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.