Recognizing Mindfulness

At the end of a recent residential retreat, someone asked me for a simple practice to engage with in daily life. I offered the practice of becoming familiar with what it is like to be aware and mindful. When we more readily recognize the sense of being mindful, the many moments when we are spontaneously mindful start to stand out to us.

At times throughout the day, mindfulness happens effortlessly, often for just a moment. This occurs more than we realize, but we rarely notice it. Typically, there is a moment of knowing what is happening, and then we are pulled into thinking, planning, or reacting to it, or we are distracted by something unrelated. We see a snack and next discover we are eating it. A friend says something and we rush in with an opinion. We hear water dripping in the sink, so we shut the faucet off. We notice a stain the linoleum, so we stoop to clean it. In all these examples an initial recognition is overshadowed by a reaction, or even simply by a natural response to the situation. We rarely appreciate the mindfulness required for this recognition.

The Buddha understood the value of mindfulness. Mindfulness is not esoteric or mystical; it is simply an ordinary aspect of the way our minds work. The brilliance of the Buddha was to notice it, to highlight it, and to say: this quality is worth cultivating.

As we become familiar with the experience of being aware, spontaneous moments of mindfulness become more apparent to us. We then have a chance to appreciate these effortless moments of recognition. By becoming familiar with the act of mindfulness itself, we can recognize that we are mindful more often than we realized.

One of the best times to explore what it is like to be present, aware, mindful, is the moment when we recognize we have not been aware of what is happening. In sitting meditation, this moment happens over and over again. We intend to be present for our experience, and then notice we have been lost in thought. The moment we notice we have been lost in thought is a moment of mindfulness; the simple recognition that we are now aware is a way to appreciate the sense of being mindful.

In our daily lives, we can also become aware of this moment of remembering. For example, we might be in the midst of reaching for a glass when mindfulness arises. We can then simply pick up the glass mindfully. The act of being aware can become at least as important as what we are doing or thinking.

Noticing when we have just been lost in thought, whether in sitting practice or in daily life, is a valuable opportunity to appreciate what the noticing itself is like. We can explore the difference between the mind that was lost in thought and the mind that is present and aware. We can’t really know what it feels like to be lost

while we are lost, but when mindfulness returns, there can be a lingering memory of what it felt like to be lost: confused, spinning in thoughts, hazy, or disconnected. When mindfulness returns there is a clarity and brightness to the mind, which is pretty obvious once we start recognizing it. Once we start seeing this clarity, it becomes ever more apparent to us.

While we seldom notice awareness itself, it is not something foreign to us. Because it is a natural part of our experience, something within us is familiar with it. If you know you are reading this article, then awareness is already there in your experience. Don’t look too hard for it. Just explore how your experience feels when you know you are aware. Over time, the experience of being aware can become as clear as what we are aware of.

As you become familiar with the experience of mindfulness, you will notice yourself coming back into mindfulness many, many times throughout the day. In the midst of an activity, you will suddenly recognize that you are aware of what is happening. You might be reaching for something, walking across the street, finishing a meal, or driving the car. Appreciating these moments creates the conditions for you to recognize these moments even more frequently. You don’t have to wait; you start now.