Understanding Mindfulness

From Jon Kabat Zinn, Ph.D. in his book Full Catastrophe Living.

To cultivate the healing power of mindfulness requires much more than mechanically following a recipe or a set of instructions. No real process of learning is like that. It is only when your mind is open and receptive that learning and seeing and change can occur.  This is how I teach at Mindbodycalm.

In practicing mindfulness you will have to bring your whole being to the process. You can’t just assume a meditative posture and think something will happen or play a tape and think that the tape is going to “do something” for you.

The attitude with which you undertake the practice of paying attention
and being in the present is crucial.

It is the earth in which you will be cultivating your ability to calm your mind and to relax your body, to concentrate and to see more clearly. If the attitudinal earth is depleted, that is, if your energy and commitment to practice are low, it will be hard to develop calmness and relaxation with any consistency. If the soil is really polluted, that is, if you are trying to force yourself to feel relaxed and demand of yourself that “something happen,” nothing will grow at all and you will quickly conclude that “meditation doesn’t work.”

To cultivate meditative awareness requires an entirely new way of looking at the process of learning. Since thinking that we know what we need and where we want to get are so ingrained in our minds, we can easily get caught up in trying to control things to make them turn out “our way,” the way we want them to. But this attitude is antithetical to the work of awareness and healing.

Awareness requires only that we pay attention and see things as they are. It doesn’t require only that we pay attention and see things as they are. It doesn’t require that we change anything. And healing requires receptivity and acceptance, a tuning to connectedness and wholeness. None of this can be forced, just as you cannot force yourself to go to sleep. You have to create the right conditions for falling asleep and then you have to let go. The same is true for relaxation. It cannot be achieved through force of will. That kind of effort will only produce tension and frustration.

If you come to the meditation practice thinking to yourself, “This won’t work but I’ll do it anyway,” the chances are it will not be very helpful. The first time you feel any pain or discomfort, you will be able to say to yourself, “See, I knew my pain wouldn’t go away,” or “I knew I wouldn’t be able to concentrate,” and that will confirm your suspicion that it wasn’t going to work and you will drop it.

If you come as a “true believer,” certain that this is the right path for you, that meditation is “the answer,” the chances are you will soon become disappointed too. As soon as you find that you are the same person you always were and that this work requires effort and consistency and not just a romantic belief in the value of meditation or relaxation, you may find yourself with considerably less enthusiasm than before.

Over the years at Mindbodycalm, I have found that those people who come with a skeptical but open attitude do the best. Their attitude is

“I don’t know whether this will work or not, I have my doubts, but I am
going to give it my best shot and see what happens.”

So the attitude that we bring to the practice of mindfulness will to a large extent determine its long-term value to us. This is why consciously cultivating certain attitudes can be very helpful in getting the most out of the process of meditation. Your intentions set the stage for what is possible.

They remind you from moment to moment of why you are practising in the first place. Keeping particular attitudes in mind is actually part of the training itself, a way of directing and channelling your energies so that they can be most effectively brought to bear in the work of growing and healing.

Seven Attitudinal Factors constitute the major pillars of mindfulness practice as I teach it at Mindbodycalm. They are

  1. Non-judging
  2. Patience
  3. A beginner’s mind
  4. Trust
  5. Non-striving
  6. Acceptance
  7. Letting go.

These attitudes are to be cultivated consciously when you practice.  They are not independent of each other. Each one relies on and influences the degree to which you are able to cultivate the others. Working on any one will rapidly lead you to the others.  This is part of an holistic approach – as we share at Holistica Australia.


1. Non-judging
Mindfulness is cultivated by assuming the stance of an impartial witness to your own experience. To do this requires that you become aware of the constant stream of judging and reacting to inner and outer experiences that we are all normally caught up in, and learn to step back from it.

When we begin practising paying attention to the activity of our own mind, it is common to discover and to be surprised by the fact that we are constantly generating judgements about out experience.

