Jon Kabat-Zinn has developed an operational definition of mindfulness which is very helpful.

Mindfulness is the awareness that arises when we pay attention in a particular way:

  • On purpose
  • To the present moment
  • Nonjudgmentally

When we break that down, it sounds quite simple – and it is. “Simple but not easy!”

What do we mean by on purpose?

When we meditate we intentionally set out to pay attention to each moment that arises and passes away. This requires us to notice when the attention isn’t where we intended it to be and like a puppy being trained, bring it back to its intended focus with gentle determination, knowing that when it wanders, the mind is doing what minds so – think! What else would we expect it to do? Not a problem! We aren’t expecting to void the mind of all thinking – just gradually have more ability to direct it and redirect it at will.

To what are we purposefully paying attention?

The present moment – the bare experience of this moment, and then this one, and this one! Attending to sensations, to thoughts, to emotions -experiencing them in their rawest forms, rather than being lost in our automatic thoughts about them! And noticing as they arise into awareness and then disappear.

What does it mean to pay attention nonjudgmentally?

I think this is the hardest part of the practice of mindfulness meditation. The mind is a judgment creating machine -from its assessment of danger and safety, to the voice of the inner critic, to threats of disconnection from others, the mind is always monitoring our performance, and holding up a scorecard, generally with discouraging marks for our performance. So mindfulness meditation helps us to see the judgments as they arise, and gradually let go of those that cause us suffering, and even have insights about what might serve us better.

Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention in a way that creates space for insight.”
– Sharon Salzberg

In summary – Mark Williams (developer of MBDC and The Feeling Tones program) describes it this way, “Mindfulness is developed through setting our intention to be awake to what’s going on in the present moment, learning to focus our attention where we intend it to be, and doing both of these actions with a particular non-judging attitude”.