Understanding mindfulness from as many angles as possible will help you get the most out of the concept. Contrary to the beliefs of some, being mindful and utilizing the power of the present are far from new age concepts. Buddhists are among the oldest practitioners of the skill. Different sects of Buddhism define mindfulness in their own unique ways, though they almost universally include an emphasis on the present. Most of my personal experiences with Buddhism have been inspired by the Theravada and Mahayana schools.
Meditation is a blanket term that describes a multitude of ways to train the mind. Mastering mindfulness is just a single stage within the practice, but it relates very closely to a variety of other goals (calming, concentration, insight, etc.). The specific teachings vary across and even within schools, but a common link can be found among them in the necessity of focus. Some hallmarks of meditation that are often seen in pop culture include specific body positions and repeated sounds (sometimes called mantras). These characteristics are designed to force our concentration onto something other than the mind’s usual chatter. You can use almost anything as a target for concentration, as long as you are actually focused on it alone. Some common examples are colors, shapes, tastes, paradoxes and even memories. But how can concentrating on memories help us to escape the influence of the past?
If someone asked me to concentrate on the color red before I had studied anything about meditation, I would have had a hard time understanding what they meant. Do I concentrate on how it looks? How it makes me feel? What it makes me think about? Well, the answer to these and many similar questions is yes. We can sum it all up like this: focus on the experience. What we are trying to do is understand our mind as it relates to everything we interact with. This includes anything that can be experienced through our senses, along with every possible approximation of such within our minds. The key is that our understanding of reality is formed entirely through the relationships we form with other things. So, returning to the memory issue, meditating on recollections is not counterproductive to mindfulness because our focus should be on the way that these thoughts interact with ourselves in the present, as opposed to dwelling on the past
When meditating on the color red, I should concentrate solely on the way that I have come to relate to this particular percept (that’s what we call the fundamental characteristics of something as we experience them in our mind, so the color of red is a percept, the smell of red is a percept, etc.). If its visual appearance comes to mind then I concentrate on how I am experiencing it, how was it formed, am I visualizing it in shapes, what it feels like physically when I think of it, and on and on and on. What’s most important is that I become aware of the fact that everything I experience is based on a relationship, rather than a reality outside of myself or unique to myself. That’s the kind of breakthrough that the early stages of meditative practice are all about, and you too can experience it (but only as you relate to it, of course). I’ve come to understand this awareness as a revelation of interdependence. Nothing in the realm of our apparent reality can be defined or understood without relating it to something else. Try it!
In totality, the Buddhist meditative processes are carefully designed to help us strip away the many corrupting influences that prevent the achievement of enlightenment, but it is not sufficient to get us there alone. In most Buddhist traditions, meditation must be mastered in addition to ethical understanding and wisdom about the nature of reality. We don’t have to go that deep into the methods, though I do recommend learning more about the concept of enlightenment, which is actually more similar in meaning to the way we use “mindfulness” than the term mindful in relation to Buddhist meditation. For our current purposes, all you need to know about meditative practices is that they can be a great way to strengthen your ability to adopt a mindful state. I’ve used it extensively over the last five to ten years, though I’ll be the first to admit that I should be practicing more often than I have lately. Still, it has truly helped my sense of well-being, and I hope it can do the same for you.