Jon Kabat-Zinn, the grandfather of modern mindfulness, defined it thus: “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” While other definitions abound, this one is generally considered to be the gold standard. As such, Kabat-Zinn has been enormously influential, both in popularizing — and in shaping how we think about and practice — mindfulness.

The definition above was formulated, or at least introduced into the public sphere, via Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program, in 1979. We’ve had over 35 years to reflect upon, update and perhaps fine-tune or improve his definition. This article explains why such a revision may be necessary.

You’ll note from the definition above that there are two key points:

  • mindfulness occurs in the present
  • mindfulness is non-judgmental

I’d like to suggest that these points are inherently contradictory, ambiguous and prone to misinterpretation. This, at least, is what I hear from many of my students, who, having attended courses or read books on mindfulness, find themselves increasingly confused.

Let’s start with the present. That seems like a simple enough concept. Just pay attention to what’s happening ‘now’.

Unfortunately, we can’t actually do this. By the time the ‘now’ has registered in consciousness, it’s already the past. It’s history, gone. Staying in the present is like trying to nail down water. Because it’s continually flowing (and a concept rather than reality) it’s more or less impossible to grasp. This, however, is just a technicality. Even though we can never actually grasp the present, we can have some sense of its dynamic nature.

More problematic, in my view, has been the sanctification and reification of the present moment. This ever-changing ‘now’ has become the be–all and end–all of mindfulness practice. Many people taking up mindfulness and meditation believe that the whole goal of the practice is to stay present, to attend ardently to every passing moment. And this view is reinforced not only by the mindfulness movement but by popular figures from Ram Dass (Be Here, Now) to Eckhart Tolle (The Power of Now). There are a number of problems that arise from this interpretation.

Firstly, because the mind is not wired to stay permanently focused, everyone fails. Part of our brain is always on the lookout; peering forward into the future in order to anticipate prospective threats, and delving back into the past in order to calculate appropriate responses based on previous experience. These are useful, or at the very least, adaptive functions. And without a lobotomy, they aren’t going to quieten down or shut up any time soon.

Sadly, many people give up, and many more don’t even take up meditation or mindfulness, because they intuitively recognize — or soon discover — that they can’t keep their minds still for more than a few seconds. A more realistic and nuanced definition — and understanding — of mindfulness may help to encourage those new to meditation to persist long enough to discover the benefits the practice can offer, and to reduce the confusion and difficulty that beginners often experience.

A second and related problem with mindfulness, as currently defined, is that what is acceptable (to experience) within a mindfulness practice gets contracted, or shrunk down to those things that mindfulness teachers and students assume occur in the present moment. According to the standard way of thinking, breathing occurs in the present moment, sounds occur in the present moment, physical sensations occur in the present moment — but thinking most certainly does not.

Thinking, apparently, occurs in the past or future. But does it? As you read this article (now) is your thinking occurring yesterday? Can you think tomorrow’s thoughts today? Of course not. Unless you can time-travel your thinking occurs right now, just like the rest of your experience. So, if you’re remembering some event from last week, or planning what to do next weekend, that thinking is occurring right now. Your memories are occurring right now. Your plans and fantasies are occurring right now. Yes, you can think about yesterday (or tomorrow), but all that thinking is occurring right now, in the so-called present moment. Why then, is thinking rarely considered a valid thing to focus upon, or even experience, in meditation?

Thoughts can’t be trusted. They are too wily, too slippery, too fast, or so the thinking goes. But will just blocking them out — which is what most people attempt to do — help? Or will the more sophisticated strategies — such as attempting to observe, witness or detach from thoughts — result in long-term mental and psychological health, or will it result in an exacerbation of the avoidant and dissociative tendencies many of us bring to a meditation practice?

