Practicing mindfulness— non-judgmental moment-to-moment awareness— isn’t easy. We can force ourselves to pay attention for a moment, but we can’t force ourselves to be non-judging. Yet we can enlist other qualities of the mind that support and strengthen mindfulness.
Jon Kabat- Zinn calls them attitudinal foundations of mindfulness. He first named seven of them in his best-selling book Full Catastrophe Living and has since added and elaborated more on the list: acceptance, non-judging, non-striving, letting go/letting be, patience, trust, beginner’s mind, and gratitude and generosity. We recommend that you watch the excellent short video series on it (available on YouTube).
We have added three more that we have found helpful: curiosity, kindness, and humor.
All these attitudes can be practiced and strengthened in many situations during the day: at work, with our children and partners, with ourselves. We cultivate them very much like we cultivate a garden.
They are all interconnected. When focusing on one attitude, often others will arise as well. We encourage giving attention to one attitude per week for eleven weeks and seeing how they are interconnected. But deepening any of them will greatly support your mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness without curiosity is impossible. When we turn toward our present-moment experience we do that to learn about it, to perceive it fully. When we are on autopilot there is no space for curiosity. We can explore how being curious changes our perception of the moment. It’s the antidote for autopilot and boredom. We can become curious about anything if we choose to, asking questions like: “What is here that I’m not yet aware of?” or “What is this?”
The attitude of kindness can act as a fabric softener for the experience. When kindness is present, judgment and harshness will recede. We see what happens in a different light. Kindness often arises from a deeper and more complex understanding of how the heart and mind work— not just for ourselves but for everybody. We learn to see not only the behavior but also what might have spurred it.
For example, if we don’t just see the angry behavior but also the hurt and confusion that caused the anger in the first place, we are more likely to respond with kindness.
Gratitude and Generosity
Generosity and gratitude are closely interlinked. Gratitude has the attitude of “I have…” instead of our often automatic “I don’t have…,” or “enough” instead of “not enough.” It shifts the attention to peace, contentment, and calm instead of being driven, in need, and discontent. Since the brain will focus more automatically on what’s missing, starting a gratitude practice actively helps to counterbalance this.
Research backs that something as simple as writing down what we are grateful for will not only elicit more positive emotions and more well-being but can even translate into benefits like more exercise and fewer visits to the doctor.
The practice and attitude of gratitude will shift the sense of “not enough” to “there is enough” and “I have enough,” which in turn will elicit more spontaneous generosity. It is easier to give from a place of abundance than from scarcity. Generosity also deepens the understanding of the interconnection between the givers and the receivers.
Acceptance might be the attitude that new students of mindfulness struggle with the most. It is hard to understand why you would even want to accept the hard or negative things in your life. Isn’t this why you are learning mindfulness in the first place? To get rid of pain or negative moods?
As we start to see how much the struggle against the challenge adds to the suffering, we might be willing to test acceptance. And then we notice that it’s not that easy. We can’t simply wish acceptance into existence in our lives. We can only invite it in and learn more about the conditions it needs to show up more regularly. Acceptance requires an active turning toward a situation and realizing that it is the way it is right now.
Acceptance does not require that we like what we’re accepting, but it asks for the honesty to say, “Yes, I don’t like it, and this is the way it is right now.” Until we can do that we will continuously try to force things into the way they are not, which in turn is the cause for a lot of tension, stress, and often suffering.
Acceptance is different from resignation. Acceptance doesn’t mean that we stop trying to change a situation or to make the world a better place, but the force behind it is much healthier and often wiser.
Non-judging is such an important aspect of mindfulness that Jon Kabat- Zinn even put it into his working definition of mindfulness: “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, moment by moment and nonjudgmentally.” As we begin to practice mindfulness, we will quickly notice that non-judging is pretty much impossible because we have an opinion about everything. No matter what arises in our experience, be it internal or external, we have an opinion about it.
Chances are that if you don’t have an opinion about what’s going on, it probably won’t even register as a thought— because, why bother? Have you ever wondered why you don’t think about things that are meaningless to you?
But what do we do if we start noticing the constant onslaught of opinions, judgments, assessments, and evaluations? We simply notice them— and not judge the judging. To set ourselves in relationship to anything that is arising in our experience is a natural habit of the mind.
But in mindfulness, there is no need to stop it— even if we could— but to observe it and see the effect of it instead. Can we suspend judgment at times? Can we see that our opinions are often just products of a habit that we don’t have to reinforce?
Non-striving is one of the core principles of mindfulness. It means being fully present at this moment without the need to change it— actually being present without any agenda. Even without the agenda to relax or to feel better. And surely not with the agenda to reach a special meditative state.
