Have you heard anything about mindfulness lately? Chances are you have… Chances are you’ve heard a lot about mindfulness lately. You’ve probably been hearing about mindfuless in the media, at work, in casual conversation, maybe even at the dinner table from your kids. Perhaps you’ve read about it online a few times.
But even with the media spotlight on mindfulness, do you feel like you understand it? Is it clear to you how mindfulness works? How would you define mindfulness?
There’s so much buzz about what mindfulness is or is not, and sometimes coming from people who have minimal experience in the practice. So in an effort to both simplify and deepen the mindfulness conversation, we have released a series of podcasts featuring noted mindfulness scholars, including Rick Hanson, Juliet Adams, and Joseph Goldstein. Upcoming contributors will include Daniel Goleman, Mirabai Bush, and Surya Das.
Common Questions, Thoughtful Insights
Designed as an interview series to maintain consistency across subject matter, the podcast contributors are all asked the same questions. Some examples are:
How can mindfulness be put into action?
What’s the difference between mindfulness and meditation?
How does mindfulness training work?
Through these questions and others, our featured guests and their decades of experience will help provide clarity and add to the conversation surrounding mindfulness. This will allow you to formulate your own opinions about how mindfulness might apply to you.
With the growing popularity of mindfulness, it seems worthwhile to pause and ask this simple question.
“Mindfulness has reached such a level of hipness that it is now suggested as a cure for essentially every ailment. Anxious? Broke? Sneezing? Definitely try meditating. This vogue is in part due to the real benefits of mindfulness, a form of attention and awareness often (but not always) achieved through meditation or yoga. It’s a trend for a reason. But its increasing application to every situation under the sun has some people concerned.” –The Mindfulness Backlash, the New York Times, June 30, 2014
References to Mindfulness in Books, 1930-2008
Roots and Meaning
Those who popularized the term mindfulness were influenced by Buddhist traditions. “Right mindfulness” translates from the PÄli words samma sati. This is not “right mindfulness” as opposed to “wrong mindfulness.” Think of “right” as complete, wholesome, thorough, or ideal.
Samma sati (right mindfulness) ispart of the Eightfold Path, which is the last of the Four Noble Truths foundational to Buddhism. According to the Four Noble Truths, we suffer because we personally identify with our experiences of craving and attachment, when they are really just universal struggles. We could let go of that identification–as well as the suffering that results from it–through the Eightfold Path, which involves cultivating wholesome intentions, actions, and mindfulness, among other virtues and the wisdom and compassion that arises through this cultivation.
The What is Mindfulness? Podcast
To avoid advancing a particular partisan agenda and instead help you understand a few different perspectives on the meaning of mindfulness, More Than Sound has interviewed contemporary mindfulness instructors and scholars from a variety of traditions. You can listen to their descriptions of mindfulness for free as part of our What is Mindfulness? podcast project. We hope these leaders and their decades of experience help provide clarity and add to the conversation surrounding the subject, allowing you to formulate your own opinion about mindfulness.
Wendy Hasenkamp PhD, Senior Scientific Officer at the Mind and Life Institute where they take a more secular, contemporary and scientific approach to mindfulness.
Present Moment Awareness
Most of the teachers in the podcasts first describe mindfulness as being aware of the present moment. Mindfulness in this regard is a type of awareness, attention, observation, or focus.
Different teachers highlight slightly distinct aspects of attention. While Joseph Goldstein emphasizes “bare attention,” Wendy Hasenkamp describes adding a “meta-awareness” of what you’re doing while you’re doing it, in addition to your regular everyday attention. Surya Das describes mindfulness as having an open, friendly, and incandescent quality to it. From these teachings and others in the project, we can summarize some basic themes:
While Practicing Mindfulness, You…
focused on emotions, sensations and thoughts in the present.
ruminating about the past OR unproductively worrying about the future.
accepting of what is.
fighting with your mind because it doesn’t conform to your idea of what you want it to be.
friendly to yourself and others.
attached, getting stuck on solid, fixed ideas of reality.
aware of yourself as interdependent with other people and things.
consciously proactive or responsive.
reacting out of habit.
