A strict definition of mindfulness is up for considerable debate among scholars most invested in mindfulness concepts (Bishop et al., 2004; Cardaciotto et al., 2008; Christopher, Woodrich, & Tiernan, 2014; Malinowski, 2008; Thompson, B. L., Waltz, J., 2007; Nyaniponika, 1973; Tsoknyi, 1998). In addition to Eastern, traditional, mindfulness practitioners, the larger psychology community in The West has incorporated some mindful constructs into cognitive therapy (Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G., 2012; Segal et al., 2002), muddying the waters of the most salient features of a mindfulness practice. In all honesty, there is no definition adequate to describe mindfulness.
Mindfulness is experiential, not intellectual, so words are limited. To help distinguish mindfulness from other activities of the mind, here’s my intellectual stab at a definition after decades of practice: Mindfulness is focused attention in the present moment while maintaining compassion, equanimity, and acceptance for that which we become aware.
When teaching mindfulness practices, I do not offer over-intellectualized concepts of mindfulness to my students. Instead, I offer opportunities for my students to yoke their minds to a particular point of focus and de-emphasize chaotic or unhelpful thoughts. “To yoke” is the strict translation of the Sanskrit word “yoga” (Feuerstein, 1989; Desikachar, 1995). Other Eastern traditions describe mindfulness practice as “to train the mind.” Both refer to the process of directing the mind’s attention to the present moment, and both offer actions to assist the mind in that endeavor. This helps the student develop an observational awareness that sees past the ego to a clarity about our motivations and resulting actions. It then becomes a choice whether or not we align our actions with our values. But that is often a natural extension of this clarity, especially if compassion, equanimity, and acceptance are cultivated along with this awareness.
The traditional, Eastern approaches to mindfulness are relentless in their training. Our minds will convince us of the relevance and urgency of its thoughts, especially during a pandemic. Your feelings will respond, your sympathetic nervous system (i.e., fight-flight-freeze responses) may capture your attention while you find a subject for the resulting fear, sadness, or urgency. ‘What if I catch la Llarona, I mean the corona?’
The reality in this moment is that you have enough presence of mind to read this and consider concepts of mindfulness beyond your day-to-day survival. But is that what you tell yourself? Or are you ruminating about what was lost, or fearing what will come next? Do such thoughts help you? And what is your immediate response to the previous question? Everything that follows your immediate response could be subterfuge.
That’s why you can’t believe everything you think. Mindfulness practices help you to more clearly see the thoughts that are lying to you. You can see things more for what they are. This can prevent you from falling down the rabbit hole of over-processing an ultimately meaningless or false idea.
In reality, for most of us, the thoughts we are entertaining during this pandemic are the result of past mind-training. You don’t have to sit on a cushion, or move on a mat, to engage in mind-training. It can apply to any activity directing the mind’s attention toward a point of focus. That isn’t to say that every time you choose to direct your attention that you are engaging in mindfulness, but when your attention becomes focused here and now, and you are not distracted by thoughts about the past or future, then you’re on the right track.
Looking to the past with a sense of grief or loss, or projecting fears about what is to come in the future, are both often irrelevant to the reality of your current situation. This actually places the point of focus on your problems, real and imagined, instead of acknowledging the current reality and any solutions that exist here and now. Thinking about the past, or the future, cannot be done mindfully because it does not involve the present moment, even if you are focusing all of your attention. Simply put, to cultivate mindfulness, the mind must be anchored to the present moment. Your point of focus is your anchor. Appropriate practice will cultivate a mind capable of this perspective, even in the face of stress.
First, we must accept that the function of the mind is to think thoughts. But with consistent practice, you can choose what to think about. Then, you can direct your mind toward helpful, or hopeful, thoughts. Only in the most advanced stages of this training is the point of focus undefined, the mind’s thoughts quiet, focusing on nothing and everything all at once (Desikachar, 1995; Feuerstein, 1989). This stage is not achieved by most people.
So, then why practice? Because with a consistent practice, a lot of suffering can be avoided. The practitioner may not be able to hold nothing and everything in their consciousness at the same time, but they can choose what they think about (focused attention). Just like the body must be trained to become strong, so must the mind be trained to become focused.
The main goal of yoga is to focus the mind in a chosen direction. Yoga therapy offers adaptations of classical yoga practices to assist those with impediments to such focus. Whether you’re dealing with back pain, respiratory illness, depression, or heart disease, yoga therapy offers practices to decrease the impact of these conditions on your physical and mental functioning and improve your overall sense of well-being. It is easier to deepen our relationship to mindfulness, and the peace and contentment that accompany it, when we reduce imbalances in our system where we can. This symbiotic relationship of mindfulness and well-being can strengthen with a consistent practice.
Yoga practice is as individual as the people that practice. A person’s current physical and mental health status, personality traits, interests, lifestyle, beliefs, emotional processing, and energetic processing are all considerations when designing practices for students. Yoga therapy offers many points of focus to choose from, allowing the teacher and student to explore those practices that are most resonate for helping the student cultivate mindfulness.
While many in The West define yoga as a fitness routine of stretching, that is a pale version of the richness of yoga practice. Yoga offers movement (asana), breathing connected to the energetic body (pranayama), meditation (dharana), gestures (mudras), sound (nada), and lifestyle suggestions (vihara). The ability to adapt these practices individually, or in combination, for optimal benefit is practically endless. All can help move a person toward a more mindful, content experience when practiced appropriately.
For assessment of your best practices, schedule a private appointment to train your body and mind for whatever comes.