Whenever I teach an introductory class, I ask the group what the word “mindfulness” means to them. Some of the most common responses I hear are peacefulness, presence, meditation, being in the moment, staying calm, and focusing on the breath. I’ve always been able to affirm these responses because mindfulness can be all of these things. Precisely because the word mindfulness is used to cover so much ground, though, it is useful to start by defining terms.
My primary public teaching is based on a system developed by Shinzen Young, called Unified Mindfulness (“UM”), although I also work privately with practitioners who are interested in taking a deeper dive into the contemplative pool. UM’s approach has the virtues of being pragmatic, exact in its definitions and structure, and general in its scope for application. In the UM system, mindfulness is described as a threefold attentional skill set: concentration, sensory clarity, and equanimity working together. As discussed below, each of these skills has a precise definition as well. The generality arises because the skills are, arguably, at the root of all mindfulness systems and, indeed, most contemplative traditions.
How is Mindfulness Training Different from Meditation?
Meditation is another term that seems to be everywhere lately. Mindfulness sometimes appears to be used as though it is interchangeable with the word meditation. However, there are important differences in meaning between meditation and mindfulness. Two standard dictionary definitions of meditation are “devout religious contemplation of spiritual introspection” (dictionary.com) and “to engage in mental exercise for the purpose of reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness” (merriam-webster.com). Thus, meditation generally refers to a religious mental exercise designed to enhance spiritual awareness. Mindfulness, in contrast, focuses on the secular aspects of meditation practices: in particular, on the development of attentional skills.
While most mindfulness meditation systems don’t state it explicitly, attentional skills are essentially what they teach. In fact, one of the most well-known definitions of mindfulness is “present moment, non-judgmental awareness,” in which you can hear concentration, sensory clarity, and equanimity implied, though not stated outright. These attentional skills may underlie many religious contemplative practices, but they are not inherently religious.
Understanding concentration, sensory clarity, and equanimity in the context of mindfulness is the key to taking your practice from something that feels relaxing or helpful only while you’re sitting in formal mediation to something that can infuse your everyday activities with a sense of increased fulfillment, stress reduction, ease, curiosity, meaning, and presence. Does that sound like a tall order? Fortunately, it’s not. Most people notice significant improvements in their everyday lives within weeks of beginning to practice even 10 minutes a day.
Next, we’ll look at what each attentional skill is and how we nurture it with mindfulness training. Then, we’ll tie it all together to explain how training attentional skills can quickly make a positive impact on your day-to-day experience at work, at home, and in all of your activities, and, for those who are interested, provide a foundation for a richer contemplative life.
The UM system defines concentration as the ability to attend to what you deem relevant at any given moment. We train this skill by having a clear focus range for our attention and then returning to it whenever distracted. For example, if your focus range is watching your thoughts, then when you feel an itch, that would be a distraction. When you notice the distraction, you return to your focus range and might find that you are now thinking about the itch.
With the help of various techniques, you can practice mindfulness even while running errands, exercising, or holding meetings at work. As a result, most likely you will soon notice an increased baseline ability to concentrate – that is, how well you can stay on task even when you aren’t practicing a mindfulness technique.
Sensory clarity is the ability to notice what one actually experiences in the moment. As we attend, to the best of our ability, to our visual, auditory, and somatic experiences, internal and external, we can be rewarded with astonishment at how rich and interconnected all of this perceptual experience really is. But clarity is much more than a joy ride through our senses – without sensory clarity, our perception tends to be driven and distorted by associated subconscious thoughts and emotions interacting with each other. As our baseline level of sensory clarity grows, we’re able to be more skillfully motivated and directed. Far from becoming overly passive, a good mindfulness practice will allow an individual to be more and more clear on what is really going on and how to competently affect change, if needed.
Equanimity is an internal balance skill that allows one to neither suppress nor grasp at sensory experience, but instead simply to let it come and go. For example, consider distractions during practice. If you ever feel frustrated or angry with yourself for not being able to concentrate as well as you’d like, this is a perfect place to apply equanimity. A mindfulness trainer might suggest that you turn toward or turn away from the feeling of frustration, but, in either case, with intention and attention, so that you would begin to experience the frustration only as it is in that moment, instead of making it even worse by fighting it or continuing to beat yourself up. Most people realize that beating themselves up isn’t productive, but knowing this isn’t useful unless you know how to train away the harmful habits and replace them with healthy ones. As a person’s baseline level of equanimity increases, common results are less reactivity, better sleep, and deeper fulfillment in everyday pleasures.
Putting it all Together
When we use all three skills intentionally during practice, they get stronger. Here, a physical exercise analogy can be helpful: If you go to the gym, you will probably use many different muscles that work together. You wouldn’t, however, expect to see instant results after one workout. Still, using the muscles causes them to grow steadily stronger over time. Similarly, we use attentional skills to grow stronger attentional skills.
This is the heart of my work as a mindfulness trainer. I show people how to apply their attentional skills to almost any activity, thereby strengthening those skills and resulting in a demeanor that could be called “mindful.” A person with a high baseline of concentration, clarity, and equanimity tends to have a calm, easily focused mind, and be non-reactive in general.
Good concentration means not only that you can be more productive at work, but also that time with your children becomes more fulfilling because you’re less distracted. Increased clarity reveals itself in some ways as obvious as enjoying the nuances of a delicious meal and in other ways as subtle as noticing your decision making has become more skillful due to assessing situations more accurately. Equanimity can show up, for example, in a decrease in rumination and obsessive thinking and an increase in resiliency. A mindful person, then, will present as responding effectively and appropriately at the right time and with wisdom. The best part of all, though, is how the mindful person experiences his own life: with a deepening sense of connection, purpose, and ease.