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What is Mindfulness Practice?

Updated: Apr 1, 2022

In episode two of Mindfulness off the Cushion, all four co-hosts sit down to define the term ‘practice’ as it relates to mindfulness or meditation, in their own terms. The results of our discussion uncover commonalities - as well as differences - in how we define the term. Our discussion highlights the need to expose ourselves to divergent worldviews, and in so doing, expand our own worldviews, too. We also find ourselves pushing the limits of our schedule - so be sure not to miss our third episode: Practice, Part Two, where we’ll attempt to wrap up our deep dive into all things practice.


A Neurophysiological Perspective on Practice


While first acknowledging a certain level of subjectivity in terms of defining practice, Christina brings her clinical training to the forefront and gets science-y with us right off the bat. To Christina, practice begins with a basic, rather literal definition: the repetitive application of a skill or procedure until it becomes habitual. Leaping off from that starting point, we can then view practice from a richer clinical perspective as it applies to mindfulness. A large and growing body of research demonstrates that regular practice of mindfulness meditation actually reroutes our neural pathways. This neural rerouting can have profound effects on our lives, optimizing our ability to tolerate discomfort, reduce anxiety, and learn and focus more effectively.


The Arbitrary Barrier Between Formal and Informal Practice


Patrick jumps in next, offering some nuanced views on the more colloquial understandings of the term practice. For him, the word initially conjures up a mix of emotions associated with being a classically trained musician. Namely? “Oh no, there goes my social life, there goes anything fun.” While it's a moment of levity, Patrick’s sentiment is also based in a feeling that most of us can relate to. This feeling of dread mixed with resentment - or perhaps just a general blah - relates to a narrow definition of practice as something that prepares one for a big performance. With this admittedly rigid view of practice, it's easy to understand how some may assume that mindfulness practice can only happen on the mat. Patrick helps drive our conversation away from this view of meditation as a performance or routine, instead opening a door for viewing mindfulness from a more expansive place.


Intention, Attention, Attitude

Rather than viewing mindfulness as the product of a rigid breathing practice, for example, we begin leaning further into the view that mindfulness is a far more fluid, informal, and everyday sort of practice. Clinical psychologist Shauna Shapiro has found there to be three core components to mindfulness: intention, attention, and attitude - or, the IAA Model of Mindfulness. This model is useful for further opening up our discussion to what it means to practice mindfulness off the mat. For Claudio, formally practicing meditation on the mat offers a more intentional space to enact self-compassion. To him, the central question concerning practice is: how do I make my entire life an area in which these qualities of mind are also present for others?


The Mindfulness vs Meditation Hang Up


In another highly relatable moment, Lance brings up how often he’s been the innocent bystander to others’ interchangeable use of the terms ‘mindfulness’ and ‘meditation.’ For once and for all, he asks, are they the same darn thing?


Here, Patrick brings up an excellent point in reminding us that the human brain loves tucking concepts away into neat little boxes. There can be moments of major discomfort, rooted in the sort of cognitive dissonance that occurs when we’re presented with two or more concepts which don’t seem to easily fit into their own neat little boxes. What happens when those boxy boundaries begin to blur? Well, we either fight it with more boxy boundaries, or we accept it as gracefully as we can. Hint: using a bit of mindfulness or meditation - whichever you’d like to call it - may help us all in that department.


Marketing Mindfulness


Having generally agreed that mindfulness and meditation may just remain uncomfortably unboxy in terms of their boundaries, Claudio moves the conversation forward by referring back to an experience he had with Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), explained to Claudio and other members of a workshop that he was hesitant to use the term ‘meditation’ in naming his groundbreaking program. Why?


In Boston during the late 1970’s, Kabat-Zinn recognized that meditation could be intimidating to average people. Introducing it into a clinical setting where it had never been used before also created a sense of discomfort. Instead, Kabat-Zinn opted to go with the term ‘mindfulness’ as a more palatable, approachable descriptor for what he sought to do. Claudio sees this clever play as a bit of marketing genius - and of the best possible kind. Rather than obstructing his audience from understanding the true intent behind MSBR, Kabat-Zinn used simple language to help frame his offering as something of benefit. Today, Claudio takes a page from Kabat-Zinn’s book in his own practice as an instructor, referring to the practice itself as ‘mindfulness meditation’. Likening mindfulness to training wheels, he suggests that new students may find ease in approaching mindfulness skills first - only to find under the guidance of their teacher that what they are practicing has been meditation, all along.


So, is it a clever marketing bait and switch? Or merely semantics?


Whether Formal or Informal Practice, May it be of Benefit


As we round out our initial discussion on the definition of practice, we recount that no matter the setting, no matter the teacher, and no matter the term, being left with tools to use off the cushion, skills to help ease the suffering and trauma we all experience in this thing called life, is what matters most. As it turns out, there’s no magic behind mindfulness, or meditation. In a way, we are brought back, full circle, to the more ordinary definitions of the term ‘practice’. Perhaps practice is a mode of being in the suffering, in the experience of life - intentionally, attentively, and repeatedly. Perhaps this practice can even become a healing habit. We’ll explore more in our third episode, so stay tuned.


Looking for help in your daily dance with suffering? Listen to the Mindfulness Off the Cushion podcast and learn how to be as alive as you can be while you have the chance!


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