To be skilled at “mindfulness” is to be less distracted by our thoughts and stories, and more focused on being present with the experiences upon which we generate our PICTURES of “reality”. The fundamental reality is really just the connection we have with our senses—sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile, and visceral (internal to the body) perceptions. Mindfulness is little more than tuning into our here-and-now experiences, purposefully and without judging whether they are good or bad. Mindfulness can be as simple as focusing close attention to sensations while doing daily tasks such eating, showering, driving, or even breathing. Of course there also exist more formal meditation practices, ones that require more practice and patience—these include working toward choice-less (or undirected) awareness and universal compassion.
All of these mindfulness approaches allow us to step back from our conceptual, planning, reviewing mindset, the one so bent on anticipating and avoiding dangers. When we view this part of our brain as useful but not the conveyor of “truth,” we can start to recognize the calm reality obscured by our “monkey mind”— we can find that space between the thoughts, feelings and even sensations. In turn, we can recognize that “self” is not the sum of that life played out in the pictures, but more basically, the ever-changing perceiver that builds sensations into thoughts and feelings and eventually concepts and plans and self-reflection. Thus, as a person, we might fail at a task, but that does not reflect anything about the inherent value of the underlying “self” who is caught up in playing the day-to-day game of life. We just tend to forget, identifying with the “self” in the doing world—the avatar we have generated to play “the game”.
In a mindful state, feeling sad is an experience that moves across our awareness, but requires no changing or panicking or obsessing about what we did wrong to experience this emotion or how broken we are. Like every feeling, if we don’t try pushing it away (making it “stickier,” since the laws of physics in terms of thoughts don’t work the same as in the real world—just try making yourself NOT think about a pink elephant), it will come and go, since all thoughts and emotions are transitory. We simply cannot hold a thought or feeling forever, although our “doing” mind, in an attempt to “solve” the feeling, can prompt rumination that continually brings back the uncomfortable thought or feeling.
Thus, mindfulness can increase our tolerance and resilience when it comes to difficult emotions and thoughts. It turns out that this can be farther reaching and more effective than trying to modify, avoid, or eliminate the feelings themselves (as the latter strategies are often the basis of psychological disorders themselves). Also, mindfulness is about being more tuned into life and experiences, even the hard ones, since we will be able to tolerate them and not compound them with over thinking.
It takes practice and guidance to help develop the skills of mindfulness and to find ways to implement them in the hectic world that is always tripping the “doing” response. There are several good books and CDs or MP3s that can provide more information—I would especially recommend Jon Kabat-Zinn’s books and CDs, as well as the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy programs that are informed by his work. Also, Rick Hanson writes very informatively and accessibly about the interface between mindfulness practices and brain function, tapping into the new research on neuroplasiticy and ways to change how your brain works. While these approaches can be learned and practiced on their own, many people find it useful to establish a more structured way approach, such as a therapy setting or meditation group/retreat, where instruction can be more personalized and follow more likely.