What is Mindfulness, by Linda Lehrhaupt, PhD

Mindfulness meditation has been described in many ways in recent years, but I still find that one of the definitions by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, is very helpful. He says that mindfulness is  “paying attention on purpose in the present moment, non-judgmentally. He added in an interview on YouTube…“as if your life depended on it.”

Mindfulness takes place in the present moment.

There is much talk these days about the need to be in the present moment. Why? In fact, many people realize as they begin to practice mindfulness that they are rarely in the here and now. They notice how often they are lost in memories or in anticipation of the future. They are aware of becoming caught up in a way that hijacks their attention, making it more difficult to stay present.

“Why is this a problem?” people sometimes ask. “My memories are often wonderful, and I like to think about what is to come. Also, sometimes I have to think about the future. I have to plan.”

Which is all very true. At the same time, we often, and more often than we are aware, function on a kind of automatic pilot, skimming through life rather than diving deep. We tend to miss so much of our actual life because we tend to exhaust things quickly and look for the next activity to keep us occupied.

As people practice mindfulness, they notice they can ask themselves:  “Am I aware where I am? Am I as engaged as I can be in what is right before me?  Or am I swept along, feeling driven, or withdrawing because it all feels too much?”

Being able to even ask these questions has meant for many mindfulness practitioners the difference between connecting to themselves or feeling adrift in a storm of life.

Mindfulness is a capacity that can be trained and strengthened.

The practice of mindfulness can be compared to muscle-strengthening exercises. In much the same way that our muscles can weaken or atrophy when not exercised, our capacity for mindfulness can weaken or atrophy when we don’t make use of it. The core of mindfulness-based training programs is the systematic training of the muscle of mindfulness.

Mindfulness can be cultivated.

When we practice mindfulness, we tend the garden of our life, watering and caring for it. Everything nourishes this garden: the wonderful moments of our lives as well as the difficult ones. The difficult ones in particular— what one meditation teacher called the “compost of our lives” — can provide a rich source of nutrients  as we learn to meet challenges with mindfulness.

In mindfulness training, we strengthen our capacity for nonjudgmental awareness.

One of the first things we notice as we practice mindfulness is how caught up we are in judgments, ideas, and opinions about things and our lives in general. As we continue to practice , we see that it is possible to set judging aside (at least some of the time) and experience elements of our lives in a less-filtered way, freer of tunnel vision. This may in turn create a richer and clearer understanding that we have a choice about things. Opting to exercise that choice becomes a conscious step toward mindful action, rather than a detour into wishful thinking, resignation, or impulsive behavior.

Mindfulness gives us access to our own wisdom, insight, and compassion.

If we reverse the syllables in the word insight, it reads as “sight in,” which means “sight within ourselves.” Mindfulness develops our capacity to look within. It gives us access to our own wisdom, insight, and compassion, the rich ground of our lives.

“As if your life depended on it.”

It might seem to be overly dramatic when Kabat- Zinn talks about practicing mindfulness “as if one’s life depended on it.”  But in my experience as an MBSR teacher and in my own life, there have been countless times when people say that meditation practice “saved their life.”  Sometimes, they mean it literally. Lost in the tumult of a difficult life situation, dark thoughts can cross their minds. In those situations, I have seen many people benefit both from skillful counseling from mental health professionals as well as training in mindfulness practice. They seem to support each other beautifully.

Mindfulness saving one’s life can also mean that people who were overwhelmed by stress can  learn to make life choices in favor of taking care of themselves, physically and emotionally, reconnecting to their families, friends or loved ones.  In the middle of dealing with chronic pain or other health crisis, people notice that there is more to life than their illness. Their life can expand to include things they have often turned away from (e.g. hobbies, sport activities, attending cultural events). They can acknowledge it is possible to live with rather than in spite of what is going on.

It is at times of almost “losing it,” that we realize how precious life is. For each person that may mean different things, but being able to hold such a gift with tenderness and deep love has given many a sense of joy and fulfillment. Coming home to the moment is to find the treasure that has been buried under the floor in our house for as long as we have lived there but always thought was somewhere else.


Based on the book Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: The MBSR Program for Enhancing Health and Vitality. Copyright © 2017 by Linda Lehrhaupt and Petra Meibert. Printed with permission from New World Library — www.newworldlibrary.com.

Linda Lehrhaupt, PhD, is the founder and executive director of the Institute for Mindfulness-Based Approaches and one of Europe’s most senior MBSR teachers. Petra Meibert, Dipl. Psych., is a psychologist and one of Germany’s leading experts on MBSR, MBCT (Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy), and the applications of mindfulness in medicine and psychotherapy.


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