Discovering Your Inner Strength

Mindfulness = Unconditional Love



There has been a lot of discussion lately about what the word “mindfulness” really means. I sometimes say trying to describe mindfulness in words without experiencing it directly, is kind of like reading the menu at a restaurant without tasting any of the food. It misses the point, and can even be misleading.

In The Mindful Teen, and in my work as a pediatrician, I quote Jon Kabat-Zinn’s classic definition: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally.” That said, I think it is useful to not get too attached to any definition. Elsewhere, Kabat-Zinn has stated that “That definition [of mindfulness] that you are asking me about is actually what I call an operational definition. It is not meant to be a final definition of mindfulness. It is more like a working definition of mindfulness.” He describes that definition not as an answer, but as a question to contemplate and look deeply into.

Here is what I find when I contemplate that definition: The idea of being “nonjudgmental,” while extremely valuable, has in my opinion also caused many people to misunderstand what mindfulness is really about. “Nonjudgmental” can be misunderstood as being distant, apathetic, selfish, or ethically neutral. Being “nonjudgmental” can sound to some people like “Whatever, I don’t care,” or “Anything goes.” But in mindfulness practice, “not judging” doesn’t mean “not caring.” Mindfulness is actually about staying present with whatever is happening in the present moment, and caring very deeply about it –– caring open-heartedly, inclusively, unconditionally.

Other translations of mindfulness are “Heartfulness,” or “Present-Heartedness.” These translations invite us to not only pay attention and concentrate and focus on the present moment, but to do so with a spirit of affection, of kindness, and of compassion. This is especially useful when dealing with pain and difficulties. In my own experience, just simply paying attention to pain, without embracing it with self-compassion or heartfulness, usually just makes me suffer more. On the other hand, when I stay present as best I can with my own pain and the pain of others, with unconditional compassion and open-heartedness — I find that I can touch the possibility of transformation and liberation.

So I invite you to hold lightly to any definitions of mindfulness. Instead, embrace your own lived experience of the practice, looking deeply and seeing clearly what is beneficial or not, for yourself and for others. With all of that said (and with apologies to Kabat-Zinn), I humbly offer a modified definition of mindfulness:

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: On purpose, in the present moment, and with unconditional love.”

Please share your thoughts and wisdom here so that we may all benefit.


  1. Dzung Vo, MD Dzung Vo, MD
    May 26, 2015    

    Here is a response from Jon Kabat-Zinn, posted with his permission.

    From: Jon Kabat-Zinn
    Sent: Tuesday, May 26, 2015 8:28 AM
    To: Vo, Dzung
    Subject: Re: Mindfulness = Unconditional Love

    Thanks Vo. I actually don’t agree, but that doesn’t matter. Everybody is entitled to their own opinion. To my mind, putting unconditional love into the definition of mindfulness puts up a very high bar for anybody who wants to sit and be in touch with the comings and goings of their own mind, and thereby cultivate pure awareness. What if they are not feeling unconditional love, for themselves or for anybody else? They have failed before they have even begun. Besides, it leaves out the wisdom dimension of mindfulness, via discernment, which is intrinsic in the “non-judgmental” piece of my working definition. If one loads up a definition with too much baggage, even desirable baggage, it becomes too daunting for people to align with. I purposefully left out a possible phrase at the end of the working definition that addresses why on Earth someone would want to practice mindfulness meditation to begin with. It is “… in the service of self-understanding, wisdom, and compassion.”

    Besides, “unconditional love” might be better aligned with the cultivation of “non-referential compassion,” which has been studied in the lab. That said, I do speak of taking one’s seat in meditation practice of any kind as a “radical act of love” but it took me many years to come to that realization for myself. Still, not everything needs to be in a definition.

    With a deep dharma bow,


  2. Dzung Vo, MD Dzung Vo, MD
    May 26, 2015    

    … and my reply to Jon:

    From: Vo, Dzung
    Sent: Tuesday, May 26, 2015 9:40 AM
    To: ‘Jon Kabat-Zinn’
    Subject: RE: Mindfulness = Unconditional Love

    Thank you again for your reflection and sharing and inspiration. Agree that not everything needs to be in a definition, and I offered my modification in a similar spirit to what you described, as a koan. Thank you for looking deeply into it.

    Smiling to you,

    Dzung X. Vo, MD, FAAP

  3. Dzung Vo, MD Dzung Vo, MD
    May 26, 2015    

    From: Jon Kabat-Zinn
    Sent: Tuesday, May 26, 2015 10:36 AM
    To: Vo, Dzung
    Subject: Re: Mindfulness = Unconditional Love

    Agreed. If you want, feel free to post my response to you on your blog. You have my permission.