Almost everything we see is labelled and categorised by the mind. We react to everything we experience in terms of what we think its value is to us. Some things, people, and events are judged as “good” because they make us feel good for some reason. Others are equally quickly condemned as “bad” because they make us feel bad. The rest is categorised as “neutral” because we don’t think it has much relevance. Neutral things, people, and events are almost completely turned out of our consciousness. We usually find them the most boring to give attention to.

This habit of categorising and judging our experience locks us into mechanical reactions that we are not even aware of and that often have no objective basis at all.

These judgements tend to dominate our minds, making it difficult for us ever to find any peace within ourselves. It’s as if the mind were a yo-yo, going up and down on the string of our own judging thoughts all day long. If you doubt this description of your mind, just observe how much you are preoccupied with liking and disliking, say during a ten-minute period as you go about your business.

If we are to find a more effective way of handling the stress in our lives, the first thing we will need to do is to be aware of the  automatic judgements so that we can see through out own prejudices and fears and liberate ourselves from their tyranny. When practising mindfulness, it is important to recognise this judging quality of mind when it appears and to intentionally assume the stance of an impartial witness by reminding yourself to just observe it. When you find the mind judging, you don’t have to stop it from doing that. All that is required is to be aware of it happening. No need to judge the judging and make matters even
more complicated for yourself.

As an example, let’s say you are practising watching your breathing. At a certain point you may find your mind saying something like, “This is boring,” or “This isn’t working,” or “I can’t do this.” These are judgments.

When they come up in your mind, it is very important to recognise them as judgemental thinking and remind yourself that the practice involves suspending judgement and just watching whatever comes up, including your own judging thoughts, without  pursuing them or acting on them in any way.

Then proceed with watching your breathing.

2. Patience

Patience is a form of wisdom. It demonstrates that we understand and accept the fact that sometimes things must unfold in their own time.

In the same way we cultivate patience toward our own minds and bodies when practising mindfulness. We intentionally remind ourselves that there is no need to be impatient with ourselves because we find the mind judging all the time, or because we are tense or agitated or frightened, or because we have been practising for some time and nothing positive seems to have happened.

We give ourselves room to have these experiences. Why? Because we are having them anyway! When they come up, they are our reality, they are part of our life unfolding in this moment.  Why rush through some moments to get to other, “better” ones? After all, each single moment is your life in that moment.

When you practice being with yourself in this way, you are bound to find that your mind has “a mind of its own.”  Some of its thoughts are pleasant. Others are painful and anxiety producing. In either case thinking itself exerts a strong pull on our awareness. Much of the time our thoughts overwhelm our perception of the present moment. They cause us to lose our connection to the present.

Patience can be a particularly helpful quality to invoke when the mind is agitated. It can help us to accept this wandering tendency of the mind while reminding us that we don’t have to get caught up in its travels. Practising patience reminds us that we don’t have to fill up our moments with activity and with more thinking in order for them to be rich. In fact it helps us to remember that quite the opposite is true. To be patient is simply to be completely open to each moment, accepting it in its fullness, knowing that, like a butterfly, things can only unfold in their own time.

3. Beginner’s Mind

The richness of present-moment experience is the richness of life itself. To often we let our thinking and out beliefs about what we “know” prevent us from seeing things as they really are. We tend to take the ordinary for granted and fail to grasp the extra-ordinariness of the ordinary. To see the richness of the present moment, we need to cultivate what had bee called “beginner’s mind,” a mind that is willing to see everything as if for the first time. This attitude will be particularly important when we practice the formal meditation techniques described in the MindBodyCalm training.

Whatever particular technique we might be using, whether it is the body scan or the sitting meditation or the yoga, we should bring our beginner’s mind with us each time we practice so that we can be free of our expectations based on our past experiences.

An open, “beginner’s” mind allows us to be receptive to new possibilities and prevents us from getting stuck in the rut of our own expertise, which often thinks it knows more than it does. No moment is the same as any other. Each is unique and contains unique possibilities. Beginner’s mind reminds us of the simple truth.

