Ask several parents and professionals what the words mindfulness and awareness mean and they will likely give you different responses. The terms are ancient and have taken on many definitions over time. This is a paradox of language: As words become popular their original meanings can become vague. With the movement of mindful awareness into mainstream secular society the meanings of mindfulness and awareness have become blurred, too.
The word mindfulness refers to a tool of investigation used to explore life experiences. It is a gentle, innate way of viewing experience that everyone can access. It can also be refined with training and practice. Classical scholar Andrew Olendszki describes mindful investigation:
“Like meditation in general, [mindfulness] involves placing attention deliberately upon an object and sustaining it over time but unlike [one-pointedness and absorption, another type of meditation] mindfulness tends to open to a broader range of phenomena rather than restricting the focus to a singular object. Like a ﬂoodlight rather than a spotlight, mindfulness illuminates a more ﬂuid phenomenological ﬁeld of ever-changing experience rather than isolating a particular object for intensive scrutiny. This alternative mode of observation is necessary because mindfulness practice is more about investigating a process than about examining an object.” (Olendzki, 2009)
Chogyam Trungpa, one of the earliest Tibetan meditation masters to teach in America, compared mindfulness to another tool of investigation: A microscope.
“Mindfulness is like a microscope; it is neither an offensive nor a defensive weapon in relationship to the germs we observe through it. The function of the microscope is just to present clearly what is there.” (Trungpa, 2011)
As Andy Olendzki pointed out, the development of mindfulness starts with learning to “place attention deliberately upon an object and sustain it over time.”
Sounds simple, right? But, given the tendency of our minds to flit from one thing to another, it can be very hard to do. The mind that darts from one thing to another is known as monkey-mind and there’s a secret to training a monkey-mind: Start with a simple, neutral object of attention. For instance, place your attention on a sound, or your breath, and keep it there.
For how long? In the beginning, not for very long at all: One to five minutes, several times each day. To borrow from Mingyur Rinpoche, a young Tibetan monk and co-author of NY Times bestseller The Joy of Living, practice for a short time, many times.
If mindfulness is a tool of investigation then what is awareness? To borrow from Mingyur Rinpoche again, “awareness is the mind that knows.” It’s a natural quality of mind through which we know what’s happening as it happens. For instance, when we recognize that we’re busy thinking about the past, that recognition is awareness. When we notice that we’re relaxed and happy, that recognition is awareness, too.
With training and practice we learn to allow a spacious stance of awareness in which the activity of the mind can come, go and fade away without interference. Chogyam Trungpa writes that “mindfulness and awareness always complement each other” and compares mental activity (or monkey-mind) to a restless cow and meditative awareness to a huge, luscious meadow within which the restless cow may rest. By providing the “luscious meadow, a big space” for a restless mind, awareness allows us to “see the discovery of mindfulness”. Mindfulness allows us to discover and then investigate thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and sensations without getting carried away by them.
“It’s the act of paying attention . . . that gradually slows the rushing river [of thoughts and emotions] that would allow me to experience a little bit of space between what I was looking at and the simple awareness of looking.” (Mingyur Rinpoche & Swanson, Joyful Wisdom: Embracing Change and Finding Freedom, 2009)
Do you ever feel like your random thoughts and emotions are controlling you? Through the gentle process of mindfulness and awareness, their power will fade away.