The Many Meanings of Mindfulness

When we hear "mindfulness" it ought to inspire caring and joy, not just attention.

Photograph by Caleb Roenigk/

By Barry Boyce

Mindfulness is a big deal these days. Now that we’re hearing the word so often in so many contexts, some readers are telling us that it can confuse them. The meaning fuzzes out, and they have a hard time talking to others about it. It’s like breakfast, which covers everything from a granola bar to a Grand Slam at Denny’s. So it may be worth taking some time to consider what mindfulness conjures up in people’s minds when they hear it.

One of the first things to clarify is that the word is doing double duty. For one, it refers to an innate quality or way of being we all have access to that allows us to be fully present, attending to the moment, deeply engaged and yet at peace. Mindfulness also refers to techniques that train our minds to be that way more often. Understanding the difference between the practice and the innate quality is vital. If we don’t, it becomes far too easy to think mindfulness is something possessed by experts and conferred by them on others.

Once you’ve sorted out the confusion between the way of being and the practices to cultivate it, you’re left with the question of how adequate a job this single word can do to describe a quality so elusive, and so wonderful, that it’s like water. How many ways can you describe what water is, and does, and the forms it can take?

To delve into this question, we queried a dozen or so people who teach mindfulness (the practice, not the innate quality) to get their thoughts about the effectiveness of the word.

There was a consensus that mindfulness as an umbrella term for a range of qualities is powerful, but also limited in certain ways. For one thing, Jon Kabat-Zinn and others say, mindfulness also needs to be heartfulness. There’s feeling and caring there, not just cool, distant perception. Being mindful can also mean being aware of causes and effects and responsibilities—up to and including for our whole planet—but there is no mindful ideology that everyone who meditates signs on to.

Others commented that mindfulness can sound like something that takes a lot of work, like mental ditch digging, or that involves being hypervigilant—never misplacing your keys or making a wrong turn. In fact, there’s an ease that comes about as one obsesses less about maintaining storylines that solidly define us in every situation.

Janice Marturano, of the Institute for Mindful Leadership, emphasized that there’s a strong element of aspiration to mindfulness. It’s not something you get once and then have forever. In a similar vein, Michael Chender, who also does leadership training, talked about relaxing into ambiguity or uncertainty, not needing to nail things down in every moment.

Still others were looking for some juice or joy. Mindfulness has a quality of pleasure about it, and connectedness, to other people and your surroundings. It makes things taste better. When you hear a word like chocolate, juices start to flow. The heavy three-syllableness of mindfulness doesn’t capture the pleasure factor. Some suggested that space or flow or presence are qualities that make sense to talk about in the right context.

Tara Healey, of Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare, among others, concluded by saying that uncovering mindfulness is a journey. And all the limited ways we think about it come about because we’re asking the word to carry a wide range of meanings. No single definition can cover the whole territory. It’s a territory we discover in moments that go beyond words.

This article also appeared in the February 2015 issue of Mindful magazine.