004, Volume 11, Issue 3, pages 230-241.
2. For Jiddu Krishnamurti’s comment, see the blog “Listening, looking and learning: 3 ways of ‘knocking at the open door’”. His instruction to the author Mark Lee is, “Now, watch your thoughts, how they move but don’t finish”. It is from Mark Lee’s book, “Knocking at the open door – my years with J. Krishnamurti”
3. David Bohm explains proprioception of thought in the book “Thought as a system”. Check out a summary in my blog and also in dbohm.com site.
4. I have written about 3 cognitive illusions from Kahneman’s “Thinking, fast and slow” in this blog: 3 powerful illusions created by thought.
5. Check out my blog: Learning mindfulness through “Penn and Teller: Fool us” magic show. The concept of illusion is prominently present in Hindu scriptures as Maya and in Buddhist Mahayana literature as Vipallasa.
6. “I am that” by Nisargadatta, chapter 66 (All search for happiness is misery), page 314.
7. For Johan Nash quote, see my blog: A beautiful mind and 3 acts of creativity, madness and awakening.