(This article is based on a lecture I gave in a startup employees meetup event).
What is mindfulness?
These days, mindfulness is everywhere. MIndfulness this and mindfulness that. Mindfulness eating, mindfulness speaking, mindfulness yoga, mindfulness coding (“clear mind, clean code”. I kid you not).
However, what are we talking about when we talk about mindfulness?
Mindfulness or mindfulness meditation is a meditation technique originated from the Buddhist tradition. Mindfulness meditation was first introduced by the Buddha, some 2500 years ago, in a sutra called the “satipatthana sutra”.
Sutra (also known as suttas) is the word used to identify oral teachings thought to have been given directly by Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) around 600 B.C.
Satipatthana is a word in the Pali language, the language used by the Buddha himself.
Sati is the pali word for “mindfulness” or “awareness”. Paṭṭhāna means "foundation”. The literal translation of “Satipatthana” is “foundation of mindfulness” or “presence of mindfulness,”.
In the Buddhist context, mindfulness meditation has a major role for those following the Buddhist path. It is one of the 2 main meditation techniques taught by the Buddha concentration meditation and Vipassana meditation (also known in the west as "insight meditation"). Mindfulness meditation is the main tool to gain insight (= Vipassana) into the true nature of reality.
Since the early 60 of the previous century, mindfulness meditation, as well as other Buddhist practices, made its way to the west, where it developed as a separate yet related practice.
These days, in the west, we use the term mindfulness in a secular – non-Buddhist context, as meaning:
“Paying attention; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”.
This definition was coined by Jon Kabat Zinn, an American professor of medicine and the creator of the MBSR training program (mindfulness-based stress reduction) which is the most widespread and scientifically researched mindfulness meditation training in the west.
Paying attention – to what?
When practicing mindfulness (on the cushion) we train ourselves to pay attention to what is happening with us right now. We use an object (like the breathing, or the body) and focus our attention, our minds, on it. And we notice. We don't get engaged with what is going on, we notice it. It’s like there is a thought, so we notice, this is a thought, but we don't think it. We don't get entangled with it. We just notice it and bring our attention back to our chosen object.
Mindfulness is not about not thinking or emptying the mind from thoughts. It’s more about paying attention and noticing what is going on with us, minds, body, and soul. Where are we right now, at this moment, where is our attention?
In the present moment
With mindfulness, we are interested in the now. In this moment. It’s never about the past or future. Paying attention to our breath or the body keeps us in the present moment.
This means part or aspect of being mindful is letting go of judgments. The present moment is not good or bad. The meditation is not good or bad. If our minds wander during meditation it is not good or bad. It is what it is. We don't judge ourselves. We don't criticize ourselves. We simply bring our attention to the object of our meditation. One can’t succeed or fail with being mindful. The moment we realize our attention is elsewhere, that by itself is a moment of mindfulness.
When cultivating mindfulness we also cultivate kind acceptance, softness and nonjudgmental.
Oh, and one last (important) thing
The best way to understand what mindfulness is by practicing it. By experiencing it. This is like the first law of mindfulness: one has to experience it. Mindfulness is a state of mind, of a sort, a mental state, and we need to experience it in order to understand it. Mindfulness is a tool the helps us recognize what is going on at the present moment. Where is your mind now? Are you present? Are you hear?
“What’s in it for me?” Or, the second arrow parable
There are many version of this parable. My favorite version is telling about a monk that asked the Buddha why should he practice, what will he gain from all this sitting and practicing meditation.
The Buddha answered: if a non-trained person (trained in mindfulness meditation) goes for a walk in the woods and get struck by an arrow, he feels physical pain. He then goes on to blames himself for getting struck by an arrow, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is worried about the physical pain, he is afraid he will not recover, the pain will stay forever, it might even kill him, it might be the end of him.
However, if a trained person is struck by an arrow, he feels physical pain. He makes sure the wound is clean and taken care off and continues with his life. He does not add suffering to physical pain. He is not struck by the second arrow, the second arrow does not hit him.
He is a visualized explanation of this.
The first arrow – bad things happen. Period. I’m working as a Product Manager. For me, my days are full of things going wrong. Bugs happen. Features fail. KPI’s are not behaving as I want them to. The developer currently working on what I think is the most important thing is sick. Shit happens.
This is the first arrow. We can’t avoid it. It is not in our control.
The second arrow is all about us, about how we react to the first arrow. When something goes wrong, do we go around blaming ourselves, feeling incompetent? Do we worry about how our boss might react? Do we start looking for a new job? Are we already updating our CV?