Ethics & Wisdom
A characteristic of being mindful in the Buddhist tradition is remembering our ethics and wisdom. While Buddhist scripture does include the Buddha’s teachings about awareness and focus, it also includes more literal uses of sati. In the text Samyutta-nikaya, the Buddha says:
“And what, monks, is the faculty of sati [mindfulness]? Here, monks, the noble disciple has sati, he is endowed with perfect sati and intellect, he is one who remembers, who recollects what was done and said long before.”
Our podcast contributors also speak to mindfulness’s connection to memory and intellect.
Joseph Goldstein explains that mindfulness can be understood as remembering both what is wholesome (generosity, love, and wisdom) and unwholesome (greed, hatred, and delusion).
Juliet Adams asserts that mindfulness helps us choose the “wise response.”
Surya Das describes mindfulness having an intelligent, peacemaking quality, that includes insight into interdependence, impermanence, and the nature of causation.
What Mindfulness is Not
Those interviewed for the What is Mindfulness? podcasts also pointed out what is decidedly not mindfulness. Here are a few of their helpful observations:
Mindfulness is Not Passivity
It is worth noting that “accepting what is” and “avoiding judgement” should not be interpreted as tolerating hardships as they are, without expressing preferences or working to improve circumstances. By contrast, in developing the ability to clearly observe situations and accept them as starting points, mindfulness can makes us more capable of effectively engaging in our relationships and working in ways that will have truly beneficial impacts.
Mindfulness is Not Mindlessness
The interviewees contrast mindfulness to a few other states in which you are likely to habitually find yourself. Mindfulness, they explain, is the opposite of mindlessness or inattention. Even though the black lab chasing its nose or the cat chasing a mouse might be very focused on the present moment, they do not have the heightened awareness that is a defining characteristic of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is Not Attachment
Mindful attention is free from our clinging attachments to desire and our powerful habits of aversion that are considered to be the central causes of suffering in the Buddhist tradition.
Mindfulness is Not Religion
And while this article highlights the Buddhist origins of the concept of mindfulness, it is also important to note that the psychological benefits of mindfulness practice are enjoyed by secular people as well as practitioners of other traditions. You don’t need to be Buddhist to reap the benefits of mindfulness. Furthermore, as Surya Das explains, there are parallel and compatible concepts in a variety of other traditions.
To access these podcasts, scroll to the top of morethansound.net/mindfulness, and use the filter buttons. You can either “Search by Topic” or “Search by podcast guest.”
You can also listen to brief mindfulness practices at the right of the page. We will continue to publish more podcasts, blog posts, and audio practices as we expand this project. Thank you for your interest in mindfulness.
This year we reached a record number of downloads of our podcasts. Thank you! We’re glad you find the content useful. We went back to re-listen to some of our most popular posts. It looks like the concept of focus and attention training were of most interest to listeners. Here’s a recap of the 14 Favorite More Than Sound Podcasts of 2014.
#14 Daniel Goleman talks about Focus on Bloomberg.edu
Dr. Goleman spoke with Jane Williams about the importance of teaching kids cognitive control, the pros and cons of mind wandering, and how to effectively manage distractions.
In this episode, we heard an excerpt from a TEDx talk given by hostage negotiator and IMD professor of leadership George Kohlrieser. As he tells it, successful negotiation, no matter how high the stakes, comes down to bonding. And it’s not only others who have the ability to take us hostage – sometimes we can do that to ourselves.
Daniel Goleman spoke with Michael Brooks from the Majority Report on why inequality hurts empathy, the emotional impact of wealth and poverty and what we can do to create a more attentive and empathic society.
Many of these episodes explore concepts and tools that are important ingredients of success. So you might be surprised to hear that this one is devoted almost entirely to failure. But to Bill George, failure is an essential ingredient itself, as you’ll hear in this excerpt from Daniel Goleman’s series Leadership: A Master Class.
Daniel Goleman has introduced 6 different leadership styles that can be used to get results. In this episode, he talks about how leaders can’t rely on just one or even two, but must become proficient in as many as they can. Together, the styles become a set of tools the most effective leaders can use in any situation.
Daniel Goleman spoke in-depth with KQED about why the ability to focus is the key factor in achieving success – more than IQ or social background. He also discussed how we can cultivate different types of attentiveness, from a narrow focus that shuts out the world to the “open awareness” that is receptive to seemingly unrelated ideas.
Stay tuned for details about our new podcast series launching in 2015: What is Mindfulness? More Than Sound’s Hanuman Goleman talks with a variety of mindfulness practitioners, teachers and scholars about the definition of mindfulness.
