Mindfulness(2): What is it? - RSA

Mindfulness(2): What is it?


  • Mindfulness
  • Social brain

Since our event earlier this month, I've been banging on about mindfulness to anybody who will listen. Nobody has yet asked me for a definition, but I can see in their eyes that they want to.

Since our event earlier this month, I've been banging on about mindfulness to anybody who will listen. Nobody has yet asked me for a definition, but I can see in their eyes that they want to.

So what is mindfulness? My quick answer is that it's the surprisingly difficult and strangely liberating experience of paying attention to what is going on inside us. 

And yet, that's a bit of a trap, as any definition would be. There is a place for verbal definitions, because unless you pin an idea down, there is a meaning vacuum, and it is difficult to proceed to say anything useful without fear of talking at cross purposes. However, verbal definitions are not entirely benign. If I ask you: What is water? You could give me its chemical composition, H2O, but I won't really know what it is until I have taken a drink. Some things have to be experience to be understood, as is the case with mindfulness.


A verbal description prior to a taste of the experience may not be harmful, but it is probably not helpful either. Your best definition is to find a good teacher and start practicing, but if that seems daunting, just to try to sit still, perhaps with eyes closed, and continue to breathe, but now with an ongoing awareness of your breath. You will quickly discover, if you didn't know already, that our everyday minds are rather chaotic, and that we struggle to hold our attention on any single thing, including something as simple as our breath, our basis of our existence, for more than a few seconds.

I will later come back to why such an experience should be important, or useful, but for now I want to stick with the definition. If the injuction to 'just do it' sounds evasive, consider the following definition of definition, for why the experience is necessary: 

Definition: The vivisection tray upon which a word is splayed; while the gist may be clearly labelled with coloured pins, resuscitation becomes problematic. (Abrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary)

The Devil's dictionary is deliberately subervise, but the point is powerful. Definitions can bring ideas to life, but if the conditions of that life are stricly demarcated, one's idea of what the word means is needlessly limited.

Yes, yes, but what is it? What is it? Well it's partly an attempt to free ourselves from the narcissistic verbal chattering that goes on in our heads for about 16 hours a day. So in a way, words and thoughts are part of that challenge.  

Above all, I would say mindfulness is honest. It's about facing up to our own minds, in all their complexity, and everything that follows from that honesty. The acclaimed author, Tim Parks, describes one aspect of this experience beautifully towards the end of his disarming book, Teach us to Sit Still.

"But as words and thought are eased out of the mind, so the self weakens. There is no narrative to feed it.... 'Self'' it turns out, is an idea we invented, a story we tell ourselves. It needs language to survive. The words create meaning, the meaning purpose, the purpose narrative. But here, for a little while, there is no story, no rhetoric, no deceit. Here is silence and acceptance; the pleasure of a space that need not be imbued with meaning. Intensely aware, of the flesh, the breath, the blood, consciousness allows the 'I' to slip away."

This idea may sound terrifying to some, and suggests quite an advanced level of practice, but while the 'I' may ultimately slip away, our lives, and our personal roles and identities very much go on, as Tim Parks suggests with reference to his wife, his daughter and his dog:

"So if I can recount the first minutes, I can't tell the rest. There are deepenings. There is a liquefaction of some kind, the things flowing into the calves, the head into the breast. And there are resistances: stones, obstructions, pains. The mind goes back and back to them. An ankle. A shoulder. Maybe they will shift, and maybe not. I am absolutely awake. I hear Rita pad downstairs with the dog behind her. I hear a scooter straining up the hill. And I am not there. I am in the stream."

Still sounds intense, but his responsibilities are unaffected:

"Then the alarm sounds and I must move. I'm up, dressed and getting Lucy into the car in just a few minutes. By ten past seven we are speeding down the hill, trying to beat the traffic light at San Felice."

(Tim Parks, Teach us to Sit Still, p331)

Be the first to write a comment


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.

Related articles