People throw the word “mindfulness” about these days as a panacea for almost every possible trouble from pain to high blood pressure to psoriasis. For many people, mindfulness does indeed offer an effective solution for an array of practical challenges. Research backs up its potency too, in studies conducted with participants who have received bona fide mindfulness training.
More and more, people view mindfulness as a self-help technique, entirely divorced from its origin or ultimate purpose. This single word describes a spectrum of awareness training used in such oddly different places as the military and law enforcement, elementary schools, health care settings, cognitive behavioral therapy, and traditional Buddhist centers.
This concerns me because secular mindfulness typically differs from traditional mindfulness in significant ways. The modern world has appropriated the word “mindfulness,” just like it swallowed up the word “zen,” which originally contained such profound meaning.
That’s why I would like to clearly distinguish between two types of mindfulness, which I’ll call ordinary mindfulness (or secular mindfulness) and extraordinary mindfulness.
Let me be clear: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with ordinary mindfulness when it’s taught by a properly trained instructor. The benefits can be far-reaching. Who would deny anyone better health, more happiness, and greater ease?
Let’s just not confuse secular mindfulness with extraordinary mindfulness.
What is Ordinary Mindfulness
Psychology Today defines mindfulness like this:
"Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you're mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience."
That’s a fairly good definition of ordinary mindfulness, but I would add “relaxed” to active and open. I would clarify that by “active” we mean there’s a conscious intention to stay aware. That doesn’t mean super concentration, which can lead to tension rather than ease. In mindfulness practice, we aim for a balance of relaxed alertness.
Let’s also clarify that “without judging” doesn’t mean you lose all sense of what’s beneficial and what’s harmful.
Ordinary mindfulness typically involves self-improvement as an end-goal. For example, you practice ordinary mindfulness to:
- Be better at your job.
- Increase your productivity.
- Sharpen your focus.
- Improve your health.
- Cope more effectively with stress.
- Manage pain.
- Change habits.
- Learn to skillfully work with difficult emotions and deep-seated patterns.
Ordinary mindfulness can be a powerful way to feel and be better at what you do.
But, generally speaking, it’s not steeped in spiritual values like love, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, generosity, or wisdom. Of course, this depends on your teacher and your training program.
Consider this, through ordinary mindfulness:
- You could become a mindful killer in military training.
- You could become rich as a mindful entrepreneur but still be dominated by greed and/or dissatisfaction.
- You could feel happier momentarily because you’re intentionally steering your life, but accumulating far more possessions than you really need, which won't lead to genuine happiness on the long run.
Ordinary mindfulness, will not necessarily make you a more humane person. It’s primarily meant to improve your life and to achieve something for yourself.
It’s a short-sighted goal, however, to just want to feel good all the time. This may come to pass for a while through ordinary mindfulness, but unless you address the root of your suffering, the magical effects of secular mindfulness wear off sooner or later.
On the other hand, you cannot separate extraordinary mindfulness from spiritual values; they are inextricably linked.
Extraordinary mindfulness is intended to be:
- An effective antidote to attachment and desire, the wish to constantly acquire more, which eventually brings suffering.
- A powerful approach for taming negative emotions because you understand the harm they bring for yourself and others.
- An amazing way to foster connection with others because you realize everyone is another you.
- A practical path to understanding the nature of reality, which completely transforms your perception of yourself, others, and the world.
Mindfulness is not the end point. It’s just the first stage of meditation, which provides the necessary foundation for higher levels of realization.
In short, extraordinary mindfulness helps you to:
- Refrain from harmful actions by cultivating peace.
- Develop your capacity to benefit others through generating love and compassion.
- Understand the nature of reality as impermanent and as it actually is rather than filtering it through the projections of your mind.
Peace, compassion, and wisdom - these are the 3 cornerstones of the Buddhist teachings, which are intended to bring a permanent end to suffering. The end of suffering cannot be accomplished by ordinary mindfulness alone. However, you don't have to be a Buddhist to practice mindfulness or to appreciate and embody these spiritual ideas and qualities
Extraordinary mindfulness, you see, is more than a self-help technique. It’s more than enhancing your own experience by being present when you exercise or take a walk in nature. It’s more than amplifying your gastronomic delight. It’s more than reducing your own pain.
- You can sense a baby’s distress and bring relief.
- You can see an elderly person struggle to carry their heavy groceries and offer assistance.
- You can feel another person’s grief and open your heart in care and kindness.
- You can notice disharmony and bring resolution.
- You can tame your own mind, so your thoughts and emotions no longer bring distress for yourself and others.
Many of us first seek mindfulness to heal our own pain. That's okay. But ultimately, extraordinary mindfulness is not all about YOU (or me) even though it’s vitally important to work with and transform our own mind and heart first so we can gradually be of real help to others.
There’s a big difference between ordinary mindfulness employed as a self-help technique and mindfulness as the basis for complete self realization. How do I know? I’ve been studying and practicing mindfulness with authentic teachers for more than 20 years. Even so, I’m still fine-tuning my understanding of mindfulness.
That’s not to say that mindfulness is complicated, difficult, or impossible to learn. It's just a bit more than paying attention in the moment. You actually need to learn how to pay attention or you could be off on the wrong track. The ordinary mind can be ingenious in its methods of deception.
Okay, this is a bit of a rant. But honestly, this isn’t a dig on secular mindfulness. My own e-course - Living with Ease, the Mindful Way to Dissolve Less Stress revolves around ordinary mindfulness. It’s created small miracles in many peoples’ lives. I know ordinary mindfulness can bring incredible benefits.
But before you jump into mindfulness - ordinary or extraordinary - be sure to check your teacher’s credentials and the solidity of the program you’re joining. So many people these days write about and teach mindful living - online or live - because it’s a hot topic, but they don't necessarily have the training needed to make an actual difference in your life.
I’m glad there’s a mindfulness movement. I just wish there were two different words to describe the two different approaches of ordinary and extraordinary mindfulness. I just wish people wouldn’t turn mindfulness into a commodity to promote themselves, when they have a minuscule amount of training behind them. I just wish people wouldn’t make outrageous claims about mindfulness that have no basis in reality whatsoever - like you only need 6 minutes of mindfulness meditation per day to let go of stress and be a success. Yes, I actually saw that online.
There's no question, mindfulness is powerful. It's one of the best steps you can take to secure your own peace and happiness and begin to extend love, kindness, and compassion to others as well. I hope you'll find the real deal and give it a try.
Thank you for your presence, I know your time is precious! Don’t forget to sign up for my e-letter and get access to all the free self-development resources (e-books, mini-guides + worksheets) in the Always Well Within Library. May you be happy, well, and safe – always. With love, Sandra