Living in the Moment: What Mindfulness Is and Is Not

Young woman lying on the grass at summer sunsetLet’s stop making mindfulness something other than what it is. Let’s stop making mindfulness the great cure-all. Let’s stop making mindfulness another gimmick to improve ourselves. Because it’s not.

If we look clearly at the definition of mindfulness, we see that it is an inherent capacity in all of us—one that doesn’t need to be made into an object. It is our birthright. Simply put, mindfulness is a way of being aware of our ongoing present-moment experience with an attitude of nonjudgmental acceptance. It is the opposite of being distracted, yet you can be mindful of being distracted. It is the opposite of being on autopilot, yet after enough practice it becomes automatic.

Meditation practice supports mindfulness, but meditation is not mindfulness; meditation merely helps train the mind to be in a mindful state. Mindfulness doesn’t belong to anyone or any one tradition, although many meditative and contemplative traditions (particularly Buddhism) make it explicit in their practices.

Mindfulness is an ever-deepening way of being that can be understood only by living it.

What Is It, Really, to ‘Live in the Moment’?

As you become increasingly, continuously aware of yourself—with an attitude of wanting to know your experience deeply—your perceptions can change dramatically. What a gift to live life in such a way! If we can begin to rest in the mystery of not knowing what is going to happen next, we open to the possibility of living an exciting life of ongoing discovery and freshness. Even the most mundane activities can become rich, full of texture and volume, and we can experience them anew each time we encounter them.

It’s very easy to fall back into dullness and numbness, though, especially when our environment doesn’t support our aliveness. Also, depending on our current capacity to trust, our ability to open or stay open may be challenged. If we grew up in an abusive environment, we may have much more difficulty resting in the aliveness of not knowing, and we may experience this excitement as dread and anxiety.

The good news is trust can be developed. By repeatedly encountering our open, spacious, and restful nature through mindfulness, our organism begins to trust more and more in the process. Every time we experience true openness and get past the anxiety of not knowing, our nervous systems relax—and that relaxation is deeply nourishing for the parts of us that remain young and afraid.

If we are able to truly take in the relaxation, something deep in us transforms. This is not a one-time thing, but a continually deepening process.

Practicing Without a Goal

Mindfulness is not about becoming a better businessperson, a more focused worker, a more efficient human being, or even an enlightened person. Mindfulness is about becoming more intimate with yourself, more aware of your direct experience in a more alive way.

If you’re practicing mindfulness to increase your capacity to achieve something, it may indeed work. However, the real gift of mindfulness is deep intimacy with ourselves. When we are truly intimate with ourselves, our understanding of who we are can radically transform in ways we couldn’t imagine beforehand, and we can experience a sense of “me” that is not shaped by our history.

Some say it doesn’t matter what our initial motivation for practicing is; what matters is that one begins practicing. In my experience, this seems to be true. I’ll admit when I began practicing, my motivation was narcissistic in nature. I had all these ideas in my head of being some kind of “master of the mind,” becoming a better person, or getting to some marvelous state of mind. I didn’t realize back then that with that attitude, I was rejecting myself. By wanting to become someone other than who I was, I was rejecting who I was at that given moment.

No Two Paths Are the Same

We are each moving along our own path, and all the circumstances that have brought us to this moment are uniquely ours—which means that whatever supports our journey is also uniquely ours. Part of our path requires us to find for ourselves what it is we need to keep opening to it. Mindfulness helps us develop that sensitivity, in learning little by little how to truly live in the moment.

After many years of practice in conjunction with other forms of inner work, I can say that, for me, mindfulness boils down to simple, conscious acceptance of the immediacy of my experience—and that, in and of itself, is the reward of the practice.

When we first start practicing, we have no way of differentiating what is motivating us to do what we do. The more we become in touch with ourselves (in mind, heart, and body), the more we are able to tease apart our various motives and make decisions that are congruent with our deepest longings.

Paradoxically, however, we can’t do this alone; we need others on our journey. We need to feel our connections and rub against others to know ourselves. We also need the guidance of others who are further along the path.

After many years of practice in conjunction with other forms of inner work, I can say that, for me, mindfulness boils down to simple, conscious acceptance of the immediacy of my experience—and that, in and of itself, is the reward of the practice. Other benefits pale in comparison to savoring each changing moment of aliveness with its infinite subtleties and flavors.

