2500 years ago in northern India, Gautama Siddhartha went through a remarkable transformation. His transformation was so profound and all encompassing that very soon people began asking him in all seriousness whether or not he was actually a human being. Time and again they would ask him ‘who are you’, ‘are you a god’, ‘how do you come to be this way’? Every time they asked this of him he replied simply “I am awake”. In the Pali language spoken by this man he came to be known as the Buddha, the ‘awakened one’.
People may have believed him to be not of this world but at the heart of it all was his intense capacity to pay attention to what is happening right now, in the present moment. This is mindfulness. Or what Jon Kabat-Zinn describes as moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness. It is a capacity that all human beings have but it can seem so simple that we ignore or forget how to do it. It is the most basic, most fundamental and also the easiest of all the practices that have come to be known as meditation.
Another way of describing mindfulness is the capacity we all have to know what is happening as it happens. It becomes mindfulness when we actually begin to cultivate this capacity of paying attention as we do things. We can cultivate fitness by starting to jog or go to the gym. We cultivate mindfulness by taking a little time to pay attention on purpose.
Start small by taking time to pay attention while you do things in your day. As you walk to work, begin to notice yourself walking. Notice the feel of the pavement, the feel of the weather and the sounds around you. Much of our lives are on automatic pilot and without even knowing it we are being mindless. So take the time to notice the colours of things you pass regularly, you may be surprised. Another practice is taking a few minutes to make a cup of tea. Make it mindfully by paying attention to what you are doing as you pour the water, let it steep and then add the milk. Notice the heat as you hold the cup and drink the liquid. Notice the taste.
You might find many activities you do every day that you can transform simply by cultivating your capacity to pay attention, on purpose as it happens. The other thing is learning how to do these things kindly rather than judgmentally – but that is for another post!