Mindfulness is … whatever you want it to be?

GP educator at Monash Uni, A/Prof Craig Hassed has participated in the explosive growth of mindful therapy (see article warehouse goAMRA.org) over the last two decades, and mindfulness has moved from a personal stress management tool for medical students to a mandatory examinable in the curriculum. Attain enlightenment, or you won’t graduate and see patients.

Striving too hard

Craig’s variant on Kabat-Zinn’s mindful eating of a raisin is to savour a wine and appreciate the complexity of taste and scent. And if that first sip past the lips leads to unquenchable thirst and guzzling booze on autopilot, clinical studies point to a mindful solution: ‘Relative efficacy of mindfulness-based relapse prevention, standard relapse prevention, and treatment as usual for substance use disorders: a randomized clinical trial’  Win, win.


There is no aspect of life not covered by those 700 articles per year collated by AMRA, so practical mindfulness is clearly more than meditation. Sakyong Rinpoche’s book ‘Running with the Mind of Meditation’ explains that timeout isn’t necessarily passive either – so there’s two undefined terms, which allows a broadness that’s at odds with scientific precision. Mindfulness is helpful in everything, and meditation can be focused in anything from jogging, to compassion for others, to stopping ones mind for observance of ones breathing. The complexity in these two terms shows a shortfall in English, perhaps due to a culture that values creative thinking over disciplining a discursive, chattering monkey mind. Certainly we’re struggling as a society to find solutions to anxious or depressive rumination. Hence Tibetan or Sanskrit words are imported to the conversation, which often invokes fear of some religious dogma that’ll see us in robes, chanting, farting out lentils etc…

The Tibetan word for mindfulness drenpa means ‘holding in mind’. Simply logging away the situation, and your feelings. Whenever there’s a reoccurrence, then recall of your emotion helps to counter the urge to react. The response you want to provide becomes easier. Life becomes less like endless ‘Groundhog Day’ when you realize you’ve been here before. Sanskrit defines even more precisely: śruti, that which is remembered; and smṛti, the remembrance. I rely upon others far wiser to paint the image:

My own first memory of being alive was of standing, a little wobbly, at a screen door looking out into a lush backyard during a summer downpour. I was no older than three. The rain clattered through the broad maple leaves into the loam, and splattered against the screen, splashing my cheeks and eyelashes, and as I peered out through the drops on the screen the world split into many glassy globes. When I remember this moment, two things happen. I can sense in my flesh right now the breeze and the rain and the smell of the metal screen and wetness and coolness and the surprise of the dozen worlds-within-worlds. This is the given part of the memory: it seems to have pre-existed me and it has imprinted me impeccably with its textures. I have remembered it a thousand times, and it has never changed. It was what it was, and needed no description or interpretation. This is the śruti of my experience: the given, the immediately known, the inexplicable, the magically-having-appeared.

But following on the memory of this sensory experience, my inner language begins to churn, embroidering meanings onto the feelings, making connections, plotting out how these feelings can be grouped into themes, creating the story of how the screen door is a perfect metaphor for the ways in which my nature is introspective and isolated, but also observant and devotional. The rich perception of the moment, so timeless and complete, has splintered into countless rivulets of story. This is the smṛti of my experience: how I remember it, what I make of it, how I strategize to recapture it.

Jump to 1991 and the book ‘Full Catastrophe Living’, backed up a few years later by evidence of mindfulness’ benefit in treatment of an autoimmune disease (that’s exacerbated by stress) ie psoriasis, and the Buddhist origins have been subsumed by secular researchers and educationalists. Comprising formal practices of focus on the breath, body scans, movement and meditation, applied also to daily life – and all working from a definition of… “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”. Credit where it’s due, though. While being aware and becoming still is a novel experience, going deeper is transcendent… going back to a previous point.

A study by Universities of Technology Sydney and Tasmania recently reported in the Jnl of Mindfulness an intervention for chronic pain sufferers (fibromyalgia or Lower Back Pain) using a 30 second instruction, that called upon Theravada insight to base elements, Abhidharma. Anyone who can simplify a concept’s essence that well should be studied further, so here’s the author’s definitions. Geoff


1 thought on “Mindfulness is … whatever you want it to be?

  1. Reconciling the apparent contradictions between Buddhist mindfulness as a remembering, and the modern ‘non-judgemental’ definition is best explained by this scholar : archive.org/download/AlanWallacePublicTalkMindfulness/AlanWallacePublicTalk_mindfulness_26March2012.mp3
    In short, good judgement is vital – but it’s a skill. For those overwhelmed by harmful emotions Kabat-Zinn gives us a beginner’s practice, much as an alcoholic recovery program begins with abstinence. Just don’t do it, don’t give in to distractions or unhelpful thoughts.


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