The question ‘what is mindfulness’ is both very easy and impossible to answer. Impossible because mindfulness isn’t a thing, or even a meditation technique; mindfulness is an innate capacity of being an animal that is conscious of its own existence. Our species has named itself Homo Sapiens Sapiens: a human that ‘knows that they know’. This is really what distinguishes us from most other animals. It’s the source of our free will and every achievement we’ve made as a species, and what gives rise to all the qualities we consider to be human.
With this in mind, what mindfulness is is quite literally the most important aspect of being a human being. The key to that statement is in the last word: being. That’s the word that really answers the question of what mindfulness is. Quite simply, it’s being aware that you’re aware. More specifically, mindfulness meditation is the practice whereby you learn how to do this. It is achieved by becoming aware of yourself as the subject of your experience, and everything you’re experiencing as objects in your experience that have no inherent value outside of your perception of them.
The mystical experience that every religion and spiritual practice on the planet has its roots in is the point at which subject (you) and object (everything else) become one. In Zen, this is known as satori, translated best as ‘waking up’. The opposite of one of the Japanese characters (kaku) that makes up the word has a direct opposite in Japanese, mu, which means ‘dreaming’. So a good way to think of mindfulness is literally waking up from a dream.
Above, I’ve given one explanation of what mindfulness is, but really it means nothing. It’s simply a roadmap, a system of symbols pointing to something that can’t be understood through language. Mindfulness, when truly understood, is much like the word ‘ineffable’, which points to a referent that cancels the word out in the first place. In the same way, speaking or writing about mindfulness is impossible because it is quite simply awareness, and awareness encompasses everything that goes into it, so can’t be explained directly or through language. Language is a system of symbols that points to something in the real world, but mindfulness is the awareness into which your experience of the world comes into.
This might be hard to understand – a useful metaphor is to imagine trying to see your own eyes, or the back of your head. Even with a mirror what you’re actually seeing is an image your eyes being translated by your eyes.
So that’s the philosophical description of what mindfulness is, but there’s a more practical one as well. Mindfulness is being aware of your own experience in the present moment without judging it or reacting to it. It’s about observing all those objects I mentioned above – which could be thoughts, feelings, a chair, the feel of wind against your skin, a loud noise – and simply accepting the experience of them without ascribing value to them.
That’s why most mindfulness meditation techniques are very focused on the body, because that’s what you are right now. Many eastern traditions say the exact opposite, namely that you aren’t your body, which to a mindfulness meditation practitioner, or anyone who simply takes two seconds to observe the experience of being a human will likely question immediately.
One of the simplest and best meditation techniques you can do if you’re a beginner to mindfulness is to become aware of the physical sensations of your body without judging them. It’s incredibly grounding and calming to do this, and it can be done anywhere, at any time, because you’ll always have a body until you die. You can actually try this right after you read this article; just sit, be aware of the chair beneath you, the room around you and any sensation in the body and see how long you can stay present.