Mindfulness is one of those words that, even after you’ve looked it up in the dictionary, you still require further research to fully grasp its meaning.
Here is how the Oxford dictionary defines it:
“A mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.”
Perhaps by tracing its entry into what is now virtually mainstream use, we can unwrap its meaning a little further.
The practice of mindfulness has been transmitted to the West via Buddhist teachings from the East. In the original texts, written in Pali, the sacred language of the Buddhist texts, the word used is sati.
When western Buddhist scholars started writing about these concepts in English at the beginning of the 20th century, the term ‘mindfulness’ was used to translate sati. In fact, I should say ‘coined’ as the word didn’t exist as a noun at that time.
It’s not uncommon to hear people say that the word sati was mis-translated. The renowned author of The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle prefers to use the word ‘presence’ or ‘present moment’ as he explains here: “…Present moment, Buddhists call it mindfulness, which I don’t use because it implies your mind is full of things – it isn’t of course, it’s just a mis-translation…”
The English word mindful comes from the Old English words myndful which meant “of good memory”, and from myndig meaning “recollecting; thoughtful”. Maybe the “recollecting” part is what tipped the balance when faced with translating the previously un-translated, or even un-translatable sati, which means to remember or to recollect. It’s not so much about remembering something in the past, but remembering the present moment that one is in now.
In writing about mindfulness many people have added to our understanding of this relatively new word. Here are seven definitions of mindfulness, explained by both Buddhist and secular practitioners of mindfulness.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen master and global spiritual leader
“You might well ask: Then how are we to practice mindfulness? My answer is: keep your attention focused on the work, be alert and ready to handle ably and intelligently any situation which may arise—this is mindfulness.”
Pema Chödrön, American Tibetan Buddhist, ordained nun and author
“Meditation is one form of mindfulness, but mindfulness is called by many names: attentiveness, nowness, and presence are just a few. Essentially, mindfulness means wakefulness—fully present wakefulness.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor emeritus of medicine, widely recognised as the person who pioneered the mainstreaming of mindfulness.
“Mindfulness is the awareness that arises when we pay attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgementally.”
Sharon Salzberg, a leading figure in the meditation field and the co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society at Barre, USA
“Mindfulness isn’t just about knowing that you’re hearing something, seeing something, or even observing that you’re having a particular feeling. It’s about doing so in a certain way — with balance and equanimity, and without judgment. Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention in a way that creates space for insight.”
Professor Mark Williams (retired), Oxford University, founder of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, UK
“Mindfulness is a translation of a word that simply means awareness. It’s a direct, intuitive knowing of what you are doing while you are doing it. It’s knowing what’s going on inside your mind and body, and what’s going on in the outside world as well.”
Martin Strom, Corporate Mindfulness Expert
“Mindfulness is being attentive to and aware of what is happening right now in this moment, both internally and externally. That is all.”
And for those of you who prefer a visually illustrated explanation of mindfulness
Why Mindfulness is a Superpower: An Animation
Do you have your own way of explaining mindfulness? We’d love to hear it.
Artwork – non-attributed