What is mindfulness? Whether you are first hearing of mindfulness or have been wondering for a while exactly what it means, it is helpful to have a definition handy. It is even more helpful to have multiple definitions.
Here are 20 definitions of mindfulness from various sources, including individuals and groups, in no particular order. Some of these might be more helpful than others, and you do not have to agree with all of them.
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Dictionary and Encyclopedia Definitions:
The first place to look for a definition of mindfulness is in the dictionary. Here are some dictionary/encyclopedia definitions of mindfulness.
“The practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.”
“The state or quality of being mindful or aware of something.”
“The practice of being aware of your body, mind, and feelings in the present moment, thought to create a feeling of calm.”
“Mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to the internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment, which can be developed through the practice of meditation and other training.”
Synonyms include: alertness, carefulness, caution, circumspection, concentration, concern, conscientiousness, consideration, diligence, direction, discrimination, effort, enthusiasm, exactness, exertion, fastidiousness, forethought, heed, heedfulness, interest, management, meticulousness, nicety, pains, particularity, precaution, prudence, regard, scrupulousness, solicitude, thought, trouble, vigilance, wariness, watchfulness.
Those are helpful as a starting point, but what does mindfulness mean beyond dry dictionary definitions?
Definitions of Mindfulness According to Organizations:
Let’s look at what mindfulness means to organizations dedicated to mindfulness.
“Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”
Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World
“Mindfulness is about observation without criticism; being compassionate with yourself.”
White Wind Zen Community
“Mindfulness is wordless. Mindfulness is meeting the moment as it is, moment after moment after moment, wordlessly attending to our experiencing as it actually is. It is opening to not just the fragments of our lives that we like or dislike or view as important, but the whole of our experiencing.”
Greater Good Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley
“Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.”
Mindful Awareness Research Center at the University of California at Los Angeles
“Mindful Awareness is the moment-by-moment process of actively and openly observing one’s physical, mental and emotional experiences.”
Now that we have seen how various organizations define mindfulness, let’s take a look at how some individuals define mindfulness.
Definitions of Mindfulness According to Experts:
The following people have all dedicated their lives to mindfulness, but how do they define it?
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
Thich Nhat Hanh
“Mindfulness shows us what is happening in our bodies, our emotions, our minds, and in the world. Through mindfulness, we avoid harming ourselves and others.”
Daniel J. Siegel
“Mindfulness in its most general sense is about waking up from a life on automatic, and being sensitive to novelty in our everyday experiences. With mindful awareness the flow of energy and information that is our mind enters our conscious attention and we can both appreciate its contents and come to regulate its flow in a new way.
Mindful awareness, as we will see, actually involves more than just simply being aware: It involves being aware of aspects of the mind itself. Instead of being on automatic and mindless, mindfulness helps us awaken, and by reflecting on the mind we are enabled to make choices and thus change becomes possible.”
“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.”
“Mindfulness is the aware, balanced acceptance of the present experience. It isn’t more complicated than that. It is opening to or receiving the present moment, pleasant or unpleasant, just as it is, without either clinging to it or rejecting it.”
We should have a pretty good idea by now of what mindfulness means.
Just out of curiosity, how is mindfulness defined by people and organizations who are not necessarily dedicated to mindfulness?
“Mindfulness has many synonyms. You could call it awareness, attention, focus, presence, or vigilance. The opposite, then, is not just mindlessness, but also distractedness, inattention, and lack of engagement.”
“Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present.”
“Mindfulness is the act of being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling at every moment – without interpretation or judgment.”
“Mindfulness is about training yourself to pay attention in a specific way. When a person is mindful, they:
1) Focus on the present moment 2) Try not to think about anything that went on in the past or that might be coming up in future 3) Purposefully concentrate on what’s happening around them 4) Try not to be judgemental about anything they notice, or label things as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.”
“Mindfulness is a matter of being fully present in the moment.”
A Take Home Message
As we examine the different definitions of mindfulness above, a few patterns stick out. The most obvious is that mindfulness has to do with paying attention. Several definitions underscore the importance of judgment in mindfulness – that is, that mindfulness involves nonjudgment.
Some definitions of mindfulness above focus internally by directing attention to the body and thoughts. Other definitions focus externally by pointing to what is going on around you. Some emphasize the importance of both approaches.
Finally, two definitions (from Daniel J. Siegel and the MARC at UCLA) use “mindfulness” and “mindful awareness” interchangeably. We might even consider “mindful awareness” to be the shortest, simplest definition of mindfulness.
As you can see, while there are many similarities between definitions, mindfulness is defined in different ways by different people. Which definitions of mindfulness do you agree with, and which definitions do you disagree with? How do you define mindfulness?