Mindfulness is present moment awareness, to be intimate with whatever arises in our experience of body and mind from moment to moment. But this might need some further explanation.
It might be helpful to use a very different analogy to understand how mindfulness works than to point directly to it. Looking for a moment at that space between sleep and being awake, we can learn a lot about how we respond to being attentive. Sometimes when we need to stay awake for some reason, but we are struggling with feeling very sleepy, we really have to put in extra effort to stay alert and to “remind” ourselves to focus on staying awake. By staying present and alert we hang on to being awake and don’t slip into falling sleep. This constant recall to alertness is necessary to keep the mind from drifting off into the groove that takes us into sleep. Once we let go, there is nothing we need to do, the mind just changes gears and drifts into the “sleep groove”.
It is not too difficult to see, or to experience, this slipping mind. In fact most of us have had this experience several times in our lives. What is more difficult to see is that we do the same thing even when we are awake! When we observe the functioning of the mind we notice that, even when we are not at all sleepy, the mind wants to slip into some sort of groove. If sleepy then sleepy, but if alert, it can slip into many other grooves, like fantasy, daydreams, obsessive planning, thinking, worrying, or just simply wandering around.
Whether we slip into daydreams, or the mind wanders, or we are lost in thought, we are so “drawn in” that we actually do not even notice it. This is like a form of being asleep, because we have become so accustomed to living with our minds constantly wandering that this is how we think life is and might not be aware that there are other possibilities. To be accurate, we are living on a type of “autopilot groove” which is not unlike wakeful dreaming.
So what is the alternative to going through life thinking that we are alert to the moment, when we are actually on autopilot? This is where mindfulness practice comes in. Without realizing it we have spent most of our lives training the mind to slip into default mode and go into autopilot essentially whenever we are not extremely concentrated on a task at hand. When we are paying close attention to something, to such a degree that we actually become conscious of being conscious of that thing, and of “holding the space of awareness”, then something quite remarkable happens. We become aware in each moment of the contents of what is happening in the body or the mind. We actually become aware of the nature of what the total experience is of the body and the mind. This alertness is mindfulness. It is the mind directed towards present moment awareness. When a thought enters the mind, one knows there is a thought. When a body sensation arises in the body one knows there is a body sensation present. We stay in the moment and do not drift away. This is a form of intimacy with whatever arises in the present moment, rather than the usual reaction, which is identification with what happens.
Here is an example. Lets say a difficult emotion comes up in our awareness, like frustration. Usually we would not be consciously aware of this emotion arising, because we have not been paying attention to it forming and appearing in the mind. As such the experience has filled the mind and there is no conscious interaction with it. It is simply frustration as autopilot and one might think something like, “this situation is very frustrating, I would like to be free from it”. As such the identification has arisen in the “I want to be free from it”, as if “I” and “frustration” are linked. But actually we have not given the feeling of frustration much attention at all. We have not made space for it and did not see it for what it is. If a strong presence of awareness is there, then the wakeful attentive mind, or mindfulness, can “hold” that experience up for scrutiny. It can make space in the mind and actually see it for what it is and as such be closer to it, more intimate with it, without being identified with it – kind of like looking closely under a microscope at something without thinking “I am what I see”. In fact quite the opposite, the close attentive examination of the thing one looks at is exactly what leads to the awareness that what I am looking at cannot be me. So we are close to something we observe, but in a way also free from identifying with it.
This is tremendously helpful in working with difficulties. We can make space for them and observe them closely, see their qualities, their underlying nature, and in getting to know them become free of our projections about them. Ironically we suffer when we encounter difficult objects precisely because we are not giving them space and getting to know them, but instead thinking we do, and dealing with our preconceived ideas and projections. This is not a satisfying experience as we actually end up dealing with a bunch of old and stale emotional projections in relation to the object we are encountering. Our inner world becomes overcrowded with ideas about things and there is no more room for finding the joy of engaging with the world with fresh eyes and an open heart, much like children do. If you imagine having the intellectual capacity of an adult, with alertness switched on, and ad in the curiosity and open mindedness of a child while setting aside any preconceived ideas you might have about something, you are getting very close to experiencing mindfulness.
Note: Mindfulness can be discovered in many forms today and drawing attention to it is helpful, though it is best to learn the practice of mindfulness meditation from a highly qualified teacher.