You might try to cultivate your own beginner’s mind in you daily life as an experiment. The next time you see somebody who is familiar to you, ask yourself if you are seeing this person with fresh eyes, as he or she really is, or if you are only seeing the reflection of your own thoughts about this person. Try it with your children, your spouse, your friends and co-workers, with your dog or cat if you have one. Try it with problems when they arise. Try it when you are outdoors in nature.

Are you able to see the sky, the stars, the trees and the water and the stones, and really see them as they are right now with a clear and uncluttered mind? Or are you actually only seeing them through the veil of your own thoughts and opinions?

4. Trust

Developing a basic trust in yourself and your feelings is an integral part of meditation training. It is far better to trust in your intuition and you own authority, even if you make some “mistakes” along the way, than always to look outside of yourself for guidance.

If at any time something doesn’t feel right to you, why not respect your feelings? Why should you discount them or write them off as invalid because some authority or some group of people thing or say differently?

This attitude of trusting yourself and your own basic wisdom and goodness is very important in all aspects of the meditation practice. It will be particularly useful with your yoga. When practising yoga, you will have to respect your own feelings when your body tells you to stop or to back off in a particular stretch. If you don’t listen, you might injure yourself.

It is impossible to become like somebody else. Your only hope is to become more fully yourself. That is the reason for practising  meditation in the first place. Teachers and books and tapes can only be guides, signposts.

It is important to be open and receptive what you can learn from other sources,
but ultimately you still have to live your own life, every moment of it.

In practising mindfulness, you are practising taking responsibility for being yourself and learning to listen and trust your own being. The more you cultivate this trust in your own being, also called intuition, the easier you will find it will be to trust other people more and to see their basic goodness as well.

5. Non-striving

Almost everything we do we do for a purpose, to get something or somewhere. But in meditation this attitude can be a real obstacle. That is because meditation is different from all other human activities. Although it takes a lot of work and energy of a certain kind, ultimately meditation is non-doing. It has no goal other than for you to be yourself.

The irony is that you already are. This sounds paradoxical and a little crazy. Yet this paradox and craziness may be pointing you toward a new way of seeing yourself, one in which you are trying less and being more.

This comes from intentionally cultivating the attitude of non-striving. For example, if you sit down and meditate and you think, “I am going to get relaxed, or get enlightened, or control my pain, or become a better person,” then you have introduced an idea into your mind of where you should be, and along with it comes the notion that you are not okay right now.

“If I were only more calm, or more intelligent, or a harder worker,
or more this or more that, if only my heart were healthier
or my knee were better, then I would be okay.
But right now, I am not okay.”

This attitude undermines the cultivation of mindfulness, which involves simply paying attention to whatever is happening. If you are tense, then just pay attention to the tension. If you are in pain, then be with the pain as best you can. If you are criticising yourself, then observe the activity of the judging mind. Just watch. Remember, we are simply allowing anything and everything that we experience from moment to moment to be here, because it already is.

As you will see shortly, in the meditative domain, the best way to achieve your own goals is to back off from striving for results and instead to start focusing carefully on seeing and accepting things as they are, moment by moment. With patience and regular practice, movement toward your goals will take place by itself. This movement becomes an unfolding that you are inviting to
happen within you.

6. Acceptance

Acceptance means seeing things as they actually are in the present. If you have a headache, accept that you have a headache. If you are overweight, why not accept it as a description of your body at this time? Sooner or later we have to come to terms with things as  they are and accept them, whether it is a diagnosis of cancer or learning of someone’s death. Often acceptance is only reached after we have gone through very emotion-filled periods of denial and then anger. These stages are a natural progression in the process of coming to terms with what is.

They are all part of the healing process.