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Q: I’m curious how to balance the three types of focus in the fast-paced high tech world. It seems there are fewer and fewer spaces for having a focused, connected conversation that embraces empathy and compassion.
A: Good question. The faster the pace, the bigger the challenge. It does take a bit of non-goal focused time to tune in and connect with the other person. You may not be able to do this on every phone call, but it’s worth doing at some point during the day or week, especially with people you work with continuously. A genuine connection, one with mutual empathy and interest creates a better container for communication when the pressure is high. You might find this article helpful > Focus on how you connect
Q: I am currently working on a venture to help students focus on school work (through the use of mindfulness and creating focused environments for doing school work). I noticed you have several teen podcasts. How do you recommend teaching these to young students? I know that young adults are beginning to realize the importance of mindfulness for daily life, but what is the best way to approach this with elementary/ high-school students?
A: I’m thrilled to hear that you’re doing this. I think it’s important to understand that young people can learn to improve their focus, and that this also makes them more ready to learn. This seems a logical next step to add to curriculum in schools everywhere. I think it’s important to do this in an age-appropriate way. I’ve seen second graders in Spanish Harlem lie on the floor with their favorite stuffed animal on their tummy, and watch it rise on the in breath, counting 1, 2, 3…, and same on the out breath. Five minutes of this made the classroom calmer and more focused for the rest of the day. I know teens who have actually gone on retreats, and done this much of the day. The benefits are very real at the brain level, shifting moods toward the positive, enhancing concentration, and speeding recovery from stress arousal. Here’s an Edutopia video about “Breathing Buddies.”
Q: Why do we see so much variation in kids’ ability (or lack of) to manage those three types? Nature vs. nurture?
A: Our ability to focus on ourselves, on other people, or on the world at large, is a combination of nature and nurture, but mostly nurture. For instance, kids with ADHD may get that label because adults don’t realize that the attention circuitry of the brain continues to develop from birth to the mid-20s. Adults think seven-year-old kids should act like 12-year-olds, and give them the diagnosis on ADD. However, teaching kids to focus and getting them to practice focusing can help them concentrate when they need to. But schools don’t do this. They expect kids to have the skill. We should nurture these abilities in children by helping them along. Here’s a sample track from my Focus for Teens CD.
Q: What is the relationship between focus and grit?
A: Grit is the term psychologist Angela Duckworth uses for the ability to keep your focus on long term goals and strive for them despite setbacks. The ability to focus is the center this capacity. Cognitive control, being able to focus on one thing that’s important and ignore distractions, is essential to every step toward that larger goal. Both grit and cognitive control can be classified as self-regulation, which is a major part of emotional intelligence. This article might be of interest to you > How children learn self-control
Q: (Question from Dan Goleman to the group): Does anyone have a manager with empathy deficit disorder? (Participant response): I have had a few, very smart, but also very driven by his own needs. I survived being fired by focusing on what they did right, but staying silent when I didn’t agree. Not easy while trying to keep my sense of honor alive and well.
A: Sorry to hear about your bad bosses. The best ones pay attention to the feelings and needs of direct reports in a fashion that’s like good parenting. This lets people feel secure enough to take smart risks, to innovate, to be creative. This leadership style has great return for companies. Learn more about this in my discussion with George Kohlrieser.
Q: What is the main obstacle to focus?
A: There are two obstacles to focus. Both of which have to do with how we manage our inner world. First: emotional distractions. These are the things in our lives, often relationships, that trouble us, but we can’t stop thinking about. Rumination is the most powerful distraction. On the other hand, thinking them through, and let the worry go is a good thing. Second: mindlessness. Our mind wanders and loses focus. The good news, mindfulness can be strengthened like a muscle. We can develop a habit of monitoring our attention and bring it back to what’s most important. Read more about this concept here > The two biggest distractions – and how to avoid them
Q: What’s the connection between focus and discipline?
A: Another word for self-discipline is cognitive control, a term neuroscientists use for the ability to hold our attention on the one thing that’s important in the moment, and let our distractions go. For instance, do your homework before getting to the Xbox. This is sometimes called impulse control. This ability has been found to predict a child’s financial success and health in her 30s better than IQ, and better than wealth of the family she grew up in. This article might be helpful > How focus changed my thinking about emotional intelligence