    Smiling right back,


  4. Ylan Vo Ylan Vo
    May 27, 2015    

    interesting. i am interested in the kind of defensive impulse in response to the NY Times piece, which i find insightful. can we acknowledge both that mindfulness is a powerful skill, but that it can also manifest (or be misappropriated) as self-righteousness or self-indulgence? personally, it is important for me to remember that a training like mindfulness is in service of expanding our understanding and compassion outward, maybe even moreso toward the confusion and “muddiness” that comes where an idea lives not just within our individual practice but in the public sphere.

    to me, both “non-judgment” and “unconditional love” describe a result more than a process — i prefer to think of mindfulness as open inquiry, a way to grow curiosity about ourselves and others independent of affection, aversion, or judgment. Those responses may come freely with our inquiry, but should be themselves also a subject of inquiry.

  5. Brian Kimmel Brian Kimmel
    May 30, 2015    

    I actually believe and it is my experience that there is such thing as universal love, be it unconditional because it comes not from work but from relaxation and/or spontaneous response. It is what is there even through doubt and discrimination. Perhaps it is akin to what some Tibetan Buddhist teachings term as Basic Goodness. There is an innate curiousity that is tapped into through a little effort until it really comes online. And perhaps it is so obscured that it takes awhile to be noticed, but nonetheless is still there, encouraging and curious.

    The other matter is that it is not only mind that is mindful but the whole body and the whole person, and that whole body and whole person is part of an ecosystem, a collective that cannot really meditate or be mindful alone. So environment is crucial. And the recommendation of many teachers to practice mindfulness with others is no joke. And also, there are such things as intergenerational transmissions both spiritually and genetically.

    Mindfulness to me is the wholistic experience of oneness and community in the present.

    Oneness here means both the quality of our individual experience meaning the many parts of ourselves: i.e. Mind, Body, Energy etc, in synchrony, and our connection to others and our environment etc.

    Mindfulness is always available regardless. And we are always whole whether it feels like it or not.

  6. Dzung Vo, MD Dzung Vo, MD
    June 30, 2015    

    Here’s another variation I’m playing with right now: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: On purpose, in the present moment, and with an open heart.”

  7. Deb R, Psychotherapist Deb R, Psychotherapist
    July 16, 2015    

    Dr. Vo,

    Having only started my mindfulness practices in March of this year; and now purposefully adding reading material, memes, quotes, and documentaries on gratitude, compassion, and the science of “happiness” to my daily wellness diet– I wholeheartedly LOVED your addition of “unconditional love.”

    I believe with any kind of value system– be it religious, political, spiritual, intellectual… when you interact with individuals who partake in those values and become more engaged with the community and the topics, your discourse and your vantage point/perspective evolves to more closely match the related material. I intend to keep my interest in mindfulness very practical, down to earth, and use common language with others– this is the same way I practice psychotherapy. I strive to be very relatable professionally, and even with colleagues tend to use more “common” language rather than medical and psychotherapy terminology (at least I think I do!). That said, I believe that when an individual specializes in an area of expertise for example, they can become unrelatable to those “outside” of the group– often unknowingly. I believe many people do not readily admit when they do not understand certain words, or phrases. Many people nod their heads… and move on. I see this with clients newer in the world of ADHD (my expertise) when I use words like “emotional dysregulation,” or “frustration tolerance.”

    I’m a fairly bright individual, and absolutely no disrespect to Jon Kabat-Zinn, but I could not understand his definition. I believe it’s more challenging for beginners to “get” than one might think. And coming from a hard science background, adding the idea that this was an “operational definition” further confused me. To me, that meant a very understandable “recipe,” and I just wasn’t getting it. It seems funny to me now, because after several months of practice and “soft” education about mindfulness… it makes perfect sense to me now. But that definition baffled me for quite awhile!

    The reason I have such a strong liking for the addition of “unconditional love” vs. “non judgmentally” and connected with it better, is that for me it invited the idea of Self Compassion. Ahhh… not just neutrally observing thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations… but now with the message, “It’s ok… I’m ok… it will be ok.. these thoughts and feelings are ok..” Somehow reading this article and the replacement of a single word helped me move further along on my path. Again, no disrespect to Kabat-Zinn’s work, but for me, as a beginner, the word “non-judgmentally” created a temporary barrier for me.

    As a therapist, most of my clients are experiencing a life-time of true failures, bruised egos, and struggle. Their self-talk sucks, and there is hardly room to be “kind” to oneself. Guilt and shame run prevalent in my work. The invitation to care and nurture oneself is not always well received. It’s seen as selfish. Egocentric. Unproductive. I have learned as I travel on my journey of mindfulness that for both me and my clients, nurturing one self is not just ok, it is TREATMENT. And then extending that compassion to others, breeds integrity & often a new found respect for family, friends, and strangers.

    I apologize for the novel. The short story: I dig it.

    Thanks, Dr. Vo.

    Be well.

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