Non-striving is moving from our constant, habitual doing mode into the more open, receptive being mode. Being mode allows this moment to be “good enough”— again, not perfect, and sometimes even stressful or painful. But we learn that letting go of striving will often open a sense of healing and restorative.
Letting Go, or Letting Be
Letting go or letting be: These attitudes are the opposite of clinging or grasping and also the opposite of pushing away. When we have thoughts, emotions, and sensations that we like, we naturally want to hold on to them, to prolong them, and to have them again.
There is nothing wrong with that— except if they are not aligned with reality: the relationship is ending, the plate is empty, the deal we had hoped and worked for isn’t coming through. Then holding on creates stress and pain.
The opposite is true for the sensations, thoughts, and emotions we don’t like: we try to push them away or pretend they don’t exist. Again, there is nothing abnormal about that, but interestingly, the pushing away causes stress and pain just like grasping. In both cases, we are in conflict with how things are. With practice, we learn to hold them more lightly.
We learn how to let go in small moments of both desire and aversion. With practice, we grow our ability to see where we are caught and to let go or leave it alone. When we are paying close attention to what grasping and aversion feel like, and what letting go or letting be feels like, we can discover which brings more or less tension, which offers more or less spaciousness.
Breathing is a great example of letting go. At the end of each in-breath, we need to let go, as well as at the end of each out-breath, to make space for the new out-breath and the new in-breath. It doesn’t make sense to hold on. With small examples like this, we can turn our attention to the felt experience of letting go.
Many of us are habitually impatient. With our busy schedules and long to-do lists, pretty much everything can feel like it’s taking up too much time. We notice that it is often impatience that pushes us on to the next thing. To get there. Which is one of the reasons why we are so rarely here. Here doesn’t feel as good or rewarding as we expect there to feel, so we miss here altogether.
As we rush through this moment we miss a lot of the detail and also the potential joy of this particular moment— only to do the same thing once we are there. If the mind isn’t trained to be patient and to stay here, how can it do it once you are there?
The good news is that the times we are impatient are the best (and really, the only) times we can practice patience! We can decide to allow it to be part of our experience— and not do anything about it. Simply notice the way impatience makes you feel, the way it colors the experience of this moment.
Interestingly enough, patience is heralded as an important virtue in all major religions. Why do you think that is? It might be around the universal understanding that often things will and need to unfold in their own time. We try to move them along, but that might not be helpful. That might be like the child who pulls up the carrot to see if it’s ripe yet.
Humor is a wonderful support for mindfulness practice. Jon Kabat- Zinn says: “Life is way too serious to take too seriously.” Humor allows us to take a step back from a particular situation, to see our habits of mind and find the amusement in our all-too-human foibles.
Sometimes the way the mind behaves is hilarious. We laugh a lot in our classes. We laugh the laugh of recognition: “Me, too!” We can laugh at how petty and stubborn the mind can be. When we do this, we step away from being over-identified with the situation and can create space.
You are the expert on yourself. In the end, nobody knows you as well as you do, and nobody can make better decisions for you than yourself. We often believe that wisdom, authority, and knowledge are outside of ourselves.
Mindfulness practice brings us back to the simple truth that we can trust ourselves and that trusting ourselves is mandatory if we ever want to live a meaningful life. We start by trusting the body with practices such as Mindfulness of Breathing or Body Scan.
As we start to pay close attention to our body, we become aware that we can trust it to breathe by itself, digest, move, heal, and so on. Often, we only start paying attention to a body part or a function of the body when its function is impaired. Mindfulness practice changes that. We can deliberately pay attention to all that does work well (miraculously well), and we can learn to appreciate it while learning about trust.
It would be so much easier to have another person make decisions and tell us what’s best for us. Finding our answer is often hard and takes time. But we have found that trusting ourselves to find the answer brings about the “right” solution far more often than not.
A Beginner’s Mind
A beginner’s mind allows us to see a situation or a person— or ourselves— with fresh eyes. We so often go into a situation thinking we know all about it. Our mind is full of preconceived ideas, concepts, and opinions. But we often overlook what is right in front of us. Maybe the situation has changed. Or the individual isn’t the same person on whom we had based our opinion.
How can we see a person if we make him or her something from our experience? A beginner’s mind can help us see a stuck situation in a fresh light. This is not about giving up all discernment but allowing new information that might have been overlooked or received in a biased way.
A beginner’s mind can also bring back a sense of wonder and awe to situations we usually don’t think are worth paying much attention to anymore, like eating or driving or hugging a loved one we see often. As the Zen master Suzuki Roshi says: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”