In modern culture you cannot go far without coming across some kind of reference to mindfulness. Whether it be a book in a store, a poster on the street advertising a class or a course, advertising on social media, or a Youtube clip, mindfulness seems to be everywhere. We hear the word so often that we assume we know what it means. But what DOES it mean?
Mindfulness is the practice of being fully present in the moment, being fully here now. Mindfulness means we are drawn to the very moment we are living in now, in our complete fullness as a holistic person.
If you listen to well-practiced mindfulness teachers, such as Thich Nhat Hanh or Jon Kabat-Zin, for example (or come to one of my workshops or retreats on mindfulness), you will hear talk of how we as individuals are made up of different aspects—mind, body, and soul. The soul is sometimes referred to as “heart” or as “spirit,” although some teachers, myself included, refer to “spirit” as something separate from “soul.”
As well as these separate aspects to our selves, there are also three periods of time: the past, the present, and the future. Our body is always fully present in the present. As useful as it would be to be able to physically be in two places at once, our bodies cannot pull that off, so the body is always fully present here, now. Our minds, however, are more often either in the past or the future. Mostly we are not, in our minds, present in the moment. We are normally thinking of something that happened in the past, or something that is going to happen in the future. Our souls—and by this I mean the emotional aspect of our selves—follow our minds. We think about something in the past or the future, and then we have an emotional response, whether that be happiness, or more commonly, worry or anxiety. When this happens, two-thirds of the “self” is not present in the moment. Only the body is there now.
Although we need times when we think of the past and of the future (no one would ever schedule a meeting or enjoy a romantic meal for an anniversary if we didn’t), we also need to ensure that we have times when our mind and soul join the body again, and all three become fully present in the moment. This, in essence, is what the practice of mindfulness meditation is: the practical practice of becoming fully present in the moment.
This isn’t as difficult as it sounds. Just pause for a moment from reading this and follow the instructions here:
Sit comfortably, and close your eyes and close your mouth. Take a deep breath in through your nose. As you do so, feel the air rushing in to your nostrils, notice your chest rising as your lungs fill with air, and become aware of the sound that it makes. Hold your breath inside your lungs just for a second or two and notice how it feels. Then let your breath out through your nose, and again, feel the air rushing out of your nostrils, notice your chest falling as your lungs empty of air, and become aware of the sound that it makes. When all the air has gone, wait before you breathe in again; hold a pause between breaths and notice how it feels. Do this now, just one breath . . .
. . .
You have just practiced mindfulness meditation. Just for the length of that one single breath you were fully present in the moment. Your body was here, your mind was focused on what your body was doing and feeling, and therefore your soul was also drawn into the experience.
Of course, for mindfulness to have a greater and longer lasting affect it must be practiced for longer periods over the course of time, but if you have never practiced it before, just start with this single-breath exercise a few times a day. Then take some time each day to do two or three breaths, then more, and see how it goes, until you are sitting for a few minutes at a time aware of your breath.
This is the “secular” type of mindfulness meditation, the type I teach for a local mental health centre and in my mindfulness-based stress-reduction classes. (By “secular,” I mean having no “God focus.”) In this type of mindfulness practice, the focus is just on your mind, body, and soul (emotions). Practicing secular mindfulness will enable you to create a calmer sense of self; it will help you deal with and cope with anxiety and stress; it will enable you to better experience the world in which you live, and enjoy it and what you do in it more deeply.
Bringing a spiritual context into the practice causes the whole thing to become even deeper and more transcendent. By drawing in to the Divine presence within us and around us, we become much more fully aware of it. We therefore are able to much better interact with it—or what might be better to say is that we are able to become more fully integrated into the reality of the Divine within us and surrounding us. As Carl McColman says in The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, “the present moment becomes the moment of presence,” or as I usually put it, the omnipresence of God becomes the intimate presence of God. That which is ineffably transcendent becomes so interwoven with our “self” that we can truly experience the Divine and be aware of it. If the purpose of secular mindfulness is to become more fully aware and present in the world in which we live and with ourselves, then the purpose of spiritual mindfulness is to add on to that the ability to live in a total awareness of the Divine presence in all things at all times. To be totally aware of God’s presence all the time and in all we do.
This might sound like an impossible task, but many people from the Christian heritage stand as living examples of the reality of this. Read The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence, a seventeenth-century monk, as one example. There are many, many others as well.
Here is an example of a mindfulness practice, taken from my book The Mystic Path of Meditation, that includes the spiritual element:
Close your eyes so that you are not distracted. Picture yourself wherever you are. Imagine the Light of Christ descending slowly from the sky upon you. Recall Christ’s words “I am the Light of the world.” Feel the Light as it surrounds you and encircles you. Breathe deeply as if you are breathing the Light of Christ in. Feel the Light as it enters your being. Within yourself you can feel all those things that have taken the place of Christ in the centre of your life whirling round in chaos, causing you anxiety and discord within yourself. Picture the Light of Christ slowly and gently encircling and encapsulating them all and drawing them into one place. They are no longer whirling round in chaos, but are enclosed in the Light of Christ. Allow the Light of Christ to draw to the centre of yourself. Feel the peace that comes from the knowledge that Christ has control of all things and that He is the centre of your life. Stay in this place for a few moments. Open your eyes, and concentrating on the Light of Christ so that you are still centred on it, carry on with your day, maintaining a focus on the Light of Christ being the centre of your life. (Verses to go with this exercise include Psalm 37:7a, John 8:12, Philippians 4:6–7, and 1 Peter 5:7.)
If you want to know God more and be more aware of the Divine presence when you are in the office, at school, on the bus, sitting at home, washing up, or whatever, wherever, then practice spiritual-focused mindfulness meditation for a few moments every day. You may be surprised at the difference it will make in your life.
For more thoughts and instruction on practically practicing spiritual mindfulness meditation see my book The Mystic Path of Meditation: Beginning a Christ-Centred Journey, or sign up to a monthly guided meditation I produce at www.waymarkministries.com/meditations.
David Cole is the author of many spiritual books, including Mystic Path of Meditation: Beginning a Christ-Centered Journey, Passing the Harp: Four Celtic Allegories, and Celtic Prayers & Practices: An Inner Journey, as well as a contributor to The Winged Man: The Good News According to Matthew, Volume I of the Celtic Bible Commentary.