Key principles for mindfulness practice

Image of pillars - accompanies article about key principles for mindfulness practice
Pure awareness transcends thinking. It allows you to step outside the chattering negative self-talk and your reactive impulses and emotions. It allows you to look at the world once again with open eyes. And when you do so, a sense of wonder and quiet contentment begins to reappear in your life.
— Mark Williams

One of my favourite parts of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme is introducing the seven attitudinal factors or principles for mindfulness practice.

The founder of the MBSR course, Jon Kabat-Zinn, created these and he often describes these as the seven pillars of mindfulness practice. They are:

  1. Non-judging
  2. Patience
  3. A beginner’s mind
  4. Trust
  5. Non-striving
  6. Acceptance
  7. Letting go.

These pillars are not independent of each other - they are interdependent and by developing one we are automatically building the others.

I always encourage participants to try these out whilst they are undertaking the MBSR programme, both in their experience of practicing mindfulness and also in their lives.

Here is an overview of each principle - as you read on, reflect on your responses and consider what one(s) interest you most:

1. Non-judging

As we start to practice mindfulness, we become aware of our mental habits, how distracted our minds truly are and the narrative we are continually running - one which is judging our experiences all the time.

As you start to tune into your mind, notice how often you judge your experience as good (and want to hold on to it), bad (and want to reject it) and neutral (not interested in it). Mindfulness is cultivated by assuming the stance of impartial witness to our own experience.

Here's an example: you'll notice early on in our practice that your mind has wandered. Rather then judging yourself for not being able to pay attention to your breath, simply take account of the fact that your mind has wandered and return your attention to your breath, with a mindset of compassion for yourself.

Through mindfulness we are learning to understand how we relate to our experience and see it how it is rather then how we want it to be.

2. Patience

This attitude is an understanding that things will only emerge in their own time. The truth is mindfulness takes time; there are no short cuts. Being patient with yourself is incredibly helpful when you notice that you are not being mindful and your mind is wandering. Creating new habits and pathways in your brain takes time and it is only through repetition, repetition and repetition that these new pathways become hard-wired.

So be patient with yourself: every time your mind is wandering, remember that you are strengthening this new habit of waking up to the present moment.

3. Beginner’s mind

'Beginner's mind' is the development of a mindset that is willing to see everything as though it is for the first time. It is as though we are seeing the world through the eyes of a child; just think about how in the present moment young children are.

In a way, we are resetting our experience and bringing a beginner’s mind to any experience that we are having - as a way of waking ourselves up and paying attention. So can you walk into your next meeting as though it is the first time you have seen your colleagues and been in that meeting room? Or could you walk through your front door as though it is the first time you have seen your partner and children? If you did this, what impact might it have to your attention and the way you are relating to your experience?

4. Trust

One aspect of trust is trusting in the practice of mindfulness itself. There is a great deal of scientific research available to demonstrate the impact of mindfulness training - so what would the impact be if we trusted what we are learning and the practices we are undertaking? By doing this what would we let go of? 

Secondly, through practicing mindfulness we are learning to listen more and more to our inner wisdom and ourselves. We are developing more objectivity and faith in the validity of our own thoughts, feelings and intuition.

5. Non-striving

We spend so much of our lives striving to achieve a goal, that often we are not truly present for the journey we are undertaking; rather we are judging where we are against the goal and comparing whether this is good or bad in terms of an ideal future state.

If we trust in the work we are undertaking, and holding a mindset of patience we may find ourselves more contented with this moment. It is a willingness to allow the present to be the way it is and for us to be the way we are. We are not trying to get anywhere or trying to fix problems, but rather attending to awareness of the actuality of experience.

6. Acceptance

When we accept our current situation, we are learning to allow things to be as they are without trying to change them or wishing them to be different. This does not mean that this is a passive response or resignation. We are in fact awake to what we are experiencing, and how we are relating to it; we are more conscious of how we are responding. This is a fundamental shift towards welcoming the difficult, altering radically our relationship with those things in our life that cause us hardship and pain.  When we are not resisting them, we are not creating our own suffering.

7. Letting go

This is a way of letting things be, of accepting things as they are. We let them be and in doing so, we let them go. Think about how often you may hold onto things in difficult events and the impact this has upon our minds, we often become very distracted, reactive and rigid in our thinking. The first step for us in letting go is to take a step back and observe what we are experiencing without judgement.

As you to learn about mindfulness and undertake training, you will come back to these principles time and time again. Formally we will do this on our mindfulness courses and informally throughout our day and lives.

Why not start now and choose one of the above attitudes to try: which one has most energy for you right now? How about holding this mindset for the rest of your day? What might happen in terms of how you are relating to your experience right now?

Source: Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn