During this weekend’s introduction to mindfulness class, a very useful question came up: Does being mindful mean being indifferent to our experience?
This question struck me as being particularly useful in that it helps to capture and put words to the challenge of being non-reactive to our experience. From our first days, our reactions to our physical and emotional experiences are reinforced: a baby cries when he feels hungry and is fed. As we mature, we learn that not every experience requires action, and not every experience means something about the past or future. For instance, as adults, we know that the sensation of hunger does not mean that we will die if we do not eat immediately. Awareness + maturity = wisdom.
Purposeful attention to what is present in a particular moment is mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes “non-judgment” as one of the attitudes that provides a foundation for practicing mindfulness. When we notice an experience, be it physical, behavioral, emotional or cognitive, it is very common to judge that experience as important or unimportant, worthy or unworthy, or even desirable or not. And judgment leads to action- whether it means simply putting a thought into a certain mental category or engaging in some behavior. Mindfulness teaches us how to simply notice our experience fully, without being dominated by the habit of judgment or action.
If we mistake the equanimity extended to our various experiences for indifference, we risk missing out on a lot of information. We pass up the opportunity to cultivate discernment in our judgments about experiences and make a balanced response to the full range of events unfolding in a particular moment. Indifference implies that the information we gain during an experience is not important and, therefore, not worthy of our attention. In addition, most of us are not naturally indifferent to our thoughts- quite the opposite. So, it is likely that obtaining indifference to our experience would require striving for a different mind state.
Rather, mindfulness helps us to open ourselves equally to all experiences (whatever our judgment about them) exactly as they are. Being mindful helps us to recognize and validate what is present for us in a given moment (even if it does not make any sense or fit with our values), and to respond to that moment with compassion and acceptance. In practical terms, it has the capacity to create some space around our deeply ingrained mental habits, thereby opening up opportunities to do things differently in life.
It is difficult to describe what is like to relate to yourself in this way, which is why the practice part is so important. Although the concept of mindfulness is not technical or metaphysical, we English speakers do not possess the language to easily describe the experience. It is best left to experience to show us how opening to the abundant richness of any particular moment- and letting it unfold exactly as it is- can help in forging a different relationship to thoughts, feelings, behaviors and body sensations.
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