What being “mindful” really means, and why you should try to be it

Mindfulness continues to blow up, so much that the rich and powerful have caught on. A recent Forbes column argues that “mindful leadership” leads to an “improved bottom line and more fulfilled employees.” Researchers have found that meditation “significantly enhances the performance” of elite US special forces.

But forget the hype. Let’s get down a working definition of mindfulness, one that is relevant to what matters most in our lives: work, love, fun, friends, and family.

Mindfulness is the ability to be aware of how you are relating to what’s happening right here, right now.

What does that really mean? Examples always help: the spiritual teacher David Deida often tells a story of his teacher feeling jealous at a party. Deida sees the teacher’s wife enjoying a conversation with an attractive man and asks his teacher, “Aren’t you jealous?” His teacher says, “Yes, but the fact that I’m jealous isn’t bothering me.”

In other words, the teacher was aware of how he was relating to his jealousy. Instead of making it a problem, he was allowing it to just be.

Why should you allow things to just be? The only thing constant about life is that it’s constantly changing. Your boss asks you to pick up another shift, Trump tweets something absurd, your husband asks for a divorce, someone close to you dies. You’re bound to feel strong emotions about these changes.

Being mindful is being able to notice these changes and emotions rather than react to them. Once you notice them, you can choose whether acting on them is what you really want to do.

This sounds subtle, but noticing emotions without reacting to them is an enormous step towards living the sort of life we want to live.

Our default is to avoid feeling emotions we don’t want to feel, like fear and jealousy, and grasping on to the emotions we enjoy, like love. But life changes. We’re bound to feel afraid and jealous many more times in our lives — just like we’re bound to lose someone or something we love.

Mindfulness is simply letting the things that you can’t control be as they are. Sit in meditation for awhile and you’ll realize that your thoughts and emotions aren’t within your control — they aren’t you. All you control is how you relate to them.

Now is about the time you’re wondering, why would I want to be a cold, calculating robot?

Here’s the thing: giving up your fantasies of controlling what you don’t control will allow you to put more effort into being intentional about what you do control.

I can’t control how my girlfriend feels about me. But I do control whether and how I communicate the way I truly feel about her. The less I try to change how she feels — i.e., manipulate her — the more I can fully be there for her no matter how she feels, which I know is my deepest intention because I truly care for her.

Mindfulness could be called heartfulness. It helps us show up fully and wholeheartedly in a world that often seems too cold and chaotic to deserve our love.

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My podcast, Meditation for the Masses, takes meditation out of faraway monasteries, expensive retreat centers, and corporate America, and brings it to the things that matter most to people who work for a living—work, relationships, and politics. It’s mindfulness for the 99%.