Mindfulness has become something of a buzzword of late. In recent months I’ve seen a lot of articles about mindfulness in the workplace or mindfulness classes in schools.
A friend of mine teaches mindfulness in her childbirth classes. Another friend teaches mindfulness as an element in a course on corporate speaking. At meditation retreats, retreat leaders and coordinators urge us to be “mindful.”
But what does it mean to be mindful?
One aspect, certainly, is focused attention. Often, though, I see people interpret this as engaging in some activity really, really slowly.
One of my teachers, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, playfully demonstrates this kind of mindfulness by taking an excruciatingly long time to raise a cup of tea to his mouth, taking a long (mindful) sip, and slowly, slowly setting it back down.
The whole process takes several minutes. By the time we’ve finished our tea, he explains, it would be cold. And forget about getting anything else accomplished while mindfully enjoying a frosty cup of tea.
Merely being attentive, in other words, isn’t the entire practice of mindfulness.
Try explaining to your boss that you haven’t gotten the PowerPoint presentation done yet because you’re really focusing on the sensation of touching the keyboard.
Not going to fly.
So, in addition to being focused, true mindfulness involves being alert to the conditions and circumstances of our environment, as well as to the undercurrents of our own thoughts and emotions and those of around us.
In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, this open alertness is considered the real core of mindfulness.
The Tibetan term is shezhin, which can be translated as “knowing one’s own awareness.” It means observing the mind itself in the act of being aware. It means constantly and consistently checking in with ourselves, whatever we’re focused on.
There’s a lot to be said, of course, for slowing down and paying attention to the steps of a process—whether it’s drinking a cup of tea or cooking a meal or washing dishes. Taking the time to notice details enhances our appreciation of the small beauties of daily life.
But even when we don’t have the time to slow down, we can still tune in to our own awareness. Very often, we’ll discover that we’re carrying a certain degree of unacknowledged tension or frustration into whatever activity we’re engaged in.
I’ve burned a lot of dinners because I was angry over something entirely unrelated. I’ve gotten a couple of speeding tickets in my day because I was more focused on reliving an argument (and coming up with a few choice replies) than on the numbers appearing on my dashboard.
We don’t often have the luxury of slowing down, either. Our lives frequently require snap decisions. But you can be mindful.
Especially when we experience confusion, discomfort, anger, or pain—or when presented with a crisis of some sort—it’s really helpful to recall that other aspect of mindfulness and ask ourselves, “What’s going on here?”
Checking in this way—being mindful quickly—is certainly worth one less burned dinner.
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