The second arrow is the time we spend being unhappy with ourselves. It is the time we spend second-guessing our selves, it is the time we spend doubting ourselves. It’s the time we spend getting all stressed out because things are not doing what we hoped they will do. The second arrow is all us doing. It is a form of self-inflicting pain.
The good news is that we can do without it.
The second arrow is, after all, a mind habit, a mental habit. We can change our mental habits by training our minds.
The second arrow is our autopilot reaction to whatever it is that just happened. It is us reacting without thinking. Without being mindful of what is really going on.
We keep saying “move fast and break things”. But really, we want to move fast and NOT break things! We want to make everything perfect! On the first try!
Fear of making mistakes, of breaking things, was my second arrow. So I accumulated more stress.
Stress became my autopilot reaction to almost everything that happened. New task = stress. New bug = stress. New requirement = stress. Changes in requirements, changes in anything really = stress.
The modern answer to the question “what’s in it for me?”
There is also a Modern answer to the “why should I practice” question, based on scientific research done in the west over the last 30 years, mostly in the MBSR context.
A few facts:
- According to research an average person spends 50% of his time thinking about things that happened in the past OR things that did not happen yet. 50% of the time!
- Other researches show that people who are invested in the present moment enjoy greater happiness than people invested in the past or future.
- And another interesting finding: experts estimate that the mind thinks between 60,000 – 80,000 thoughts a day. That’s an average of 2500 – 3,300 thoughts per hour.
The Buddha compared the mind to a monkey. Constantly moving, jumping, from one tree to another. Never still. Never quite. Never staying in one place.
The Buddha also stated, and today we have scientific evidence to support that, that a quiet mind is a happy mind. A less disturbed mind is a more spacious and relaxed mind.
Research shows that sustained mindfulness practice causes real, observable changes in the brain, for example:
- Decreased activity in areas of the brain associated with mind-wandering combined with increased activity in areas associated with focus and cognitive control.
- Decreased activity in the amygdala, associated with a reduction in stress and anxiety.
- Increased activity in the left frontal cortex, associated with a positive mood.
Mindfulness practice changes our brains. Neuroplasticity is the term used to describe these changes and it means that our brain is like a muscle that can be trained. It allows the brain to be more resilient to stress and anxiety.
“Mindfulness places us where choice is possible”.
When we run on our autopilot we don't notice things. We don't notice we are running on autopilot. We don't notice we are stressing out. But when we are mindful, when we notice, we create space for ourselves and in this space, we can choose how to react. We can get all stressed out about the new bug, or we can welcome it as a challenge or we can just notice we have a bug that needs to be fixed and create a ticket for it, without having any emotional response. After all, the way we feel will have no real-life impact on the bug itself. On the first arrow.
Mindfulness meditation = mind training
How do we develop this capacity? This ability to be mindful, to stay with reality as it is even when things get tough?
We practice on the cushion, by meditating, and we practice in real life.
When practicing mindfulness meditation we really get to know our minds. How it works. The inner mechanism. We be-friend our minds. And slowly we train our minds to work for us instead of against us. Mindfulness practice is a way to train our minds to become our friend. A source of strength instead of a source of worry.
We did this before many times. We trained our mind to understand the little black signs printed on a piece of paper. We trained our minds to distinguish between colors, and then we trained our minds to like or dislike certain colors. We trained our minds to understand flows and diagrams. We trained our minds to write code and read code.
Hell, at one point we all trained our minds to move our fingers on a glass screen is a certain way to achieve a certain goal. We were not born this way, with this knowledge. We learned it, we trained ourselves to it, and most of the time we did not notice we are currently training ourselves, so we think we have this knowledge naturally.
And this is another definition of mindfulness: mindfulness is a capacity developed on purpose. We train our minds to stay still with whatever comes. We train our minds to focus. We train our minds not to jump from one tree to the other, or at least not constantly.
Developing mindfulness is a process, like acquiring a new ability. We do that in formal practice, that is meditation, and we do that informal, by constantly bringing our attention to the present moment.
After some time this, too, becomes a habit. A habit to check in with ourselves, almost the same way we check-in the airport. I do it when walking to the toilet, as an example, during the working hours. I try to only walk. I say to myself, it’s ok, you can now just walk. Do nothing else but walk. Or make coffee. Or stare through the window for a minute or two. Breathing deep, paying attention, I check-in with myself. How is my body right now? How is my mind? How is my mood?
With the constant pull on our attention, mindfulness is a superpower, gifting us back clarity, focus and calm.
*This article is based on a lecture I gave during a startups employee meetup