The Power of Kindness (and One Surefire Way to Know If You “Get” Mindfulness)

If you think mindfulness is just about neutral noticing and non-judgement, then something important is missing, says Ed Halliwell. 

Photograph by Liza Matthews

Robot standing next to the phrase: mindfulness is not just neutral noticing

In my last blog, I wrote that I had been experimenting with a slightly adapted working definition of mindfulness—“the awareness and approach to life that arises from paying attention on purpose, fully present, with curiosity and compassion.” This is a small shift from the most common modern definition of mindfulness, which describes the practice as ‘non-judgemental.’ Misunderstanding of ‘non-judgement’ has, I believe, has led to some unjustified criticisms, which suggest that mindfulness is ethically groundless or passive.

Mindfulness is just not neutral noticing. There are a clear set of attitudes which underpin the practice, and compassion may be the most important. Mindfulness just isn’t mindfulness without kindfulness. From the very first time we’re invited to come back to attention, we’re reminded to do this gently. Without this emphasis on friendliness, we set ourselves up for an internal battle, making struggle and stress as we try to force focus. Many people do get frustrated when they notice attention wandering, and it’s a key learning when they realize this noticing itself is mindfulness, and that it brings a chance to express care, understanding, patience, and love.

As we train in these attitudes over and over, it begins to affect more than just our relationship with ourselves. As we cultivate the habit of being gentle, loving-kindness percolates outwards. Most practitioners find over time that they’re gentler with others around them, less reactive, less automatically hostile. This makes sense of course—the mind that relates to internal experience also connects to the external world, in which we live and work with others.

This is why I believe that mindfulness—taught and practised properly—is its own self-protection from misuse. As long as we commit ourselves to an ongoing practice of noticing what’s happening with curiosity and friendliness, awareness and compassion tend to follow. Whether taught and practised in friendly environments, or hostile ones in which the prevailing culture is grasping or aggressive, true mindfulness will lead to an increase in kindness, the basis for ethical action.

The key, of course, is reminding ourselves and others that mindfulness is more than just neutral attention training. That’s why I think having clear definitions are important—if mindfulness loses its kindfulness, then we really are lost.

This post was originally published on in November 2014