What Is Mindfulness?
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Mindfulness—the practice of paying attention and staying present in the moment—has increasingly gained popularity in recent years. After spending the last year researching and writing my new book, Outsmart Your Smartphone: Conscious Tech Habits for Finding Happiness, Balance, and Connection IRL, I now believe this is because the more our world is consumed by technology, the harder it seems to be mindful. Instead of spending even a second alone, staying present with our thoughts, we reflexively turn to our cellphones for entertainment, comfort, or distraction. Many of us are on our phones at work, in the bathroom, and even during sex—moments that in the past might have been spent unintentionally being mindful.
So how do reclaim those mindful moments and again learn how to stay present, aware, and accepting of those moments?
What Is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness, as it is practiced in the West, focuses almost exclusively on self-awareness as a strategy to enhance personal happiness. When practicing mindfulness, we might ask ourselves: What am I thinking, feeling, or experiencing? But this approach is flawed because self-focus is a pretty lousy strategy for increasing happiness.
In our technology-crazed, social-media-obsessed world, we are self-focused enough. The last thing we need is to practice mindfulness in ways that increase focus on ourselves. In fact, research has shown that mindfulness, as it is practiced in the west, is not a particularly good way to enhance wellbeing, and can even do harm for some people in some circumstances.
What Is Traditional Mindfulness?
Traditional mindfulness, on the other hand, encourages us to be present and pay attention to all things—personal things, yes, but also what’s going on with other people, communities, and society at large. When we start paying attention—I mean really paying attention—we start to see whatever we’ve been intentionally, or unintentionally, ignoring.
For some of us this can mean we uncover crushing guilt from having betrayed someone we love, deep rage about a culture that looked the other way when we were assaulted, or overwhelming sadness about the suffering of those who live in war zones or on the street. For others, it can mean we discover unconditional love for our romantic partner, experiences that give us true joy, or pleasure in the tiny things we never realized had so much value.
Often, when we become more present, both the darkest and brightest parts of our lives come roaring into view. For these reasons, traditional mindfulness can be more challenging, but also can be more impactful.
How Can We Make Mindfulness Work for Us?
Without effective ways to handle the difficult emotions and insights that emerge from true mindfulness, this experience can feel like too much to bear. This is why it’s so important to be equipped with other emotional skills before trying mindfulness—namely, resilience skills, self-compassion skills, and positivity skills—skills that help you handle challenging emotions and thoughts that rush to the surface when your eyes are suddenly wide open.
When you develop the emotional skills that enable you to use mindfulness effectively, it can feel almost magical. All those tiny delights that emerge simply as a result of being human become crystal clear. And all those buried and lurking negative emotions bubble to the surface where they can finally be dealt with, perhaps for the very fist time. And our brand new awareness of the experiences of others lead us to live ethical, value-driven, purposeful lives. The result? We receive an abundance of happiness, joy, and feelings of connectedness.
So you see, happiness can arise from mindfulness, not as a result of self-awareness alone, but as a side effect of our growing ability to see (and correct) the true causes of the personal, inter-personal, and societal challenges that are preventing our happiness and well-being.
So how do we practice this type of mindfulness?
Create Mindful Moments
If you’re like me, sitting alone in a restaurant waiting for my dining partner to arrive or waiting for them to come back from the restroom provokes a surprising amount of anxiety, anxiety that is so easily abated by pulling out a smartphone. But we should wonder, why is it that being alone with ourselves is so uncomfortable? We rarely ask ourselves this question, and as a result, we remain blissfully unaware of whatever it is in us (or the world) that’s causing us so much anxiety. And if we don’t know what's causing it, we can’t easily fix it.
An Example of a Mindful Moment
To find out for myself what was causing my anxiety, I decided that I would no longer pull out my phone when I was alone at a restaurant, bar, or other social event. I’d just sit there and be mindful, staying present, often with anxiety, discomfort, and unease.
When I first started this practice, the anxiety was intense--This sucks! How long will I sit here with nothing to distract me? Maybe I should just pull out my phone; what harm could it do? I thought. It was amazing how strong the urge was to just abandon my mindful moments. But instead of letting fear drive me, I just sat, allowing my emotions to come and eventually, go.
Each time I engaged in a mindful moment, there was less anxiety than the previous time. And without the intense emotions, I was able to pay more attention to the thoughts that were actually behind the anxiety. One time I realized--I feel nervous that a stranger will come up and talk to me. That wouldn’t feel safe. I don’t want to be harassed and if I’m on my phone, no one will try to approach me. When the thoughts came into my head, rather than judging them or avoiding them, I just kind of observed them with curiosity.
I suddenly realized that my life experiences had taught me that being a woman alone in a public setting was unsafe. Whether it be that time as a child when an adult man grabbed my butt or that time in college when a drunk boy trapped me in the stairwell, my brain had learned to be anxious when alone in public. And as a result, I had this low level of anxiety that I took with me every time I was out in the world. By being mindful, I found the source of my anxiety.
What to Do with the Information Mindfulness Gives Us
The thing about being present and really paying attention is that we learn things about ourselves and our world that we might have been avoiding, perhaps with good reason. But we can deal with these thoughts and feelings once the come into the light.
I can now tolerate that anxiety better now that I understand its source. I also can take action to change my community and society at large—for example, by talking openly about my experiences, helping my male friends learn about how women experience the world, and supporting social groups that work to change the culture.
When we try to just cope with symptoms—like anxiety—the causes remain intact. Because mindfulness can help us better uncover and get at the causes, it can be a more effective way to increase happiness, if done correctly. And taking this more social, cultural approach to addressing our issue is often more rewarding because it helps us move forward while simultaneously helping others move forward.
How to Be Mindful
Even though mindfulness is theoretically possible to practice anywhere, that doesn’t mean it comes easy—it didn’t for me. At first attempt I questioned: What do you mean be open and aware? What else would I be?! It wasn’t until later that I discovered how to be fully aware, open, and accepting.
To be more aware: If you're mad, ask what you're really mad at. If you're sad, ask what it is you're really sad at. If you're anxious, ask what it is you're anxious about. Don't settle for, "I'm mad at Bob because he was rude to me." Why does that rudeness matter? Why now? Why him? What is happening inside of you that makes you mad?
To be more open: Try not to push away unpleasant thoughts or emotions that arise. You might feel scared to cry in front of others or yell when you're angry. Try not to stifle those emotions. Instead ask what might be leading you to stifle them.
But also try not to generate excess emotions. Are you crying or yelling to get a specific reaction out of someone else? What are you hoping to achieve with your reactions? Try to stay present so you can just experience yourself as you are instead of trying to contort it into some kind of box.
To be more accepting: Try to stop judging or censoring your feelings and thoughts. Seriously, stop it! You may have heard judgy statements like “Boys don’t cry” or “You’re too sensitive” or “Get over it”, and you will, very likely, continue to hear these things. All you can do is refuse to judge yourself (or others), for having emotions. Emotions are natural and we all deserve ours.
About Dr. Tchiki Davis
Dr. Davis is the founder of The Berkeley Well-Being Institute. After getting her PhD in psychology at UC Berkeley, she started building online courses, apps, and products to boost well-being—products that have reached more than a million people. Now an author at Psychology Today, The Greater Good Science Center, and Shine Text, Dr. Davis's expertise on how to boost well-being reaches people all across the world.