A Humble Quest: What Is Mindfulness Really?

By iBme interns Ben Painter and Jon Luke Tittmann

Tasked with writing articles about mindfulness, two iBme interns, Ben Painter and Jon Luke Tittmann, set out on a humble quest for truth and deeper understanding. In this series, they share what they learn along the way through encounters with leading mindfulness teachers.

In February 2014, the cover of Time Magazine featured “The Mindful Revolution,” confirming its reality — and ensuring that “mindfulness” would become a buzzword. Oft repeated, it is perhaps less commonly more deeply considered. And do we even mean the same thing when we speak of “being mindful,” “living mindfully,” and “practicing mindfulness.”

So what is mindfulness really?

Over the years, the term mindfulness has been defined, discussed, and taught within a wide variety of fields, resulting in many contextual imprints and vocabularies. These include technical descriptions, scientific understandings, secular practices, and Buddhist philosophy. Mindfulness today can be found in schools, prisons, hospitals, companies, and the military. Politicians meditate, as do Hollywood stars and television anchors.

We wondered: Do we mean the same thing when we speak of the mindfulness of a spiritual aspirant or that of a 5-year-old at school learning self-regulation or the way that a professional team begins their meetings? Does it matter?

Googling for Truth

We started our journey online. A quick search offers some insight into the spectrum of definitions:

Mindfulness meditation is a simple, secular, scientifically validated exercise for your brain.
—10% Happier

In its Buddhist context, mindfulness meditation has three overarching purposes: knowing the mind; training the mind; and freeing the mind.
—Insight Meditation Society

“The optimal interaction between attention and peripheral awareness”
—John Yates (Culadasa)

“Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally”
—Jon Kabat Zinn

It was quite inspiring to hear the variety of ways that mindfulness was described. We began to see that perhaps it makes sense that there is such diversity in the way we understand mindfulness; after all, everyone’s experience is different and the ways we practice mindfulness will inevitably vary from context to context. Moreover, fundamental to mindfulness practice is the notion that we should only believe what is true in our own experience; so in a way, it makes sense that there are so many definitions.

With this is mind, we thought it might be interesting to traverse the sea of mindfulness definitions in search of some clarity about the different ways mindfulness can be understood.

Meeting Mindfulness Teachers

Over the course of our summer, we had the opportunity to meet with a number of leading mindfulness teachers. Our first interview landed us at Joseph Goldstein’s house at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, of which he was a cofounder.

Sitting comfortably in the living room of one of the first American vipassana teachers, we were, of course, interested to find out how Joseph defines mindfulness. Thinking for a moment, he reclined slightly and smiled. Then, instead of giving an answer, he posed some questions: “What is art? What is love? There are some simple things you can say, but it actually contains so much within it. A simple definition is not going to be all inclusive … there are just too many subtleties and dimensions to it.”

We then had the pleasure of spending the next hour with Joseph further discussing mindfulness — and hearing his definition.


Read A Humble Quest Stop 1: A Conversation with Joseph Goldstein

Jon Luke Tittmann is a senior majoring in English at Bowdoin college. He began practicing meditation as a highschool student under the guidance of Doug Worthen, director of mindfulness at Middlesex School.

Ben Painter began practicing mindfulness in his high school years under the direction of Doug Worthen, director of mindfulness at Middlesex School. Ben, a senior at Bowdoin College studying government and visual arts, is passionate about spreading meditation and is co-founder of the mindfulness club at Bowdoin.