Mindfulness doesn’t take away the anguish of being alive. The truth is that life has moments of pain for everyone, and what mindfulness does is give us the capacity, or container, to stay open in the midst of such pain. Even if we need to shut down because the pain is so intolerable, our mindfulness allows the process to go more smoothly.

We cannot expect to want to feel the goodness in our lives without also experiencing the pain. However, we can learn how to breathe through it, and with mindfulness and attunement to our own, unique needs, we can find what will support us in the process.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Manuel A. Manotas, PsyD, therapist in San Francisco, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Sims

    Sims

    January 6th, 2016 at 8:19 AM

    I would have to think that it is better to start out with mindfulness practice without having a specific goal in mind at first. It may be best to simply to start working on the process, then figure out what you would like the end result to be

  • JulieAnne

    JulieAnne

    January 6th, 2016 at 2:39 PM

    I think that there is this preconceived notion that being mindful is the way to truth and clarity. In many ways I do believe that this is true but we must do it in a way that makes us very aware of the situation that we are in and hw to face it and make peace with it. It is not enough to say yeah yeah I know what is going on. We have to come to a resolution about how this was allowed into our lives, how it is impacting us and how we can make any desired changes. Without being willing to fully embrace the problem then there is in essence no resolution.

  • Vernie

    Vernie

    January 7th, 2016 at 10:55 AM

    All of a sudden I am seeing references to this everywhere and so I think hey why not? This sounds like something that I should give a try.
    Not realizing how patient and calm you have to be to get the real deal out of it, to even begin making forward progress with it. Two things that I do not naturally possess.
    I guess my question then is this for me? Am I ever going to be able to let everything else go to get to a place where I can be mindful and aware of the today, and not so focused on the other things that do not matter?

  • Tess

    Tess

    June 7th, 2017 at 7:18 AM

    I’m a teacher and am taking a class on Mindfulness in the classroom so children have a tool to use when their life becomes overwhelming. One of the practices we do is to eat a piece of popcorn, first focusing on the flavor, salty, sweet, Next we will focus on the the texture of the popcorn, the crunch, the feeling of when it gets soggy. The practice of mindfulness is best done by taking small focused steps. Don’t think that you will suddenly become mindful, but you can get closer everyday with practice. : )

  • Melissa

    Melissa

    January 8th, 2016 at 8:40 AM

    I love the ease of how this reads. Beautifully written. Thank you for sharing. Much love & light 😊💞

  • petra

    petra

    January 8th, 2016 at 9:44 AM

    My biggest regret is that I spend too much time comparing my own life to that of others, when most ly I should be focusing on my own.

  • Manuel Manotas PsyD

    Manuel Manotas PsyD

    January 8th, 2016 at 10:20 AM

    Thank you all for your comments and questions.
    Sims: People usually start practicing with many ideas about what they might get out of the practice, and as you deepen you let go of those ideas and the practice becomes simply a way of being. If you start without an agenda all the better, but I think is very rare thing.

    JulieAnne: Thank you for your comment. I agree with you that mindfulness alone is usually not be sufficient to bring forth clarity. One of my previous post (Why Mindfulness Alone Isn’t Enough for Growth) in this site, speaks about this.

    Vernie: If you feel compelled to give the practice a try I would definitely encourage you to do so. Keep in mind that the practice is about being where you are, so if you begin with impatience and agitation that is what you practice with. The idea that you have to be calm or patient to practice mindfulness is simply not true. If that were the case no one would be able to practice. You really don’t have to let go of anything to be mindful, you simply want to be aware of what you are experiencing at any given moment.
    Melissa: thank you for your kind words.

  • Fredric D. Shulman, Ph.D

    Fredric D. Shulman, Ph.D

    January 9th, 2016 at 8:45 AM

    Having been alive for 73 years, having practiced psychotherapy for over 40 years; praying and meditating, now, twice daily…I couldn’t agree with you more. Life does not have to be overly complicated. Just pay attention, don’t try hard…rather…try easy and pay attention to what comes from both outside and from within. That’s basically it. As our teachers used to tell us in class, when we “drifted “…” Pay Attention “. Things can really be that easy…that simple. Fred Shulman, Ph.D.

  • joely

    joely

    January 9th, 2016 at 9:39 AM

    Just seems to be another one of those catch phrases that sounds like it is for everyone but in reality, it isn’t.

  • Gene

    Gene

    January 11th, 2016 at 7:10 AM

    I am searching hard for that trans formative change and have not yet discovered it but hat does not mean that I am going to give up trying.

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