What Does “Mindful” Mean?
Mindful is just what you’d think, kind of
Be mindful of the time, mindful of your language, mindful of how much those groceries cost, mindful of where you put your feet—being mindful was part of our everyday language long before mindfulness became a thing. So what does it mean to “be mindful,” exactly? In our daily lives, the meaning of mindful has to do with paying attention. You’ve got a plane to catch at noon so you’re especially aware of the time this morning. Your annual performance review is coming up, and you’re paying particularly close attention to every last detail at work. You’re on a diet, so you’re vigilant about everything you eat.
It’s the exact same “mindful” as when we talk about mindfulness. What does it mean to be mindful in the context of mindfulness meditation? It means that we’re paying particularly close attention to an object of our choice, often the breath. We can actually choose to be aware of just about anything—sounds, the wind, our physical sensations, our thoughts, and so on—and if we do it with purpose and focus, right here, right now, well, that’s the very definition of mindfulness.
Everyday mindful and meditation mindful
In what way is mindfulness as a meditation practice different from the attention required when choosing the right tie, scarf or phrasing? For one thing, the goal is a bit different. Instead of getting the colors, textures or words just right, meditating mindfully is all about the process. What mindfulness means is that we are conscious, right here, right now, of what’s going on with those sounds, or the wind, or physical sensations, or the breath—and we’re not doing anything about it!!! We’re aware, pure and simple. That’s what mindful thinking is. No hocus-pocus, no striving to rid ourselves of those pesky thoughts or that annoying itch. We stay with what is. We learn to remain aware of when we drift away and get caught up in thoughts that are anywhere but right here and right now. Because that’s our old habit–grabbing a thought like a kite grabs the wind and flying away with it—but when we train in being mindful, we’re trying a new habit on for size: a mindfulness habit.
Another difference between “meditation mindful” and “everyday mindful” is that in the first one, we’re entirely focused on the present. Aware, non-judgmental, lucid presence to what is right here, right now. The scope of the second is usually broader and often includes considerations of the future, as in, “I have to be sure to leave by 9:30 to catch that noon plane,” or “This piece of carrot cake is going to use up three days’ worth of points,” or, “I hope my boss saw that report I spent all weekend putting together.”
Meditators (and scientists) have found that training in “meditation mindful” makes it easier to cultivate awareness in all aspects of everyday life. It’s a simple, accessible practice that doesn’t require fancy equipment or special circumstances, and it hones your ability to zero in and stay focused. How do you practice mindfulness meditation? Let’s take a brief look at one tried-and-true technique:
- Sit up straight in a quiet corner of your world, on a chair, a cushion, a bench
- Take a minute to shift out of your busy mind and into being present in your space
- Bring your attention to your body and what it feels like to be present.
- No need to analyze or adjust. Simply be mindful of the feelings.
- Now turn your attention to the breath. See if you can be mindful of your breathing.
- Breathing in, you’re aware that you’re breathing in. Breathing out, you’re aware that you’re breathing out. You may also be aware of the gaps between inhale and exhale.
- Maintain your mindful focus for a few minutes or more.
- When it’s time to stop, benevolently take note of how you feel.
That’s it! Just a few minutes of maintaining attention on the breath and letting go of the busy-ness, and you’re refreshed and centered.