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Sunday, February 19, 2017

What is Mindfulness? Quotations for Reflection and Discussion

Photo by namakuki for

by Catharine Hannay

What do we mean by 'mindfulness'?  Here are a variety of perspectives on mindfulness meditation, informal mindfulness practice, and nonjudgmental awareness. 

(Teachers, I don't necessarily suggest giving this whole long list to your students; I like to provide a lot of options so you can choose what's most appropriate for your particular context.)

Scroll to the bottom of the post for questions that can be used for personal reflection or as prompts for discussion and writing.

The Meaning of Mindfulness

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are:
“Paying attention, in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

Pema Chodron, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change
“Meditation is one form of mindfulness, but mindfulness is called by many names: attentiveness, nowness, and presence are just a few. Essentially, mindfulness means wakefulness—fully present wakefulness... paying attention to all the details of your life... The object or focus of mindfulness can be anything that brings us back to right where we are. If we’re out walking, the object of meditation could be the motion of our legs and feet. If we’re washing dishes, it could be our hands. We can bring mindfulness to anything—opening a door, washing our hair, making the bed.”

Bernard Glassman and Rick FieldsInstructions to the Cook
“Usually we function with a split between what we want to do and what we’re actually doing… But when we eliminate the gap between our expectations and what we’re doing, our energies all go into what we’re doing at the moment. We’re not wasting our energy on what we think we should be doing… The magic secret is just to do one thing at a time. We do what we’re doing when we do it… ‘When you walk, you walk.’ It’s that simple and powerful."

Ram Dass, Polishing the Mirror:

“You observe your behavior and your thoughts, enhancing your ability to live fully in the moment, to be here now… When there’s a task to do, you are the task, and the observer of the task. It’s not that you do it, it’s how you do it, where you are coming from as you act.”

Dr. Sam Himelstein, A Mindfulness-Based Approach to Working with High-Risk Adolescents

“I view the practice of mindfulness as the ability to be present and de-identified with thoughts, emotions, and sensations.” 

Dr. Dzung Vo, The Mindful Teen:

“For me personally, mindfulness practice boils down to two things: first, the art of joyful living—learning to enjoy my life more deeply, more fully—second, the art of handling stress... so that I don’t get overwhelmed.”

Dr. Amy Saltzman, A Still Quiet Place for Teens:
"Mindfulness is paying attention here and now, with kindness and curiosity, so that we can change our behavior."

Martha Beck, Finding Your Own North Star:

“Mindfulness [means] you do ordinary things with extraordinary attention… Try to focus so intensely on actual sensations that your thoughts about your experience disappear and only the experience itself remains.” 

Mindfulness Meditation

Sharon Salzberg, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation:
“I was a bit disappointed to discover that meditation wasn’t as exotic as I’d expected… Feel my breath!?... But I soon found out just how life-changing it would be simply to focus my attention on inhaling and exhaling in order to connect fully with my experience in a whole new way, one that allowed me to be kinder to myself and more open to others.”

Sharon Salzberg, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation:

“What Meditation Isn’t:
  • It isn’t a religion.
  • It doesn’t require special skills or knowledge.
  • It doesn’t demand a huge chunk of your time every day.
  • It doesn’t eliminate sadness or rough patches from your life.
  • It isn’t an attempt to stop thinking or only focus on positive thoughts.
  • You don’t have to renounce your opinions, goals, or passions. You don’t have to shun fun.
  • It’s not navel gazing.”

Thérèse Jacobs, Mindfulness and the Twelve Steps

“[When I went on retreat], there were simply no distractions. No TV, no telephone, no computer, no talking… With nowhere to go, I had to either tolerate my feelings or run away screaming. The process was simply to stay with my inner turmoil and breathe while my feelings wheedled or stormed. Sit on the meditation cushion and do nothing; let memories, thoughts, and feelings pass on through.”

Pema Chodron, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change:
“Using the breath as the object of meditation supports the mind’s natural capacity to be present. But the first thing most of us notice when we start meditating is how easily our mind wanders, how easily we’re distracted and become lost in planning and remembering. When the mind wanders, the breath serves as a home base we can always return to.”

Bernard Glassman and Rick Fields, Instructions to the Cook: A Zen Master’s Lessons on Living a Life That Matters
“Ready-made wisdom is not authentic wisdom but just a set of handed-down assumptions. Ready-made wisdom, like ready-made mixes, might look like the real thing, but it won’t be fresh, it won’t really sustain you, and it won’t taste as good. Most people who give you advice supply you with ready-made ingredients or tell you which ingredients to use. 
Authentic wisdom, on the other hand, cuts away our conditioning so that we can come up with our own solutions. It helps us create a meal based on our own ingredients. Meditation is a process that reveals our ingredients to us. So when people practice meditation, they are being led to find their own authentic wisdom. 
That’s why, when people ask me for advice, I don’t give them ready-made solutions, I always recommend meditation.” 

Nonjudgmental Awareness

Sharon Salzberg, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation
“Meditation teaches us to open our attention to all of human experience and all parts of ourselves... to focus and to pay attention to our experiences and responses as they arise, and to observe them without judging them... Once we notice these reflexive responses and how they undermine our ability to pay attention to the present moment, then we can make better, more informed choices. And we can respond to others more compassionately and authentically, in a more creative way.”

Thérèse Jacobs, Mindfulness and the Twelve Steps

“On the path of mindfulness, we do not make efforts to ‘rid’ ourselves of our imperfections, tearing them out, stomping on them and swearing never to act such-and-such way again. Nor do we design a rigid, perpetual self-improvement plan. Many attempts to remove our faults are but subtle acts of aggression, leading to further failure and shame. Rather, through meditation we notice the thoughts that generate our reactions, the feelings they evoke, and the actions that come about as a result. For the moment, we do nothing more than hold our frailty in the light of awareness.”

Pema Chodron, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change
“You might have an aching back, an upset stomach, panic, rage, impatience, calmness, joy—whatever it is, you can let it be there just as it is, without labeling it good or bad, without telling yourself you should or shouldn’t feel that way... The feeling itself doesn’t change. We just stop resisting it. We stop avoiding the unavoidable. We stop struggling.”

Pema Chodron, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change

"We’re not trying to eradicate thoughts; we’re just training ourselves not to be so enmeshed in them… It’s not that we can’t have views and opinions… It’s just that we don’t cling to those views… We hold onto our fixed ideas of 'this is how it is' and disparage any opposing views. But imagine what the world would be like if we could come to see our likes and dislikes and what we take to be intrinsically true as just our personal viewpoint.”

Book titles link to Amazon, just in case you'd like to know more about the sources of these quotes. receives no financial benefit from books ordered through links from this site.

If you're looking for even more quotations about mindfulness, try

Questions for Reflection and Discussion
  • Which one of these is your favorite quote?  Why?
  • Are there any quotes here that you don't agree with?  Why?
  • How is mindfulness similar to and different from other types of meditation and contemplative practices?
  • Do you agree that meditation is more effective than seeking advice from other people?
  • What does it mean to be 'nonjudgmental'?  Why do you think this can be challenging for many people?
  • What is your favorite way to practice mindfulness?
  • What are some additional mindfulness practices you could try?