Mindfulness refers to the energy inherent in all people to bring their full awareness to any particular thing. Some people are led to develop their mindfulness in order to live more centered, less stressful lives. For others, mindfulness is a spiritual practice, a means of seeing more deeply into themselves and into all of life. The Buddha (560 B.C.E.-480 B.C.) gave many discourses describing how mindfulness could be cultivated through various practices. Today, mindfulness (or meditation) practices are taught by ordained clergy of many spiritual traditions, by lay meditation practitioners, and by educators and health professionals.
These practices have become important activators of spiritual and religious development for many who practice them.
Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, author of the influential work on mindfulness, The Miracle of Mindfulness, equates mindfulness with living fully in the present moment. To do so, individuals must do two things-in essence, stop and smell the roses. That is, first people need to stop their mind's tendency to constantly review the past and anticipate the future, and simply rest in the here and now. Second, they need to smell, look, listen, or simply be fully with whatever it is that is present in their particular here and now. Through meditation, mindfulness practitioners train themselves to concentrate their attention on a single thing, to develop "one-pointed attention." This special kind of attention is nondiscursive in nature, that is, observing something without creating concepts about it.
In his Satipatthana Sutra or Discourse on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, the Buddha described methods for doing just this, being mindful of the body in the body, mindful of feelings in the feelings, mindful of the mind in the mind, and mindful of objects of mind in the objects of mind. Mindfulness of the body in the body denotes experiencing the body directly as opposed to thinking about it, thus the phrase "in the body." In a similar way, feelings are experienced directly, and mind or awareness itself is experienced simply by watching what is going on in one's consciousness (e.g., planning, judging, etc.). Finally, one can learn to watch the particular contents of one's awareness (e.g., plans, judgments, or sensory input like the smell of a rose) as they arise, change, and pass away. Mindfulness is always mindfulness of something. In Zen and Vipassana (or Insight) seated meditation, practitioners use mindfulness of breath to support the development of states of pure awareness. Other forms of formal, body-focused mindfulness practices include walking meditation, yoga, Eastern movement practices such as tai chi and qi gong, and ritual dance including the Hawaiian hula and the whirling of Sufi Dervishes. In Buddhist walking meditation, the practitioner breathes in, taking a step, then breathes out, taking a step, maintaining awareness of each step and breath. In the West, labyrinth walking is a Christian form of walking meditation. Meditative walking differs from ordinary walking in that its objective is the walk itself, each step itself, and not a final destination. In yoga, probably the best-known form of meditation on the body, awareness is focused on both moving in and out of and holding particular physical poses while maintaining breath awareness. Yoga is used as a preparation for formal, seated meditation and as a meditation in its own right.
The mental discipline required to maintain awareness of the present moment over any length of time is significant. Most people find the support of others doing a common practice to be important. Courses and retreats often provide starting points for mindfulness practice. Eventually, individuals tend to seek out groups that practice the kind of meditation they are drawn to, or they start new groups. Groups are usually guided by the teachings and practices associated with a particular teacher or school of practice and may or may not have a religious affiliation. Having the support of a group and a strong mindfulness practice are particularly valuable when individuals experience strong emotions. These conditions make it easier for practitioners to embrace their feelings with the energy of mindfulness. This allows them to be with their feelings in a nonreactive way, to learn from them, and begin to transform them.
Mindfulness is not only a practice for the temple or yoga studio. It is a practice for all of one's daily life. Eating, washing dishes, driving to work, or any other act can be done with mindfulness, with full attention. There are Jewish prayers to be recited before eating bread, before washing hands, before taking the first step of the day, which elevate these mundane acts to the level of the sacred. Similarly, there are gathas, or mindfulness verses, recited by Buddhists of some traditions on commencing many daily activities, that serve to bring the mind into full contact with the activity. Buddhists understand the world as having two dimensions, the historical and the ultimate. When eating a meal to satisfy hunger, one is hardly aware of what is being eaten. One is absorbed in conversation or in thought about the next task needing attention. One is living life in the historical dimension, caught up in one's personal story. By way of contrast, eating in silence, attending to the sacredness of each bite and each sip, as in Holy Communion, one may experience the interconnection of all creation that has manifested in this food and drink, experiencing the same activity in the ultimate dimension.
However practitioners strengthen their ability to be mindful, as they spend time attending to their own field of awareness, they begin to relate to the world and to themselves in a different way. Becoming more aware of negative mental states as they arise, mindfulness practitioners can receive them with more ease, even regarding them as opportunities for learning. Seeing how their experiences of the world and of themselves are ever changing mental constructions, practitioners may begin to see the interdependence of these constructions, and their sense of a permanent, separate self may begin to loosen. All the while, there are other insights to be had like the discovery of the full fragrance of a rose. Mindfulness and the practice of mindfulness and meditation can be significant activators in one's spiritual, religious, and life journey.