How to Practice Mindfulness Properly: The Art of Just Knowing

Feb 4, 2024

Mindfulness & Meditation

Mindfulness has become so popular across the world in the last few years. 

Everyone seems to know something about it!

There are Mindfulness classes are popping up in every city, town or village, and workshops, retreats and apps can be found with a quick click or swipe. 

But what IS mindfulness, really? And how do you practice it properly?

Well, it depends who you ask. . .

close up portrait shot of woman with serene face

The Fine Line

The terms ‘mindfulness’ and ‘meditation’ are used so interchangeably these days that even those who think they know the difference don’t always realize that when they’re talking about one, they’re actually talking about the other!

It’s especially true in the case of people thinking they’re talking about mindfulness when what they’re actually describing is meditation. As I’ll describe later in this post, there’s a very fine line between both.

It’s also the case that mindfulness can be considered a type of meditation.

Confused yet?

Probably.

So, before we go any further, let’s take a moment to quickly sort out what’s what in terms of the language, so that when we use the terms we actually know what we mean.

Two Main Types

In short, there are two main types of ‘meditation’:

The first is Mindfulness Meditation, which is also often called Insight Meditation, or Vipassana.(Vipassana is a Pali term; Pali is an ancient Indian language which is no longer spoken, aside from when in relation to Buddhism). 

The other main type is Tranquility Meditation, or Samatha (again, that’s the Pali name for it).

It’s the type most people think of when you say the word ‘meditation’, the one where you sit down on a cushion cross legged, focus your attention on one thing and try your best to bliss out. 

Okay, now that I’ve outlined both, I need to explain to you why the line between the two is very subtle, more subtle than most people think.

It’s this subtlety in the practice that causes some of the confusion.

Sometimes people slip from one type of practice into the other without realizing, and sometimes they THINK they’ve been doing one type all along but don’t realize that’ve been doing the other!

It usually happens usually in the case of people who think they are practicing Mindfulness (but are actually doing Tranquility Meditation).

I’ll try my best to explain exactly what I mean. . .

Authentic Mindfulness Practice

The type of mindfulness I’d like to share with you might not align with your current understanding of what mindfulness is.

It doesn’t mean that the type of things you associate with mindfulness are necessarily ‘wrong’ but they may well be different from what I’ll call Original Mindfulness, the type of mindfulness practiced originally in India and developed by the Buddha.

As I’ve already said, it’s often also called Vipassana.

This type of mindfulness goes beyond the idea of just trying to bliss out, listening to guided meditations, or attempting to cultivate an artificial sense of calm.

Those are all actually forms of Tranquility Meditation, as you’re fixing your mind on something — an object, a visualization or an idea, or a guide telling you what to do. 

Original Mindfulness is different.

Original Mindfulness is centered on one very simple concept: “Just knowing.” 

There’s no need to fix your mind on an object, imagine anything, listen to anything, or force yourself to stay calm or peaceful. The art of being truly mindful lies in observing without interference — and just knowing.

It’s a counter-intuitive practice really, because the only way to make progress in Original Mindfulness is to not DO anything.

As soon as you start any kind of ‘doing’ — any kind of fixing on something, any kind of thinking — you’ve tipped the balance towards ‘meditation‘, not ‘mindfulness. . .

And that’s the fine line I was talking about.

The Power of Noticing

Because so many of us come from cultures where we’ve always made progress by thinking and by DOING, not doing anything at all in order to get results seems very weird.

Unsurprisingly, it’s REALLY hard to do!

To practice mindfulness authentically, all you need to do is observe what’s happening.

That’s it.

You could start by observing your breath.

However, when you do so, make sure you don’t fix your mind on the breath and follow it closely as you trace its path entering and leaving your body — that’s Tranquility Meditation.

Instead, just be aware of the breath and the body.

A helpful way to start is by imagining that you’re watching someone else breathing in or out. 

This technique helps create some degree of detachment between your mind and body and helps to dissolve the sense of ‘me’. 

Try practicing this way and just observing the body — not ‘you’ — breathing naturally.

Notice how the physical body moves as it breathes. 

But don’t change anything or interfere.

Don’t analyze.

Just observe. Just know. . .

Once you have settled into observing the body, you might also begin to notice the different thoughts and emotions entering the mind.

If your mind wanders, just notice your mind wandering.

Don’t try and bring it back to focus on anything in particular, just know that it has wandered.

If you can, try to notice when all the different thoughts, feelings, emotions, desires and other sensations pop up in your mind — but don’t get wrapped up in them, or try to get rid of them either.

Just be with whatever is there.

Remember: The art of Mindfulness is doing nothing at all.

Start Practicing Mindfulness Throughout The Day

Making time to find a quiet space and practice mindfulness is important, especially when you first begin.

However, it’s also important to begin practicing mindfulness throughout the day by observing the body and mind as they go through their natural everyday activities

It’s hard at first as there are so many distractions and your mind hasn’t yet been trained well enough.

BUT, if you practice regularly, your mind will quite quickly remember to keep coming back to watch itself and the body. 

Just like water dripping slowly into a glass over time, no moments of your practice are wasted.

Even if you manage to observe neutrally for a few seconds a day, that’s better than nothing. 

Every moment of practice is important and contributes to your overall progress.

Mindfulness Meditation & the Shadow of Desires

We all have desires, but most of us don’t realize their true nature or just how many we have.

The truth is we are fighting with our desires almost all the time, day AND night. 

It’s easy to think of our desires as just being the obvious ones — like wanting to have some kind of object, or lusting after someone etc. — but the truth is, desires can be much more subtle than that.

If we look closely at what’s happening in our mind, we see that it’s constantly being pushed and pulled around as we try to hold on to the things that bring us pleasure and get rid of things that cause us pain. 

In other words, we’re bullied by our desires.

The Shadow of Desires

Just as shadows engulf things in darkness, our desires cast long shadows in our mind.

They overlay so many areas of our life with a pervasive and subtle type of tension as we struggle from moment-to-moment to feel contented and happy.

Most of us live in these shadows most of our waking lives without even realizing it.

The reality is, we’re usually in a state of flux as we try to get rid of negative feelings or emotions and gain pleasurable feelings or emotions — and then try our best to maintain them.

And that causes tremendous stress in our minds.

That trying is a type of wanting, and wanting is synonymous with desiring.

In today’s modern world where consumerism is king and we’re brainwashed into thinking we need so much to be happy, our minds are filled with more shadows than ever before.

Rarely are we completely neutral.

And never are we completely happy. . .

Illuminated path through forest

Mindful Liberation: A Path to True Happiness

At this point, you might be wondering:

If we’re still living in the shadows of our desires and meditating by trying to control the mind and make it tranquil, how can we say we’re practicing mindfulness?

The answer is: We can’t.

Only by letting go and doing nothing but impassively observing our own body and mind can we say that we are truly, authentically mindful. 

In the realm of everyday life, we exist in the shadow of our desires and are bullied by our own emotions.

But in the realm of real mindfulness, desires fade away altogether, releasing us from the darkness cast by their shadows and enabling us to see things clearly.

The heightened awareness we experience opens the door to learning about the true reality of our minds, which in turn opens the door to wisdom.

And wisdom is the spring from which True Happiness flows.

There is No Way to Happiness – Happiness is the Way

– Thich Nhat Hanh

The essence of practicing mindfulness properly lies in the simplicity of “knowing” in the present moment.

Observing without judgment and being present in each moment liberates the mind from the delusion of desires and unlocks the door to True Happiness.

So, take a moment. . . breathe. . . and simply know.

Therein lies the profound beauty of mindfulness.

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