What is Mindfulness? (Most People Get it Wrong)

Michele L. Walter is a Certified Mindfulness Meditation Teacher who learned from two of the leading western teachers—Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield—through their two-year Mindful Meditation Teacher Certification Program in partnership with Sounds True and the University of California at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.
Graham Ottley Graham Ottley
January 22, 2024

This is an extensive and creative training in mindfulness, meditation, and compassion practices. Michele also is a Certified Professional Coach and owner of Life From The Summit, Mindfulness & Coaching. She is a trip leader with the CMC, 3-time Ironman, recovering U.S. Department of Justice lawyer, and devoted dog mom. Michele specializes in working with GenX’ers who are now in their 40s/50s and want to reclaim their freedom and purpose for the next chapter in their lives, and she delivers keynotes and trainings to non-profits and companies around mindfulness and conscious leadership. You can learn more about Michele through her website: www.lifefromthesummit.com

“What is mindfulness?”

That’s a question I get asked a lot, and apparently so does the wise teacher, Google.

I’m not inclined to do a comprehensive search of the multitude of ways that individuals, companies, and other self-help sites define mindfulness. So, I’m going to speak from my direct experience of how people usually tell me what “mindfulness” means to them.

Most people tell me they want to be more “mindful,” and by that they mean that they want to “be more present” or “pay attention more.”

Other people tell me that they want to learn to practice mindfulness so that they can be more calm or find more peace or not be such a jerk.

Although mindfulness certainly can help with all of those things, I’ve noticed that there are some critical elements missing from what people understand about mindfulness.

As a Certified Mindfulness Meditation Teacher (through SoundsTrue with Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield) who is trained in the ancient wisdom and practices of mindfulness, I want to set the record straight.

Paying Attention to the Present Moment

Yes, mindfulness is about paying attention to the present moment. As my meditation teacher (Tara Brach) explains, this is the first wing of mindfulness meditation.

If we think about mindfulness meditation like two wings of a bird, this first wing involves training our attention to stay with this moment . . . and this moment . . . and this moment.

With this first wing, the mind is brought to rest on one object of attention (like the breath). And when the mind wanders — which it will do, because you’re a human being — you gently guide your attention back to your object of focus.

This “paying attention” wing doesn’t exist by itself, however. Just like a bird needs two wings to fly, we need a second wing to fully practice mindfulness and to bring a certain quality to this first wing of “paying attention.”

Compassion or Non-Judgment for What Is

The second wing of mindfulness is compassion or non-judgment for what the present moment is.

This wing is the most overlooked component of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is not just about paying attention to the present moment; it’s also about the quality of that attention.

How are you paying attention to the present moment? Are you paying attention with a lot of judgment?

Most of the time, you are. And again, that’s fine because you’re a human being with a brain and that brain is conditioned to have a lot of judgments about a lot of things.

Back in the days of our cave people ancestors, that judgment was a good thing because it allowed us to judge when danger might be present.

Today, however, we judge every single thing whether it’s a danger to us or not. From the person we see on the street that looks “different;” to the way we respond to a situation; to the weather; to how we look.

Even judgments about what we consider to be “good” or “pretty” or “divine” are still judgments.

You can be paying very acute attention to the present moment, but if you’re judging the crap out of it — for better or worse — then you’re like a one-winged bird trying to fly.

Bringing in this second wing of mindfulness allows us to see the present moment clearly . . . and “clearly” means “just as it is.”

This is why the mindfulness meditation in which I’m trained — Vipassana meditation — is called “Insight Meditation.” As the Buddhist magazine, Tricycle, explains:

Vipassana can be translated as “Insight,” a clear awareness of exactly what is happening as it happens.

“Clear awareness” comes to life through this second wing of compassion or non-judgment. Only with more compassion and less judgment can our awareness be clear.

A Way of Life

Mindfulness is a way of life.

It’s not a hack or a quick fix.

It’s not “something to do” once or twice a week.

Mindfulness becomes a way of life through what I call “formal” and “informal” practice.

“Formal” practice is when we sit (or stand or whatever posture your body finds most accommodating) for a dedicated amount of time to work with the two wings of attention and compassion/non-judgment.

Formal practice is like training at the gym. Just like lifting weights trains your muscles to grow and perform under certain conditions, formal mindfulness practice trains your brain to grow its muscle of concentration and awareness to respond with more clarity in all conditions.

Through formal practice, we can bring in mindfulness “informally” throughout the rest of our lives.

Informal mindfulness practice looks like resting your attention on the road and traffic around you while you’re driving, and bringing in compassion and non-judgment for the driver who cuts you off or how slowly traffic is moving. You can also pay attention to the sensations in your body as you’re driving and have compassion for yourself when you notice that you’re irritated by traffic.

This is how mindfulness becomes so much more than just “paying attention to the present moment” or “being more mindful” or even finding more peace and calm.

When we bring in these two wings, along with practicing mindfulness formally and informally, we open up to the beautiful invitation to live every moment from this place of “clear awareness.”

I hope that sets the record straight!

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