Mindfulness: It’s a Word, Sense, and Feeling

For a productive discussion on any topic to occur, there needs to be an agreed upon foundation of shared knowledge and understanding upon which a larger conversation can be built.  For example, two people discussing a beautiful night sky will only understand each other if both can see it.  It’s my contention that this shared foundation of understanding is not always present when discussing mindfulness; that there is a widespread limited misunderstanding with a blind spot for its broadest and essential aspects. 

First, the word is commonly employed with the assumption that we all fully understand it.   It has become part of the cultural lexicon and fabric; woven through conversations seamlessly without any questions to its essence; a buzz word; synonymous with awareness, but ironically used mindlessly.   

In addition, how fully do we understand what it means to be either conscious, aware, or mindful?  If viewed through the prism of senses and feelings, our understanding would be equal to our level of experience, just like any other emotion or sense. It’s the premise of this post that while we understand the word intellectually by definition, we miss its link to the world of senses and feelings; that essential nature buried in our collective unconscious under a mountain of countless mindless utterances. 

Mindfulness; the Word

Merriam-Webster states:

“the quality or state of being mindful…. a state of awareness.”

Cambridge Dictionary says:

“the practice of being aware of your body, mind, and feelings in the present moment, thought to create a feeling of calm.”

We all assume to some degree in our own awareness and consciousness. After all, we are awake and alive in the world.  How can we function without awareness and consciousness? After all, we aren’t sleeping.  However, just like any sense or feeling, it can be experienced differently based on degree and time.  Furthermore, perhaps we should consider the prospect that we are only moderately awake and conscious, but partially blind to the broader possibilities of feeling, experience, and understanding offered by mindfulness.  In other words, we believe ourselves to be swimming, but in reality, we may have only dipped our toes in the waters of mindfulness. 

Mindfulness; Positive Connotations

Part of our limited understanding is driven by the unavoidable positive connotations connected to mindfulness, with our egos confidently interfering to remind us of the reverence for awareness. From the perspective of self-esteem, knowing ourselves and purpose is usually preferable to not knowing.  It feels good to believe in our own knowingness.  For example, a person may believe themselves to be any of the following; smart, attractive, athletic, stupid, and worthless.  However, whether the self-view leans positive or negative is inconsequential; as both reflect an ego-driven preference for knowing and awareness of thyself over unawareness and not knowing.

Mindfulness; Awareness and Knowing Ourselves

The chain link fence from mindfulness to knowing thyself is a short one; definitions of mindfulness are almost always connected to awareness, and awareness connects to how we view ourselves.  After all, who readily admits to being unaware and unconscious; to being mostly asleep, unaware of our bodies, minds, and feelings?  To propose that we are mostly mindless would likely be viewed as a threat, suggesting that we are unconscious and unaware; that we are unknowing.  It’s an insult and our default mode of existence resists this type of self-insult.  We would rather believe terrible things about ourselves than admit to being unaware and not knowing, as our emotional world prefers the control that stems from knowing versus the vulnerability of not knowing.  Consequently, we resist the idea of being unaware; the certainty of knowing and belief is preferable, even to those self-limiting beliefs that are brutally negative.

The Beauty of Uncertainty

However, if we can let go of the self-value judgments that stem from the certitude of believing and understanding, as well as open ourselves to the beauty of not knowing, we can detach from negative self-talk and beliefs; becoming aware of the truth that we don’t know everything about ourselves. 

We intellectually and fully accept the idea of the conscious and subconscious mind. However, we tend to ignore the unknowing side of our existence.  We don’t readily yield to the truth that a significant part of who we are lies in the shadows.  We are prejudicial to believe in our own mindfulness, awareness, and knowing; as the belief affirms the illusion of control offered by our conscious mind.  To accept the subconscious, which by definition lies outside awareness, as a powerful force in our lives is to relinquish control; that there are hidden forces at play in our decision making and motivations; that we do not fully know ourselves.  However, there is perhaps freedom, peace, and beauty in this unknowingness; allowing for detachment from self-limiting beliefs and who we think we are.        