However, putting aside for the moment the major calamities that usually take a great deal of time to heal from, in the course of our daily lives we often waste a lot of energy denying and resisting what is already fact.  When we do that, we are basically trying to force situations to be the way we would like them to be, which only makes for more tension.  This actually prevents positive
change from occurring.  We may be so busy denying and forcing and struggling that we have little energy left for healing and growing, and what little we have may be dissipated by our lack of awareness and our intention.

Weight Loss and Mindfulness

  • If you are overweight and feel bad about your body, it’s no good to wait until you are the weight you think you should be before you start liking you body and yourself.  At a certain point, if you don’t want to remain stuck in a frustrating vicious cycle, you might realise that it is all right to love yourself at your present self, because this is the really only time you can love yourself.
  • Remember, now [the present] is the only time you have for anything. You have to accept yourself as you are before you can really change.
  • When you start thinking this way, losing weight becomes less important. It also becomes a lot easier.

By setting an intention for acceptance, you create the conditions for healing.

Acceptance does not mean that you have to like everything or that you have to take a passive attitude toward everything and abandon your principles and values. It does not mean that you are satisfied with things as they are or that you are resigned to tolerating things as they “have to be.”

Acceptance simply means that you have come around to a willingness to see things as they are.

This attitude sets the stage for acting appropriately in you life, no matter what is happening. You are much more likely to know what to do and have the inner conviction to act when you have a clear picture of what is actually happening than when your vision is clouded by your mind’s self-serving judgements and desires or its fears and prejudices.

In the meditation practice, we cultivate acceptance by taking each moment as it comes and being with it fully, as it is. We try not to impose our ideas about what we should be feeling or thinking or seeing on our experience but just remind ourselves to be receptive and open to whatever we are feeling, thinking, or seeing, and to accept it because it is here right.

Similarly there are many thoughts and feelings and experiences that we try to get rid or to prevent and protect ourselves from having because they are unpleasant and painful and frightening in one way or another.

In the meditation practice we intentionally put aside the tendency to elevate some aspects of our experience and to reject others. Instead we just let our experience be what it is and practice observing it from moment to moment.

Letting go is a way of letting things be, of accepting things as they are.

When we observe our own mind grasping and pushing away, we remind ourselves to let go of those impulses on purpose, just to see what will happen if we do. When we find ourselves judging our own experience, we let go of those judging thoughts. We recognise them and we just don’t pursue them any further. We let them be, and in doing so we let them go.

Similarly when thoughts of the past or of the future come up, we let go of them. We just watch. If we find it particularly difficult to let go of something because it has such a strong hold over our mind, we can direct our attention to what “holding on” feels like.

Holding on is the opposite of letting go. We can become an expert on our own attachments, whatever they may be and their consequences in our lives, as well as how it feels in those moments when we finally do let go and what the consequences of that are.

Being willing to look at the ways we hold on ultimately shows us a lot about the experience of its opposite. So whether we are “successful” at letting go or not, mindfulness continues to teach us if we are willing look.

Letting go is not such a foreign experience. We do it every night when we go to sleep. We lie down on a padded surface, with the lights out, in a quiet place, and we let go of our mind and body. If you can’t let go, you can’t go to sleep.

Most of us have experienced times when the mind would just not shut down when we got into bed. This is one of the first signs of elevated stress. At these times we may be unable to free ourselves from certain thoughts because our involvement in them is just too powerful. If we try to force ourselves to sleep, it just makes things worse. So if you can go to sleep, you are already an expert in letting go. Now you just need to practice applying this skill in waking situations as well.


Purposefully cultivating the attitudes of

  1. Non-judging
  2. Patience
  3. Trust
  4. Beginner’s mind
  5. Nonstriving
  6. Acceptance
  7. Letting Go

will greatly support and deepen your practice of the meditation techniques you will encounter at MindBodyCalm.

In addition to these attitudes, you will also need to bring a particular energy or motivation to your MindBodyCalm Mindfulness Practice.

Mindfulness doesn’t just come about by itself because you have decided that it is a good idea to be more aware of things. A strong commitment to working on yourself and enough self-discipline to persevere in the process are essential to developing a strong meditation practice and a high degree of mindfulness.

