Mindfulness is attention to the present moment without judgement. The lack of judgement fosters what some practitioners call the witness-self. During mindful activities, the practitioner notices what arises without labeling or judging, which avoids the pull of “story” (ex. you add a judgement to a thought – you’re off, no longer present ). Mindfulness can involve a number of practices, including yoga, meditation, martial arts, creative outlets, sacred acts (ex. prayer), or even basic household tasks as long as the practitioner is tuned in to their bodymindspirit and the moment.
“Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally” (-John Kabat-Zinn)
Mindfulness and Ritual
“Attention is the beginning of devotion” (-Mary Oliver)
Mindfulness does not have to be a spiritual practice, but often is and is incorporated into many mystical and spiritual practices. A perfect example is ritual. Ritual means “to bring together” – a way to unite the physical and spiritual in a moment (see B. Biziou, The Joy of Ritual). A ritual is not done habitually – routine removes presence and mind from the experience. A practitioner can turn the rote tasks of washing dishes or tying shoes into mindfulness and ritual by bringing attention to the activity, bodymindspirit, and moment. As a mindfulness activity, rituals slow us down, which is part of how they work – “rituals keep us centered in the present, and at the same time allow us to deal with the past and envision our futures in a very healthy, directed way” (-B. Biziou)
“…when your practice is calm and ordinary, everyday life itself is enlightenment” (- S. Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind)
Mindfulness should come with a warning label
The intention of mindfulness isn’t to bliss yourself out while stuffing down, ignoring, or eliminating feelings (remember the non-judgement part? We don’t label feelings as “bad” or worthy of dismissal; also see What is Shadow Work?). Instead, mindfulness creates capacity for curiosity and deep listening to your inner self, in the moment. Ex. How are you feeling and reacting? What do you need? This deep awareness will often stir “things” up – you will feel feelings (gasp!), you might notice patterns that no longer serve you (although they serve others; does that mean relationships or engagements need to change?), you might recall events that you were more comfortable forgetting or NEEDED to forget. In that way, mindfulness brings attention to the bigger, intuitive, wild you – who you are, what your needs are, how you react or don’t, what issues need work, etc. This is what we want – the full, aware, feeling, deep, always-working-never-arriving-but-fully-capable-and-surviving you.
Mindfulness is an attention practice, not a relaxation practice or an escape hatch from the world. This practice expands your familiar and allows for the less comfortable, so that you can carry your full weight, the “good” and the “bad”, in the world without being bogged down, immobilized, or in deep despair.
“Practice listening to your intuition, your inner voice; ask questions; be curious; see what you see; hear what you hear; and then act upon what you know to be true. These intuitive powers were given to your soul at birth” (-Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run with the Wolves)
Long term, mindfulness activities are can reduce stress and even help with a variety of health conditions and concerns such as depression, anxiety, trauma, eating disorders and addiction (see the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine). However, know that the intention is Attention. And to do that, to cultivate attention, you will often confront things you weren’t anticipating and feel things that you have worked hard not to. That is where the Big Bang change resides – ability to be present and fully, deliciously, imperfectly you.
Mindfulness and the –isms
Mindfulness is often marketed based on race, gender, and class – look at stock photos for yoga, for example, and they are mostly white, 20-40 yo, able-bodied, middle class+ (based on the $100+ yoga pants) women – add a beach backdrop and you hit Instagram redundancy gold. Groups on social media are working to change this bias, as representation matters. Mindfulness is open to all bodies, abilities, race/ethnicities, classes, spiritualties. Further, mindfulness is an additional tool to cultivate resilience, wholeness, and social change for marginalized groups while the social work of normalization continues.
The dismantling of –isms is a professional topic that I work with regularly and am passionate about – accessibility, like representation, matters – to participate in mindfulness, the opportunity needs to be brought to the people. My clients and groups, past and present, include individuals with different abilities that have had stroke, cancer, spinal cord injury, or MS; women in a county jail in Atlanta; elementary-aged children (boys will now be included in our circles!); post-partum moms and their newborns. If you can breathe, you can practice mindfulness. Don’t allow biased media representations to indicate otherwise.
For more perspective on the -isms of mindfulness, read Diana's story here
Self-inquiry for the reader:
- What is your understanding of mindfulness?
- What are your favorite mindfulness practices?
- (Mine include shamanic practice, writing, and nature)
- How is the practice of mindfulness work? And as such, is its accessibility limited?
- How is the practice of mindfulness political?
Recommendations and Resources (not meant to be exhaustive):
- Emerson, D. Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body
- Foote, J. Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change
- Griffin, K. One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps
- Johnson, MC. Skill in Action
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine: https://nccih.nih.gov/
- Oh Baby! Fitness (they offer post-partum classes, including yoga, for mom and baby): https://www.ohbabyfitness.com/
- Suzuki, S. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
- Van der Kolk, B. The Body Keeps the Score
- Works by Pema Chödrön
- Works by Joan Halifax, particularly her book, Standing at the Edge
- Yoga Service Council. Best Practices for Yoga in the Criminal Justice System
Children's feet, outside, at a mother*-daughter circle; grounding in and feeling nature can be a mindfulness practice
*Please note that my understanding of and experience with mindfulness will be different from yours. While I do not claim authority or final word in mindfulness’ definition, I do hope that my writing and experience helps you, the reader. Thanks for reading and receiving*
Second warning label for mindfulness - it doesn't just stir the pot **When practicing mindfulness, please include a grounding/return to body practice after. I have been to mindfulness intensives that have not done this, and people leave while in 'other planes', high, or otherwise out-of-it. This can be dangerous, particularly if the participants need to drive afterward. So, move your body, stomp your feet, drink or eat, or talk to other participants before operating heavy machinery**
Written by Dr. Allison Mitch, PT (DPT), RYT 500, and writing is copyright protected. Photos by https://www.janabluephotography.com/
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