Lotus by Jon – Blog.jpg

The Characteristics of Mindfulness

Mindfulness meditation has taken off like a fire storm, becoming inculcated into our western culture. The resonance with western psychology and application to psychotherapy is ubiquitous. Many clients are looking for that interface of mindfulness based practices and psychotherapy. In our catchment area there are many mindfulness based classes and workshops that can represent a larger container in which to practice meditation and learn what the Buddha taught. A large number of folks seek out mindfulness meditation when they are encountering emotional difficulties. They can find refuge in the awareness practices, the community and the heart practices many of us know as lovingkindness. Mindfulness can teach and support affect tolerance, affect regulation and the cultivation of an observing ego. The various classes and workshops can provide a sense of belonging. When clients avail themselves of both, mindfulness based psychotherapy and meditation classes, the two will reinforce each other. In the best of circumstances, it becomes a way to live and not just something to do.

It must be added here that when these emotional doors open in large groups it can be risky. When the Buddha taught to his disciples it was not meant to be therapy. Nor was it meant to be therapy when the senior teachers in the Insight Meditation tradition brought these teachings to householders (householders is the word used to describe those that are not monks and nuns) in the West. It has been in some circles, an inquisition whether Buddhism is a spiritual practice, a philosophy or psychology. While there is overlap for sure, it is the Western culture that has most psychologized Buddhism. While it’s psychological value cannot be under estimated, some folks do get triggered when observing the interior of their minds and hearing about teachings on suffering.

So what is mindfulness, really? It’s more than just being aware of what the mind is doing. For starters, mindfulness is knowing what is happening in the mind, body and heart. Mindfulness is radically inclusive…nothing is left out. I remember when a teacher mentioned that my mindfulness practice did not extend to family relationships and thinking, “of course not, that’s the really hard stuff.” When we practice mindfulness as a hobby we tend to pick and chose the times to bring this kind of refined attention. At some point we practice not just to be free from our own suffering but for all beings to be free from suffering. Mindfulness includes how we relate to others with regard to consumerism and our material life, how we use transportation, the resources we use, our speech, our ethics, etc.

Many of us have heard mindfulness defined as something like, “moment to moment awareness without judgment.” That’s true but mindfulness is knowing any reactivityof the mind, not only judgment. Once we become awake to the reactivity of the mind how do we meet that reactivity? What is needed when there is an agitated state of mind? Mindfulness practice is more than knowing our thoughts, it’s about knowing mind states or the quality of mind, heart and body. In essence the Buddha taught what leads to suffering and what can free us from suffering…that mindfulness has the potential to free us from the way the mind and heart double down on the inevitable difficulties of these lives.

When there is sadness and loss how do we meet that? In the larger, mindful understanding, we know the law of impermanence or the natural arising and passing of all phenomena. By noticing both the trigger thought and the resultant mind state we can contemplate the arising nature of these states and stay free from attachment or clinging. The Buddha identified clinging and it’s opposite, aversion, as those reactive states that lead to suffering. Thus, mindfulness is both a caring awareness and a caring letting go of wanting things to be a certain way. As such, it is both a wisdom and compassion practice.

Mindfulness can give rise to wholesome states of mind. Which mind states lead to happiness and which lead to suffering? When we feel angry about something and repeat the story of what has happened over and over in our minds we are actually practicing anger. This keeps us from the hurt or fear that is often behind anger. But it also keep us from a more in depth understanding of the causes and conditions that give rise to ill will or the good intentions that may have been perverted.

Mindfulness has as its qualities, “bare knowing” and “seeing clearly.” This means observing or knowing objectively what is arising without getting lost in associations, reactions, judgments or evaluations, or if we do, then to be aware of those states themselves. It’s a non-interfering awareness, a pure knowing of what presents itself. It is a simple and direct experience that gives way to a deeper knowing that is unfettered…calm, restful and fully awake.

As we dedicate and commit to being mindful, the practice itself becomes more continuous and less effortful. As the continuity of bare knowing becomes stronger, awareness becomes more panoramic. The emphasis moves from mindfulness of the content of experience to mindfulness of the process of change itself.


Vicki Goodman's classes, articles and talks can be found on her Teacher page.


It is the mission of IMCW/The Insight Meditation Community of Washington is to support the awakening of hearts and minds through the direct experience of the Buddhist path, and the integration and manifestation of wisdom and compassion in all aspects of life, for the benefit of all beings.

P.O. Box 3
Cabin John, MD 20818

Phone: 202.986.2922

Email: meditate@imcw.org