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Complementary Health Practices

Mindfulness Without Meditation

Mindfulness Meditation

When most people hear the word meditation, they often think of transcendental meditation or similar practices used to evoke the relaxation response. In these approaches you focus attention on one thing, usually the sensation of breath leaving and entering your body or a mantra (a special sound or phrase you repeat silently to yourself). Anything else that comes into your mind during meditation is seen as a distraction to be disregarded. These practices can give rise to very deep states of calmness and stability of attention. They are known as the concentration, or "one-pointed," type of meditation--what Buddhists call shamatha or samadhi practices.

Mindfulness is the other major classification of meditation practices, known as vipassana, or insight meditation. In the practice of mindfulness, you begin by utilizing one-pointed attention to cultivate calmness and stability, but then you move beyond that by introducing a wider scope to the observing, as well as an element of inquiry. When thoughts or feelings come up in your mind, you don't ignore them or suppress them, nor do you analyze or judge their content. Rather, you simply note any thoughts as they occur as best you can and observe them intentionally but nonjudgmentally, moment by moment, as the
events in the field of your awareness.

Paradoxically, this inclusive noting of thoughts that come and go in your mind can lead you to feel less caught up in them and give you a deeper perspective on your reaction to everyday stress and pressures. By observing your thoughts and emotions as if you had taken a step back from them, you can see much more clearly what is actually on your mind. You can see your thoughts arise and recede one after another. You can note the content of your thoughts, the feelings associated with them, and your reactions to them. You might become aware of agendas, attachments, likes and dislikes, and inaccuracies in your
ideas. You can gain insight into what drives you, how you see the world, who you think you are--insight into your fears and aspirations.

The key to mindfulness is not so much what you choose to focus on but the quality of the awareness that you bring to each moment. It is very important that it be nonjudgmental--more of a silent witnessing, a dispassionate observing, than a running commentary on your inner experience. Observing without judging, moment by moment, helps you see what is on your mind without editing or censoring it, without intellectualizing it or getting lost in your own incessant thinking.

It is this investigative, discerning observation of whatever comes up in the present moment that is the hallmark of mindfulness and differentiates it most from other forms of meditation. The goal of mindfulness is for you to be more aware, more in touch with life and with whatever is happening in your own body and mind at the time it is happening--that is, in the present moment. If you are experiencing a distressing thought or feeling or actual physical pain in any moment, you resist the impulse to try to escape the unpleasantness; instead, you attempt to see it clearly as it is and accept it because it is already present in this moment.

Acceptance, of course, does not mean passivity or resignation. On the contrary, by fully accepting what each moment offers, you open yourself to experiencing life much more completely and make it more likely that you will be able to respond effectively to any situation that presents itself. Acceptance offers a way to navigate life's ups and downs--what Zorba the Greek called "the full catastrophe"--with grace, a sense of humor, and perhaps some understanding of the big picture, what I like to think of as wisdom.

One way to envision how mindfulness works is to think of the mind as the surface of a lake or ocean. There are always waves, sometimes big, sometimes small. Many people think the goal of meditation is to stop the waves so that the water will be flat, peaceful, and tranquil--but that is not so. The true spirit of mindfulness practice is illustrated by a poster someone once described to me of a 70-ish yogi, Swami Satchidananda, in full white beard and flowing robes, atop a surfboard and riding the waves off a Hawaiian beach. The caption read: "You can't stop the waves, but you can learn to surf."

Written by Jon Kabat-Zinn.  Previously published in Mind/Body Medicine, 1993.

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