Like yoga before it, mindfulness is now flourishing in every sector of society. It is a buzzword in everything from medicine to the military. In the new book From Suffering to Peace: The True Promise of Mindfulness, author Mark Coleman, who has studied and taught mindfulness meditation for decades, draws on his knowledge to not only clarify what mindfulness truly means but also reveal the depth and potential of this ancient discipline. Weaving together contemporary applications with practices in use for millennia, his approach empowers us to engage with and transform the inevitable stress and pain of life, so we can discover genuine peace — in the body, heart, mind, and wider world. We hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt from the book.
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Ask ten meditation teachers “What is mindfulness?” and you may get ten different responses. The conversation about this complex and subtle theme is not new. Debates over this topic have occurred for centuries, across cultures, and within contemplative traditions. How would you answer that question?
When I ask students in my classes and retreats “What is mindfulness?” I hear a wide variety of responses. Some are more accurate than others, but often they reflect enduring misunderstandings about what it really is. People will say that it means “paying attention” or “being calm and focused.” Or they remark that it’s “thinking clearly about things,” or “being free from thoughts.” Others say it’s about “letting go.” All these answers contain kernels of truth, but none capture the essence and breadth of this quality. Hearing the many ways it is either misconstrued or its depth misunderstood inspired me to write about it.
Simply stated, mindfulness is clear awareness. It is the clear knowing of experience, a nonreactive, noninterfering quality of attention. But it is also much more than that. Having studied and cultivated mindfulness as a practice and a way of life for most of my adult life, I have seen firsthand what a multifaceted jewel it really is. It can impact every arena and every moment of our lives. Exploring the many dimensions of mindfulness, both in theory and in practice, is what this book is all about.
The word mindfulness is an odd word in itself, as it sounds like one’s mind must be full of something. It was originally used by scholars in the eighteenth century to translate the Indian Pali word sati, which literally means “recollection” or “remembering,” to mentally take note of an experience. In this context, one could say mindfulness is the conscious knowing of experience, to fully cognize something, which allows for recollection. For example, if you are not present to reading this book right now, how will you fully take note of and remember what you have read? Sati also refers to bearing something in mind. For instance, we bear in mind our breath when meditating, or we bear in mind our footsteps when walking along a rocky path.
The idea of being present is not something that is foreign to our experience. Even the name of our species, Homo sapiens, refers to being wise or being aware, to knowing that we know. In that way, mindfulness returns us to our birthright, or at least to our potential, to this innate quality of wise knowing. And it is through developing clear awareness of our moment-to-moment experience that we begin to cultivate wisdom and discernment. That is particularly true when we do so with a curious, reflective attention. A more complete definition that I like to use is that mindfulness is an awareness of our inner and outer experience with an attitude of curiosity and care, in order to develop wisdom and understanding. Caring attention, as I will discuss throughout, is necessary for being able to stay present for even the most difficult experience.
In this era when mindfulness has become popularized and perhaps its depth or scope diminished, it is important to reflect on why it can be so impactful in our lives. It isn’t just “paying attention.” It’s the ability to know what is happening without our normal reactions, commentary, and judgment. It is the capacity to meet experience without trying to fix, change, or control it. To capture this characteristic, some refer to mindfulness as “bare attention.” That is, it is the awareness of experience without the smoke screen of concepts, labels, and thoughts that can occlude our immediate perception.
To demonstrate this, try this simple mindfulness exercise: Hold up one of your hands, and for a few moments, simply look at your hand and become aware of all its aspects. Get to know your hand as if for the first time. For example, feel your hand’s weight, its heaviness or lightness. Observe its size and shape, the colors, lines, contours, and veins. Feel the skin’s texture and temperature. Does it have a smell? Can you feel it from the inside, noticing the muscles and bones, the pulse of blood and tingling of energy?
As you do this, notice if critical thoughts or reactions arise. For example, do you start to judge if your fingernails aren’t clean, or how old and wrinkled the skin may look? If so, simply recognize these thoughts and return to just being present and observing your hand in a neutral way. Continue doing this for a few minutes, and be aware of whether you can remain in this simple observational mode or if judgments, associations, and reactions distract you from simply attending.
Mindfulness allows us to know the immediacy of experience directly as it is, along with an awareness of how we react to that experience. It allows an intimacy of attention that provides a deeper perception, one that goes beyond our initial concepts and opinions about an event. Knowing the difference between having a clear awareness of something versus thinking and reacting to it is an important element of the practice.
One reason mindfulness is hard to define is because it is not just a state of mind. It is also a way of cultivating awareness and a wide variety of attention training techniques. It is easily mistaken for the qualities that arise when we meditate, like calmness and focus. These qualities are simply some of the fruits of the practice. So understanding mindfulness is like getting to know the many facets of water, which has a variety of forms, properties, and expressions. To define water as simply fluid or wetness, to reduce it to ocean, ice, clouds, or rain, simplifies what it is and misses the scope of its potential. Similarly, to reduce mindfulness to simply attention or one of its related qualities misses its multifaceted nature.
Mindfulness is a clear awareness of moment-to-moment experience. To cultivate this, we can engage in any number of meditative practices. The technique of observing your hand is just one small example. The meditation at the end of this introduction is another, and I present many more in later chapters: walking meditation, open awareness practice, body scan, and so on. As you read this book, I strongly suggest you explore these meditations. An ongoing mindfulness practice helps train your mind to become deeply attuned to what is happening right now. There are many diverse ways to formally practice mindfulness, and yet what unifies them is they all develop awareness.
This can be done in any moment, anywhere. For example, right now, look out a window. Pay attention to whatever you see. Take in the whole panorama, and then focus on one particular thing: the leaves on a tree, a particular cloud, the bricks of a building, a telephone pole, the moon, and so on. Be aware of both what you are seeing and that you are seeing. And notice how you respond to what you observe. All this happens in a simple moment of mindfulness. And it’s trickier than it sounds, as you may notice. Moments of clear attention can quickly get lost within and beneath the many other thoughts, judgments, and distractions that arise.
Mindfulness, as research shows, improves our focus, but it provides impacts that go beyond a concentrated attention. These practices help develop beautiful related qualities like clarity, wisdom, patience, resilience, empathy, compassion, and equanimity. Practiced to its depth, mindfulness can help us live with ease amidst the turmoil of life and discover a genuine inner freedom. This is the true peace we are so often seeking.
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Mark Coleman is the author of From Suffering to Peace, Make Peace with Your Mind, and Awake in the Wild. He is the founder of the Mindfulness Institute and has an MA in clinical psychology. Mark has guided students on five continents as a corporate consultant, counselor, meditation teacher, and wilderness guide. He lives in Northern California. Visit him online at MarkColeman.org.
Excerpted from the book From Suffering to Peace. Copyright © 2019 by Mark Coleman.