Intellectualizing Mindfulness

I’m not proposing that we completely misunderstand mindfulness; rather that our understanding is often limited to the intellectual realm.  The definitions of mindfulness are comprised of words that are readily known. Therefore, we understandably believe in our own comprehension of what it means to be mindful.  But when we only know its definition; our understanding is limited to an intellectual process; disconnected from the word’s inherent relation to the world of senses and feelings.  And like any sense or feeling, our level of comprehension is equal to our experience.

Mindfulness; the Sense

A person born blind will experience the world differently than those who can see.  However, their understanding of eyesight is limited to descriptions provided by others.  The same holds true of other senses, including mindfulness.  Without the experience, our understanding becomes confined to its definition and depictions that others provide.  However, unlike its relatives; mindfulness is a sixth sense that must be awakened.  It is buried in and must be excavated and cultivated to allow its essence and feeling to be more fully realized and developed.  

Understanding Emotion

When this sixth sense is tapped, a feeling arises; an awakening to the present moment.  We use the word “feel” to describe our experience; that we feel more fully engaged with our thoughts, feelings, bodies, and environment within the present moment.  And if mindfulness is consistent with any other emotion, it must be felt to be more broadly understood.

Anger.  Anxiety.  Depression.  Joy.  Love.  We accept that experiencing these emotions is essential to understanding them; with our comprehension equal to the intensity of our experience.  For example, a person’s capacity to connect with another who struggles with depression is linked to their own experience with that emotion.  Therefore, if they have never felt depressed, it may be challenging for them to connect to the experience of someone who does.  Understanding is coupled with experience. 

Connection through Shared Experiences

However, complicating matters slightly is that emotions exist on a sliding scale; everyone has felt depressed, anger, anxiety, joy, etc.  However, the intensity and persistence of any emotion vary based on the situation and person.  For example, everyone has felt anxious; but not everyone struggles with general anxiety disorder.  Everyone has felt tired, but not everyone understands the exhaustion that stems from insomnia.  Most of us have some experience with being aware of the present, but not everyone has felt the powerful and vibrant awakening that can accompany mindfulness.     

Unequal Experiences Equals Disconnection

This can lead to frustrating interactions between two people with different levels of experiencing the same emotion.  The greater inequality of experience, the greater gap in understanding; and consequently, greater misunderstanding and frustration. 

Alexander Pope famously said that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”  While this quote is often applied to the outer world, it can also perhaps be attributed to the inner world. 

If we struggle with general anxiety disorder, it would perhaps be less frustrating to communicate with someone who has never experienced anxiety, as they wouldn’t be duped by their limited experience with the emotion.  They would at least know that they don’t know. 

Therefore, through our limited intellectual interactions with mindfulness, we trick ourselves into believing in our knowingness, but we are actually blind to a fuller-fledged version of the experience that engages the world of sense and feeling.   

To Understand is to Feel

To further emphasize the link between understanding and feeling experiences; look no further than the emotion of love.  People who have experienced romantic love often find it difficult to describe in words; that it must be felt to be fully understood. Whatever the emotion, comprehension is inextricably linked to experience.  Without the experience, understanding is limited to an intellectual process that derives meaning from a word’s definition or another person’s explanation of the experience.  Without experiencing the emotion, deep understanding of the emotion isn’t possible; inexperience and understanding are mutually exclusive; the two can’t coexist; to understand, we must feel.    

Mindfulness; a Feeling

If we examine mindfulness through the prism of emotion, we can perhaps appreciate that broader understanding stems from a feeling rather than intellectual experience.  If that’s true, two people discussing mindfulness are only discussing the same topic if their experiences are similar.  If one knows mindfulness through definition while the other understands it through word, sense, and feeling, their discussion will reveal a disconnection equal to this varied experience; just like any other feeling.  

However, it’s my belief that mindfulness has become a buzz word that many of us are discussing mindlessly, relying on our ability to process its definition, rather than a broader understanding that encompasses its extremity of feeling possibilities.