Matthew Brensilver, PhD

What is Mindfulness?

As mindfulness gains cultural momentum, there is a risk that its definition becomes more muddled. If we are to practice effectively and teach these practices to our students and communities, conceptual clarity is important. Of course, no single person or group has the authority to provide the one-and-only definition of ‘mindfulness.’ This is an open and evolving conversation among practitioners, scientists and scholars. We do not claim to offer the definitive version of mindfulness, but instead share a definition that has been productive in our practice and teaching, and is supported by the scientific research on mindfulness.

Mindfulness can be considered a state, a trait or a practice. We can have a moment of mindfulness (state) but also have a habitual tendency of mindfulness (trait). We can do the intentional formal practice of mindfulness using different postures and activities: seated mindfulness, mindful walking or mindful eating, for example. The formal practice of mindfulness leads to more moments of mindfulness and ultimately improved trait-level mindfulness. Higher trait-level mindfulness means that we’re more mindful even when we’re not consciously trying to be mindful. This is critically important: we’re learning to create a healthy habit of mindfulness.

Below is a diagram that highlights two components of mindfulness: present-time awareness and equanimity.

mindfulnessPresent Time Awareness
The first component in blue, present-time awareness, is perhaps more familiar to readers. It refers to a stable, clear and alert awareness of momentary experience. In present-time awareness, we are awake and alive to the moment. We know sensory experience – sights, sounds, sensations, thoughts – and we know that we’re knowing. When we’re on ‘automatic pilot’ we are, in fact, knowing something – typically our thoughts – but we don’t know that we’re knowing. We are all familiar with times when there’s virtually no mindfulness present – but we’re still having experience. We’re still experiencing sights and sounds and sensations and thoughts – but we don’t know that’s what we’re experiencing. Present-time awareness is thus a kind of meta-awareness, where we have rich contact with sensory experience and we know it’s sensory experience arising in the field of awareness.

Present-time awareness is depicted as a combination of stability, clarity and alertness. Imagine looking through a telescope at the moon. If the telescope were shaking, it would be difficult to fully take in the sight of the moon. telescopeSimilarly, stability of our attention is important for present-time awareness. The moon would also be obscured if the lens were out of focus. In mindfulness practice, our ‘vision’ becomes more clear. We’re able to detect more and more subtle features of our experience. Lastly, we must be alert to the present moment. If we looked through a steady and focused telescope but were really sleepy and lapsing in and out of awareness, we would miss the grandeur of the moon. Mindfulness steadies the attention, focuses the attention, and remains alert to the object of our attention.

While present-time awareness has important benefits on its own, the second component of mindfulness – equanimity, depicted above in green – is critically important. Equanimity may be an unfamiliar word, but has an important meaning in the context of mindfulness practice. Equanimity can be defined as a sense of cognitive-emotional balance where there is no compulsion to act out our preferences. It has a number of connotations: ease, non-reactivity, non-manipulation of experience, and the toleration of the arising, intensification, weakening and disappearance of subjective experiences. Equanimity is the balance point between suppression of experience on the one hand, and entanglement with experience on the other.

Equanimity is often confused with indifference or passive acceptance of suffering in the world. This is a misunderstanding. In the diagram, we include “momentary acceptance” to denote that equanimity marks our relation to present-time experience – not objective conditions in the world. We can be equanimous with our present-time experience, but be deeply committed to changing and improving the conditions in the world.

In sum, we define mindfulness as attending to present-moment experience with equanimity. Our definition is similar to other common definitions of mindfulness. For example, Jon Kabat-Zinn defined mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” In this definition, “non-judgmentally” relates to the momentary acceptance component of equanimity.

Future research will seek to better understand the components of mindfulness, how they work together, and how they confer benefits in our personal and professional lives. Of course, you can do your own research in the laboratory of your own mind! As you practice, you might examine how present-time awareness and equanimity function in your experience. Perhaps there is another aspect of mindfulness that you feel is important. The exploration will support greater clarity and nuance as we think about, practice, and teach mindfulness.

Mindful Schools transforms school communities from the inside out. Founded in 2007, Mindful Schools’ graduates have impacted over 750,000 children worldwide. You can learn more about our online course offerings, Mindfulness Fundamentals and Mindful Educator Essentials.

References & Further Reading:

Brown, K.W., Ryan, R.M., & Creswell, J.D. (2007). Mindfulness: Theoretical foundations and evidence for its salutary effects. Psychological inquiry, 18, 211-237. [Summary of Article]

Bishop, S.R., Lau, M., Shapiro, S., Carlson, L., Anderson, N.D., Carmody, J., … & Devins, G. (2004). Mindfulness: A proposed operational definition. Clinical psychology: Science and practice, 11, 230-241.[Summary of Article]

Desbordes, G., Gard, T., Hoge, E.A., Hölzel, B.K., Kerr, C., Lazar, S.W., … & Vago, D.R. (2014). Moving beyond mindfulness: defining equanimity as an outcome measure in meditation and contemplative research. Mindfulness, 6, 356-372. [Article in PDF]

Pearson, M.R., Lawless, A.K., Brown, D.B., & Bravo, A.J. (2015). Mindfulness and emotional outcomes: Identifying subgroups of college students using latent profile analysis. Personality and Individual Differences, 76, 33-38. [Summary of Article]

Young, S. (2013). What is Mindfulness? A Comprehensive Overview. [Article in PDF]

Share this post
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInEmail to someone