Mindfulness, What Is It Really?

Lately, I have noticed meditation practitioners being parodied or satirized in the media (television and film). It seems as if popular culture has some issues with meditation and the states of being that it can create. Meditators are often parodied as being neurotic, stressed out, head cases who find temporary relief, peace and love in the higher states of consciousness that they find through their meditation practice. But of course, it is not long before these blissed out head cases fall back into their same patterns of anger, rage, anxiety and self-hatred. And I admit- this can make for some good entertainment.

I suppose to some degree these parodies are deserved. Meditation has been appropriated by multi-millionaire self-help gurus like Tony Robbins, Deepak Chopra and many other corporate meditation gurus. They have intelligently packaged meditation in pretty new age wrapping and sold it to mainly white people in the business world who are looking for more centeredness, efficiency, focus, less anxiety, more space, less reactivity and more positive meaning in their lives. It is true that meditation has been dumbed down and become another high price commodity sold by “the athletes of positive thinking and health (and greed)” to people and corporations who want to be able to maximize their positivity, health and performance.

But everything I have spoken of above has nothing to do with what mindfulness is. The meditation sold by Tony Robbins is as far from authentic mindfulness practice as we are from Mars. Mindfulness has nothing to do with generating positivity, love or money. It has nothing to do with optimizing performance (although this can be a pleasant side-effect of mindfulness). All mindfulness is is a practice of becoming less identified with thinking and ego and more aware in the present moment.

In mindfulness practice, awareness is referred to as the 6th sense. There is touch, smell, sight, hearing and seeing. But there is also the sense of awareness. In our culture we are so conditioned to be identified with our ego, with our never ending thought processes, that we are very rarely aware of experiencing our five senses- let alone our sixth. But just like our pancreas, liver and our spleen- awareness is always there even if we are not aware of it. Mindfulness is a practice of stretching our attention beyond our narrow focus on obsessive thinking so that we can become more open and aware of our lives in the present moment. The psychological, relational and physiological benefits of being able to do this are too numerous to name here.

The corporate meditation approach of training individuals to always be in a state of positivity, high energy and bliss is like expecting the blue sky to always be blue. No rain clouds, no fog, no thunder clouds- just blue. This is ridiculous, shaming and impossible to do. Clouds are as natural to the sky as our various darker emotions and feelings are to our awareness. But when practicing mindfulness we develop the skill of being able to be aware when the clouds of anger, worry, sadness, stress, anxiety, depression and/or excitement are present- without getting caught up in them. Just like a food critic who cultivates her sense of taste, mindfulness practitioners are cultivating their sense of awareness so that they can be less reactive to the clouds and more fully accepting of life as it is.

And this is all mindfulness really is- developing the skill or art of being more aware and present in life rather than being lost in thought and becoming reactive to every little cloud that moves through you. Through mindfulness we become more grounded and aware within ourselves and less enslaved by our conditioning (we also become less dependent on things outside of ourselves). You rarely see this kind of mindfulness satirized in films or television programs because in truth there really is nothing funny about a person who is being mindful.

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