Mindfulness is a word and a movement that has recently become popular in America. Most people have an intuitive sense of what the word means, and one can find many different definitions online.
The Oxford dictionary defines mindfulness as, “A mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on what is happening in the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations”. Merriam-Websters says mindfulness is, “The practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.” The Mayo Clinic defines it as, “The act of being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling at every moment with minimal interpretation or judgment.”
One helpful and precise way to define mindfulness is as consisting of three core elements: Concentration, Clarity, and Equanimity.
Concentration is a normal English language word that of course means the ability to pay attention to what we want, when we want. Concentration is paying attention on purpose, without getting lost, diverted, or distracted. When we are concentrated, we unify, simplify, and collect our awareness, and pay attention to one thing at a time.
Concentrated attention is more rooted, calm, settled, rested, grounded, anchored, and centered. A concentrated mind is like a microscope or telescope that is stable and steady.
One part of clarity in meditation is to untangle and differentiate our different sense modalities, the different strands of human experience. In other words, when we are mindful, we are aware that we are seeing when we are seeing, hearing when we are hearing, and the same when feeling an emotion in the body, having a visual thought, or anything else.
Another aspect of clarity is having richness and precision of perception. When we are mindful, we have a higher resolution and higher definition experience of whatever we are aware of. We take in more subtle details, and our experience is more vivid, awake, alive, high texture, and full. It is like a microscope or telescope that has snapped into crisp, clear focus.
Equanimity is a balanced state of non-self-interference, friendly acceptance, and gentle matter-of-factness. It is openness, spaciousness, and inner ease, letting things be exactly as they are. It is maintaining a relaxed state over our body as sensations (pleasant, unpleasant, strong, subtle, physical, and emotional) wash through. Equanimity is the opposite of inner tightness, constriction, reactivity, manipulation, friction, and viscosity.
People sometimes fear equanimity, imagining that it may leave us passive, apathetic, or helpless. But, when a truck is coming dangerously barreling down the road, we can – on the inside – fully feel feelings of fear with openness and friendly allowing, and still – on the outside – simply choose to step out of the way.
Concentration, clarity, and equanimity working together can create many positive transformations for a person. And the common human belief is that they are simply facilities that we sometimes have, and sometimes not, and that it is just a matter of luck. But, once we start to meditate, we learn that all three are abilities that we can systematically develop with practice.