"Mindfulness is the aware, balanced acceptance of the present experience.
It isn't more complicated than that.
It is opening to or receiving the present moment, pleasant or unpleasant, just as it is, without either clinging to it or rejecting it."
- Sylvia Boorstein, Buddhist teacher and author (read an interview with Ms. Boorstein.)
Right Mindfulness is the seventh aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path in Buddhism, and thus a foundation practice in all branches of Buddhism. All forms of meditation might be considered mindfulness practice, but mindfulness is also a form of attention we can bring to any daily activity. In that sense, it is a foundation practice, which helps us to cultivate any of the ten 'paramitas', or perfections.
Mindfulness might be described as 100% attention to the present moment, without judgment or expectation. When you are fully aware of where you are, merged with your activity, without the spinning distraction of your usual thoughts and emotions, this is mindfulness. We naturally experience many mindful moments in our day – often our favorite activities naturally bring us into a state of mindful attention. A walk in a park on a lovely day, painting a picture or working on some other creative project, cooking a favorite meal, or engaging in our favorite form of exercise – all of these and more might bring you into a natural mindful state.
Because we bring our full attention to an activity when we are in a mindful state, we clearly perform at a higher level, and become less prone to mistakes. And increasingly medical research is demonstrating that mindfulness practice, in any form, helps soothe our nervous system, reducing stress and stress-related illnesses. However, within Buddhism, mindfulness is much more than a productivity or stress-management tool – it is our doorway to experiencing pure awareness, ourselves directly, without the meditating filter of our usually busy mind. This experience is like an arrow, cutting through the attachments and conditioning that normally prevent us from perceiving and experiencing life directly.
A great first step for practicing mindfulness is to recognize the activities and situations in which you naturally enter this state. Watching a sunset? Walking on the beach? Exercising? Creating? Cooking? Folding laundry? What activities naturally slow down your mind, heighten your senses, and bring you into full, present awareness? Once you have recognized this, revel in them. Make an effort to build them into your day as much as possible.
Then begin to contemplate what activities or situations do the opposite – what starts your mind spinning, triggers difficult emotions or physical states, or gets you worrying about the past or future? Do a little self-analysis here – why do these activities take you outside of a centered, mindful state? Pick one activity or situation in which you will attempt more mindfulness.
A great mindfulness practice that anyone can try is walking mindfulness. Go for a walk – anywhere, anytime – and pay particular attention to each sight, sound, and smell that you encounter. Each time you find yourself pulled into your thinking mind, make a conscious effort to bring yourself back into your body and present surroundings.
Experiment with 'finding your mindfulness' and building it into your daily life. You will find that it enriches everything you do, and that it brings you closer to realizing the truth of 'Om Mani Padme Hum' - the jewel of enlightenment is within you.
One of my favorite books on the topic is Thich Nhat Hanh's The Miracle of Mindfulness:
For introducing children to mindfulness, his Under the Rose Apple Tree is lovely:
Or, if you prefer e-books, note that this article is included in my e-book Introduction to Buddhism and Buddhist Meditation.