Mindfulness - in a nutshell
In recent years "Mindfulness" and its associated rhetoric have become a popular and hip phenomena. Every person whom you talk would probably have a different interpretation of what Mindfulness means. I think it's only appropriate that I also provide an explanation of what Mindfulness is. Hopefully I can elaborate it in a way that is not too textbook-like and easy to comprehend for new practitioners.
In brief, Mindfulness is that quality of that mind which is able to "watch" carefully the object that is presently dominating the mind. The characteristic of Mindfulness is that it doesn't slip off or slide away. In other words it comes in "face to face" with the object, in a non-distracted way. With Mindfulness, we note with care and precision of only one object at a time.
Often we get immersed in our thoughts and we don't quite know what is happening. When we take refuge in Mindfulness, that is, settling back just into the moment, connecting just with the arising and passing of the mind's object, in that moment there is no confusion. One of the great gifts that Mindfulness brings is the great gift of keeping us in the present moment. When we are not lost in the past or the future, it is a tremendous burden off of our minds and our lives. How much of our time are spent in the past and in the future in our fantasies? The very heart of the Buddha's teaching about awakening, is contained in the Discourse on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (Satipatthana Sutta). The Discourse is laid out very systematically with four key domains of Mindfulness.
First is the domain of Mindfulness of the Body. The body is a very obvious object, we can be aware of the body in so many ways: when we watch the breath, or when are feeling the breath, that's mindfulness of the body. When we feel a whole range of sensations, that's also mindfulness of the body. When we are aware of movements in walking , that's also mindfulness of the body. If we truly have Mindfulness, in each of those movements, the mind is pure and focused, and it is aware of what's happening. In fact something interesting begins to develop in this mindfulness of the body, and that is we begin to grow more fearless. Why is that? A good part of fear that arises in the mind comes from our attachment to the body. It is a very strong identification that generates fear either at its dissolution or death, or even just some kind of pain. What happens is that when we practice Mindfulness of the body, we begin to go from the level of solidity and form, to just seeing moment to moment of changing phenomena. Through the power of Mindfulness we begin to see the constituent elements of this body as they are, and we see that they are changing constantly. In due course there is less attachment, and from less attachment there is less fear.
The second domain of Mindfulness is Mindfulness of Feelings. Feelings in this context does not mean emotions, but the quality of things being pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. When we observe carefully what we see is that it is these feelings that are conditioning our desires. And when we desire something what is it that we want? It is not exactly the object, what we are wanting is the pleasantness that may come with the object. We are attached to the pleasant feelings. When we don't want something, e.g. some strong pain, what is it that we want to get rid off? We want to get away with the unpleasantness. And so it's the working of these feelings that continue to drive us back and forth in our lives. I want this, I Iike this, I don't like this... Mindfulness of these feelings as opposed to reaction to these feelings de-conditions these very strong patterns in our minds and in our lives. When we are being mindful of a feeling, there's no extra movement of attachment. Feelings play a very important role in the teaching of the Buddha in the Doctrine of Dependent Origination: contact conditions feeling conditions craving.
The third domain of Mindfulness is the Mindfulness of the Mind and Mental States, and this includes the whole field of emotions. All the different kinds of emotions that arise in us are included in this domain. We need to learn that particular bound of the mind which opens to emotions and allow us to feel the emotions without pushing them away nor drowning in them. Emotions have this powerful ability to colour the mind, and to condition our consciousness. When we feel strong anger, excitement, or fear, it is very helpful to ground these emotions in the body. Feel how these emotions are playing in the body and note what the sensations are, and note the feeling quality (pleasant or unpleasant or neutral).
When something arises that is clearly more than a passing phenomena, there's a sequence of things that we can do to work with them. The first is to get a clear recognition of what they are, of what the specific emotion is. The next is that of acceptance. Can we really be accepting of whatever mind state that is there? As long as we are still pushing the particular mind state away, that pushing away is actually feeding and fuelling it. If there's a strong emotion that we feel we can recognize and accept, yet we still feel caught, we can explore whether there may be a constellation of emotions, i.e. it may not just be one thing, there maybe an underground spring which is feeding the mind state, and if we are only noting the mind state, but missing the spring, we stay locked in. For example, under the emotion of "anger", there may also be "hurt". In being mindful of the "hurt", we are no longer pushing it away, or allowing it in. There's a lot to learn about being free in our emotions, so that we don't get locked into particular mind states.
The last of the domains of Mindfulness is Mindfulness of the Dhammas. What this means is that we become mindful of how different mind states are functioning in our experience. As an example we might be aware of our anger or desire, and understand they are functioning as hindrances, i.e. they are keeping us from getting concentrated. Mindfulness of the Dhammas is also understanding and seeing precisely how the sense experience are happening, i.e. the seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, sensing. In addition, when we are aware of the factors of the Noble Eightfold Path, or the factors of Enlightenment, that's also Mindfulness of the Dhammas. We can quickly see the tremendous scope of this quality. With Mindfulness, no bounds are needed because there's never too much mindfulness. We can't be "too mindful". Every moment of mindfulness frees us from the conditions of grasping, or aversion, or delusion. It is a great purifying force, a profound inner space without bounds.