“Everything is created twice, first in the mind and then in reality.”
― Robin S. Sharma

What does it really mean to be mindful? The word ‘mindfulness’ seems to be everywhere and yet, there still exists a degree of confusion about what it actually entails.

Some say that mindfulness is all about “being fully present in the moment” while others suggest mindfulness encourages us to “be with our experience, non-judgementally”. Part of the challenge when it comes to defining mindfulness is that, like love or art, attempts to put the concept into words fall infinitely short of the actual experience.

The meditation teacher and author Joseph Goldstein sets out what he believes mindfulness is (and isn’t) in an illuminating talk that attempts to deepen our understanding of the practice. It is, he says, much more than being fully aware, adding that if anyone has ever seen a Labrador playing with a ball, the dog is undoubtedly completely present in the moment. But the dog isn’t being mindful: it doesn’t know why it does what it does; it is simply driven by instinct.

Mindfulness (or ‘sati’ in Pali – the language spoken by the Buddha) is a multi-dimensional practice that, according to researchers Hakan Nilsson and Ali Kazemi, has five core qualities. In their paper Reconciling and Thematizing Definitions of Mindfulness: The Big Five of Mindfulness, they analysed 33 definitions from over 300 journal articles, and came up with a mindfulness model containing four common elements, with one additional element they felt was missing from, but essential to, the secular concept of mindfulness. The four common elements found are:

Awareness and attention: The ability to pay attention means that we can focus on whatever we choose to bring into our awareness. Awareness lays the groundwork for mindfulness, as we are able to observe what’s going on, which allows us to subsequently take any appropriate action where needed.

Present-centredness: This is when we become attuned to sensations in the body and to each of our senses. We recognise even the slightest change in the environment around us, such as sounds or changes in temperature, and we put ourselves in a good position to be alive to the present moment, rather than operating on auto-pilot.

External events: This relates to anything that affects our attention, and encourages us to be aware of the either-or of dualistic thinking (judging thoughts or feelings as good or bad) that creates needless suffering in our minds.

Cultivation: Mindfulness is a practice – it takes time and effort to nurture, and so we use mindfulness techniques such as meditation to cultivate qualities such as awareness, attention, wisdom, and equanimity.

And the fifth element…

Ethical-mindedness: This is a vital element to developing mindfulness as it was intended. Being ethically minded helps us to recognise and take the appropriate action in any given moment that leads to desirable or wholesome outcomes for ourselves and others.

Bringing this altogether, we would define mindfulness by saying that it is the cultivation of conscientious awareness, through non-judgemental observance and self-regulation, which encourages appropriate action, leading to wholesome outcomes for ourselves and others.

But why is the definition of mindfulness so important, particularly if words will always fall short of capturing its true meaning?

With mindfulness-based mental health treatments and mindfulness programs rising in popularity, it’s important for there to be a general consensus of what it means to be mindful. This is so that we can avoid teaching or practising what we think is mindfulness, but which is something else altogether that might cause more harm than good – particularly when it comes to treating mental health issues.

In his essay, Mindfulness Defined, the Buddhist monk Ajahn Thanissaro advises that mindfulness is what keeps the perspective of appropriate attention in mind. “Modern psychological research has shown that attention comes in discrete moments. You can be attentive to something for only a very short period of time and then you have to remind yourself, moment after moment, to return to it if you want to keep on being attentive. In other words, continuous attention—the type that can observe things over time—has to be stitched together from short intervals. This is what mindfulness is for. It keeps the object of your attention and the purpose of your attention in mind.”

He adds: “Popular books on meditation, though, offer a lot of other definitions for mindfulness, a lot of other duties it’s supposed to fulfil—so many that the poor word gets totally stretched out of shape. In some cases, it even gets defined as Awakening, as in the phrase, ‘A moment of mindfulness is a moment of Awakening’—something the Buddha would never say, because mindfulness is conditioned and nirvana is not.”

In an interview with the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, Jon Kabat-Zinn – a pioneer of modern mindfulness who founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979 – expressed his concern that misunderstandings of mindfulness (and its commercialisation) are doing a huge disservice to a practice that can have enormous and varied benefits for those who practice mindfulness correctly and appropriately. Of course, such an outcome is heavily reliant on receiving instruction from teachers who have a deep understanding of the practice – and who practise mindfulness regularly themselves.

As he neatly puts it: “There are so many different domains in which mindfulness training could be critical, if it’s authentic. If it’s bullsh*t disguised as mindfulness training, it’s still just bullsh*t.”