Whenever I am moving about the world and meeting new people, I often get asked the question “What do you do?” This question mostly refers to what I do to financially support myself. Though, I am tempted to list off all of the things that I do in a day as a working mother of three children.
There is often a small pause before I answer- and no, this isn’t part of the practice of being a mindfulness teacher. Rather, it is due to the fact that sometimes answering the question of ‘what is mindfulness’ can garner blank stares and confusion when presented in casual conversation.
Some people have heard of mindfulness and excitedly share their own experiences of the practice, others have heard something on the matter but have paid little or no attention, but many times, my answer to ‘what do I do’ leads to more questions and some serious restraint on my part to keep things simple.
And in many ways, mindfulness is simple. For instance, Rob Nairn’s definition of mindfulness being the practice of ‘knowing what is happening, while it is happening, no matter what it is’ cannot be any simpler.
Jon Kabat Zinn’s definition, “mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally”, starts to get a wee bit trickier and clunkier; however, he is simply outlining the practice of choosing to pay attention or bringing awareness to what is happening in any given moment and meeting that happening with an open mind.
Saying all that, for me, there is something lacking in these definitions of mindfulness. For in my own personal experience, the practice of mindfulness has created the space to reconnect with the world around me with an open-hearted energy that is completely engaged, filled with wonder and is deeply compassionate.
Some people might call this soulfulness, or heartfeltness. However, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist master, refers to this as accessing our ‘spark’. He answers the question of ‘what is mindfulness’ by explaining that it is “a practice, or rather a set of practices designed to assist us in uncovering or unfreezing the various layers of ‘I’ that prevent us from experiencing the basic spark that lies at the heart of our being” ( 2012 p.112).
This basic spark, or this open- hearted energy that is filled with wonder, lies within all of us and perhaps this is what these course participants are alluding to when they state that, for them, mindfulness “anchored and renewed my sense of self – beneficial to my personal journey and growth”; or that mindfulness is “a truly transformative experience and I have become aware of the positive effect of compassion “leaking” out into my life!” (Taken from Being Present feedback forms). Moreover, research has been showing that mindfulness can lead to a more fully engaged, reconnected, satisfying life; and while it is this spark that drives me, adds meaning to my life and indeed motivates me to practice mindfulness, this element seems absent from definitions of ‘what is mindfulness’.
Last week, I was off on holidays and boy did I need them. The layers of ‘I’ that Tsoknyi Rinpoche speaks about were so tightly wound that my ‘I’s were bulging: I am exhausted. I am sad. I am not good enough. I need more. I need less. I want this. I want that, blah blah blah….
For my holidays, I went camping in the Scottish highlands, armed with a backpack and my mindfulness practice. It took me awhile, but with each passing mountain, with each breath on the beach, with each quiet appreciation of the ground beneath my feet and the company I was in, with each ‘knowing what is happening’, these ‘I’s unwound a little bit more, until before I knew it, that spark within warmed me and those all around me.
So why not see if you can reconnect with that spark within. It can be helpful to do a practice or to create the conditions. I find this short practice of Settling The Mind quite helpful whenever I am feeling my ‘I’s bulging. Why not have a go?
Jane Negrych is the Managing Director of the Sanctuary and will be teaching on the Being Present: Indepth Mindfulness Training starting this April. For more information, follow this link.