Can we not be trusted to explore and investigate our thinking; to see how it operates? Has prohibition worked in any other field? In my view, whether we are thinking or not is largely irrelevant. What’s useful — and interesting — is to note how we are thinking, how we relate to our thoughts, where our thoughts lead, under what conditions different types of thinking arise, and how we become aware of our thoughts. When we do so our mindfulness practice suddenly becomes alive. No longer tied to a narrow view of the present, nor limited by notions of what is acceptable and what’s not, we are able to discover how our memories, intentions, dreams and plans — indeed the full range of mental activity — interacts with our body, emotions, breath and environment. We get the full picture, or at least a broader part of it.

Furthermore, we no longer need to battle to keep our mind quiet. We don’t have to let go of our thoughts in order to gently return to the breath. We don’t have to struggle to empty our minds, or to scramble up to that perch where we can observe thoughts floating by, like clouds in the sky or leaves on a stream. And we don’t have to rivet our mind to the breath, or the body, or upon whatever object we’ve been encouraged to anchor the unruly thing. Of course, we can choose to adopt any, or all of these strategies, should we feel it necessary, or appropriate, but we need not think that these are the only acceptable means of finding calm, or training our minds.

There’s a third problem: If we do allow that becoming aware of our thoughts is useful, then a present moment orientation becomes a liability. Why? Because we can’t really be aware of thinking as it’s going on. As soon as we direct attention to a thought, it tends to change. We interrupt the normal flow of thought. You’re not seeing thoughts as they are. You are seeing them as you see them.

Let me explain. There are differences in the way we perceive sensory phenomenon and the way in which we perceive thoughts. A sound, for example, is an object outside of you. Conversely, when you are thinking you are the experiencing subject.

You may have heard meditation teachers comparing thoughts with sounds, or other sensory phenomena, and encouraging you to regard your thoughts with the same kind of attitude of non-interference and acceptance (as you would the chirping of a bird, for example). In this way, you attempt to objectify your own thoughts (and emotions) by witnessing, detaching or observing them, as though there were two you’s: the you noticing the thoughts and the you doing the thinking.

But this is just a mental trick. You can’t quite observe your thoughts in this way, just as a camera can’t take a picture of itself. Observing your thoughts is a bit like trying to pull yourself up by the bootstraps. What happens is that you usually end up thinking about your thinking. In other words, the so-called observer is also thinking. This little strategy has, in one single moment, successfully doubled your thinking! Your intent, on the other hand, was probably to reduce the thinking, or even to make thoughts go away, and this may also be considered problematic. Why? Because as long as you have the tendency to observe your thoughts as a means of quietening the mind down, you limit your opportunity to actually investigate the thinking process: to see how thoughts evolve and where they lead. Instead, the tendency is to assume that they lead to trouble, and never to give them the opportunity to prove otherwise. This is a bit like dousing a fire with fuel and water simultaneously. On the one hand, you are doing everything you can to put the fire out, but at the same time you are (probably unconsciously) continuing to provide it with the oxygen and wood that ensures its perpetuation.

So what can you do? If you let thinking go on as it normally would, you will probably feel more fused, or identified with the thinking process. The sense of an independent observer or controlling agent may be entirely absent. You may fear that you’ll be swept up or carried away into turbulent, or just pointless and trivial territory.  This might seem like a step backwards, a descent into chaos and confusion.

But by allowing the thinking to continue, and by accepting it and being interested in it, you’ll start to develop a keener understanding and appreciation of the ways in which thinking develops, is perpetuated, and fades away. You won’t have to extinguish your thoughts; rather, you’ll see how you feed them, and how you can stop feeding them. 

Upon reflection, you might note that many of your thoughts are assumptions rather than truths, or that your thinking becomes more nuanced, and less judgmental as it goes on. Or that, even as you think, you pick up information from your body, or from emotions that parallel the thinking process. This kind of discriminating awareness is not available when we are too tightly focused on the ‘now’. It’s the kind of awareness that arises when we look back on our experience. It’s an observer that works in hindsight. And it’s this hindsight that allows us to see not just the content of our thoughts, but how we were thinking, our attitude towards our thinking and other aspects of experience that relate to the thinking process.

Okay, so that’s the present moment. In Part 2 of this article I’ll take a look at the implications of a non-judgmental attitude, with respect to the practice of mindfulness.