I wrote an article about the term mindfulness a while back because it seems to cause some confusion. My friend George Ryan, who teaches meditation to LAPD special teams officers, doesn’t like the term. “I don’t want your mind to be full,” he says. “I want the opposite: open and situationally aware. That’s why I teach them meditation.”
Likewise, when my book first came out, I had a good friend tell me, “Great book! I still have no idea what ‘mindfulness’ means though.”
Before we get to alternatives, I would like to offer a working and defendable definition for mindfulness:
Mindfulness is a state of nonjudgmental awareness.
We are aware, meaning we aren’t lazy or rigid about it. This is an energized state. Next, we are nonjudgemental, in the sense that we don’t allow our emotions (and thoughts) to cloud our perceptions. For example, if I’m pushing my grocery cart through the store and a song comes on that I don’t like, I can think, “I HATE THIS DAMN SONG!!!” and then allow that emotional reaction to drown out everything else around me, auditory and otherwise.
Conversely, the aim of mindfulness is to get comfortable in this state of nonjudgemental awareness through practice (e.g., meditation) and get comfortable with it in our lives. This isn’t to say we drift through life like a jellyfish. Instead the idea is to go about life more intentionally, giving our attention and energy over to those things that matter: We don’t let bullshit sap our energy and distract us from our life’s work. This is doubly important for first responders, for whom a momentary a lack of awareness might spell disaster.
Having said all this, some very smart folks, like George Ryan, don’t use the word “mindfulness” to describe their work. Some now call it “attention” or “awareness” training to make it more accommodating of skeptics, I suppose. Shinzen Young has a program called “See-Hear-Feel” that is similar to many mindfulness programs. For me, the question of the term mindfulness is twofold. 1) Would using a different term increase willingness to participate, particularly among frontline workers? 2) Is there a more descriptive, accurate term for what we are doing here?
Short answer: I don’t know. I don’t know how this term is perceived and I don’t know of a better word for what I’m describing. Mindfulness works for me, for now. It’s something akin to what I think Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 121 – 180), emperor of Rome, might have had in mind when he wrote:
Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option:
to accept this event with humility
to treat this person as he should be treated
to approach this thought with care, so that nothing irrational creeps in