It is hard to miss the fact that the word "mindfulness" has penetrated literally every sector of our society. Variations of mindfulness concepts and practice are being taught in schools, businesses, hospitals, meditation halls, the government, and even the military. While all of these efforts are well-intentioned, there is great variability in the quality and rigor of the teaching being offered. The danger is, that while intentions are good, teaching mindfulness in a way that belies its core meaning and practice can be quite harmful to those being taught.
Historically, mindfulness, as is taught and practiced in the US, finds its roots in the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, aka the Buddha. He taught "Sati" (the Pali word) which more accurately refers to "skillful attentiveness." The first foundation of mindfulness is awareness of the body, often cultivated through commonly taught practices of mindfulness of breath, body scan, and walking meditation, for example. Use of the breath as a means to anchor into the present moment of one's existence is a very powerful and useful practice. The teaching is to become aware of the sensation of breath moving in and out, as it happens without feeling attached or averse to the experience. Deeper levels of mindfulness become available as one opens to awareness of feeling tones, thoughts, qualities of mind, emotions, sense perceptions, or whatever else arises in the practitioner's present moment experience. But, this is where things get a bit hairy.
For so many, mindfulness practice or meditation is sought as a way to deal with stress, anxiety, pain, or other life difficulties they may be facing. And these are powerful tools to aid in relieving many types of suffering (which is the reason the Buddha taught them in the first place, to relieve suffering). The temptation for the novice meditator is to use the breath to sweep difficult thoughts and emotions under the proverbial rug. This happens because of the instruction to become aware of breath, and when thoughts or emotions arise (for instance) to simply let them be and come back to the breath. It is easy to see that this would aid with stress, but is merely a short-term solution. To return to the analogy, at some point enough items get stored beneath the rug that one begins tripping over them and having a hard time "walking" around in the room at all. Stress levels and anxiety, physical tension or other states of "disease" may actually be exacerbated rather than relieved.
The true purpose of mindfulness is to allow the practitioner to be fully open to difficult feelings, thoughts, emotions, and sensations so that they create less damage. It is not about sweeping anything under the rug, rather removing the rug from the room so that nothing remains hidden, allowing one to walk freely through the room without stumbling. To use another analogy, mindfulness makes us "bullet-proof" against the many sources of suffering in our lives by allowing us to stop incurring damage trying to manipulate, control, and stop the onslaught of these "projectiles," but rather allowing them to pass through our experience without leaving unnecessary scars, damage, and "residue."
In some ways, the true practice of mindfulness is somewhat akin to free-falling through life without a net. On first blush, this could seem scary and even dangerous. A deeper look reveals this to be utterly liberating and joyful. If you are confident in your ability to deal with whatever happens in life in a skillful manner that doesn't throw you totally off-kilter, then what is there really to be stressed about? This type of practice is not for the feint of heart, but its rewards cannot be overstated. Letting go of fear, judgment, control, and aversion in favor of love, self-acceptance, compassion, and skillful communication and relationships is what is at stake. Imagine a life where your inner voice is kind, compassionate, and forgiving rather than harsh and cruel. Imagine a life where even the most difficult emotions present a ripple on the surface of your life rather than drowning you in the waves and currents of turmoil. Imagine a life where the simple knowledge that you are currently breathing can be the key to all of the happiness and peace that you seek, but fail to find in the trappings of the material world in which we live. Imagine the best you that you can dream up, and know that it is possible. Now...stop imagining, and start practicing "right" mindfulness. That is all for now... Thank you.