At MindBodyCalm the basic ground rule is that everybody practices. Nobody goes along for the ride. We don’t let in any observers or spouses unless they are willing to practice the meditation just as the patients are doing, that is, join in and participate.

You are becoming an athlete of Mindfulness.  The athlete who is training for a particular event doesn’t only practice when he or she feels like it, for instance, only when the weather is nice or there are other people to keep him or her company or there is enough time to fit it in. The athlete trains regularly, every day, rain or shine, whether she feels good or not, whether the goal seems worth it or not on any particular day.
We encourage you to develop the same attitude. At MindBodyCalm, I will tell you at your first session, “You don’t have to like it; you just have to do it. For now just keep practising.”


Once you make the commitment to yourself to practice in this way, the self-discipline comes in carrying it out. Committing yourself to goals that are in your own self-interest is easy. But keeping to the path you have chosen when you run into obstacles and may not see “results” right away is the real measure of your commitment.

This is where conscious intentionally comes in, the intention to practice whether you feel like it or not on a particular day, whether it is convenient or not, with the determination of an athlete.
Regular practice is not as hard as you might think once you make up your mind to do it and pick an appropriate time. Most people are inwardly disciplined already to an extent. Getting dinner on the table every night requires discipline. Getting up in the morning and going to work requires discipline.

And taking time for yourself certainly does too.

Ultimately you have to decide for yourself why you are making such a commitment. Some people have resistance to the whole idea of taking time for themselves. The Puritan ethic has left a legacy of guilt when we do something for ourselves. Some people discover that
they have a little voice inside that tells them that it is selfish or that they are undeserving of this kind of time and energy. Usually they recognize it as a message they were given very early on in their lives, “Live for others, not for yourself.” “Help others; don’t dwell on yourself.” If you do feel undeserving of taking time for yourself, why no look at that as part of your mindfulness practice? Where do such feelings come from? What are the thoughts behind them? Can you observe them with acceptance? Are they accurate?
Even the degree to which you can really be of help to others, if t at is what you believe is most important, depends directly on how balanced you are yourself. Taking time to “tune” your own instrument and restore your energy reserves can hardly be considered selfish. Intelligent would be a more apt description.

Happily once people start practising mindfulness, most quickly get over the idea that it is “selfish” and “narcissistic” to take time for themselves as they see the difference that making some time to just be has on the quality of their lives and their self-esteem, as well as on their relationships.

We suggest that everyone find there own best time to practice. Mine is early in the morning. I like to get up an hour or so before I would otherwise and meditate and do yoga. I like the quiet of this time. It feels very good to be up and have nothing to do except to dwell in the present, being with things as they are, my mind open and aware.

Practising meditation and yoga in the early morning has a positive influence on the rest of the day for me. When I start off the day dwelling in stillness, being mindful, nourishing the domain of being, and cultivating calmness and concentration, I seem to be more mindful and relaxed the rest of the day and better able to recognise stress and handle it effectively.

When I tune into my body and work it gently to stretch my joints and feel my muscles, my body feels more alive and vibrant that on the days I don’t do it. I also know what state my body is in that day and what I might want to watch out for, such as my low back or my neck if they are particularly stiff or painful that morning.

Your meditation practice will only be as powerful as your motivation to dispel the fog of your own lack of awareness. When you are in this fog, it is hard to remember the importance of practising mindfulness, and it is hard to locate your attitudinal bearings.

Confusion, fatigue, depression, and anxiety are powerful mental states that can undermine your best intentions to practice regularly. You can easily get caught up and then stuck in them and not even know it. That is when your commitment to practice is of greatest value. It keeps you engaged in the process. The momentum of regular practice helps to maintain a certain mental stability and resilience even as you go through states of turmoil, confusion, lack of clarity, and procrastination. These are some of the most fruitful times to practice mindfulness, not to get right of your confusion or your feelings bust just to be conscious and accepting of them.