Answering what is the meaning of mindfulness with Khaydroup Podvoll
How would a seasoned meditation teacher define “mindfulness?” We wondered the same thing! We asked Khaydroup Podvoll, Mind Trainer extraordinaire, to give us concise answers to some pithy questions about what it means to be mindful. With over half a dozen years of intensive, full-time meditation practice and more than twenty years teaching experience under her belt, she nailed it. Of course she did.
Mindworks: You hear a lot about mindfulness this and mindfulness that, and you should be more mindful, and so on. But what, exactly, is mindfulness? Could you please give us a definition?
Khaydroup Podvoll: My understanding is that mindfulness is the practice of gathering the mind in the present. You’re training in keeping the mind totally in the here and now rather than letting it wander in the past or wonder about the future.
MW: Some people use the word to refer to formal practice and others talk about being more mindful in everyday life. What does it mean to be mindful, in general?
KP: It means not being distracted; not letting the mind get caught up in thoughts that keep you from being aware in the present moment. When you’re aware in the present moment, you’re mindful of where you are and of the felt experience of being in your body. You can feel your feet on the earth and your seat on the chair; you’re aware that you’re breathing in and breathing out.
MW: Are you talking about the practice?
KP: No, I’m just talking about being mindful.
MW: So if you’re out, say, grocery shopping, can you be mindful in this way?
KP: You can be mindful when you’re doing anything! You’re aware of your surroundings and of other people; you’re aware of your body and your thoughts; you’re aware of what you’re saying as you’re saying it. In sum, you’re not drifting away from the present. What usually carries us away is conceptualization about the past or the future. Or even about the present.
MW: Is there room in your mindfulness definition for, say, being out shopping and thinking about what you’re going to cook for the next five days and the ingredients you’ll need?
KP: Well, some of your attention is still present in that situation as well. You may have awareness of these thoughts about what you’re going to buy and what you might need for a recipe, and that could take part of your attention. But it doesn’t take your entire attention.
Some part of us is always mindful, otherwise we couldn’t navigate the world. Mindfulness isn’t foreign to us; it’s something that we know and do a lot of anyway. Essentially, the more we can do of it the better–that’s where the practice of mindfulness comes in. It’s about training to be more in the present no matter what we’re doing.
When we spend time practicing mindfulness formally, our training continues to carry over into the rest of our lives.
MW: Are there different types of mindfulness? Or of mindfulness meditation?
KP: I’m sure there are. But basic mindfulness meditation is really about being attentive to your mind, your being, your body, and your feelings in the present moment. The present moment is passing, right? So we remain attentive to the passing moment and how breathing feels. We’re not thinking about the breath or analyzing it; we’re focusing on the feeling of being present and breathing–the feeling of the body in the present moment, the feeling of the breath in the present moment.
That’s what mindfulness means. When we translate that into practice, we could talk about whether your eyes should be open or closed, or about what you’re using as a focal point to anchor you in the present, or any number of variations.
MW: The different types of mindfulness practices?
KP: Yes. Mindfulness practice can be categorized according to the different focal points, for instance.
MW: And what would those be?
KP: Typically the breath–it’s the most common one. Breath has many qualities, one of which is that it’s calming. A lot of people find that meditating on the breath helps them stay calm. You don’t manipulate your breath, you just let it be without altering it and try to attend to what that feels like.
Or you could focus on physical sensations. Personally, I would not call this a different type of mindfulness practice–some people might, and I get that. But to my mind, it’s the same practice with a different focus. You can focus on your hands, your feet or your whole body. You can focus on a visual object that’s in front of you. Just like with the breath, the idea isn’t to think about or analyze it–you just let it be whatever it is. The object could be a glass of water, a crystal, a stick, it doesn’t really matter. You could choose a sacred object, a representation of a teacher like the Buddha or Christ. Whatever it is, you’re just resting your mind on it–you’re not conceptualizing about it. You’re aware that you’re sitting there, you’re aware that there’s an object in front of you, you’re aware that perception is happening.
MW: Nowadays you find meditation practiced in a wide variety of settings. There are mind-body exercises, like yoga, that are a lot more mainstream now than they used to be. Is there a specific form of mindfulness that’s a mind-body exercise, or would you say that all forms of mindfulness are mind-body exercises?
KP: You can definitely practice mindfulness while you’re moving your body. Being present with your body while you’re moving is a good thing to do, whether you’re walking or doing yoga or just picking up your fork!
MW: But we’re usually not. Whether we’re picking up our fork or dancing or whatever, our mind is usually somewhere else, right?
KP: I think that deliberate mindful presence and awareness of your body as you’re moving it is usually very positive.
MW: How about people who get into a “zone,” like runners, musicians or others sometimes do?
KP: To me, when they talk about that zone, it sounds like a meditative state. I think the zone is when you’re completely aware and awake in the present moment. It seems to me that that’s what the zone is: total presence. I used to run, and after running for a while I’d reach a state where it felt like I could run forever.
MW: How does mindfulness affect your state of mind, generally speaking?
KP: I think that through training in mindfulness you become more peaceful. You become more relaxed, you’re more patient, you’re more flexible, you’re more willing to work with what’s happening in the moment. It gives you confidence.