Key principles for mindfulness practice

“Look at other people and ask yourself if you are really seeing them or just your thoughts about them…Without knowing it, we are coloring everything, putting our spin on it all.”

— Jon Kabat-Zinn

When we practice mindfulness, we are consciously choosing to cultivate a present moment awareness — and yet we soon realize this is very challenging. When we meet experiences in our daily life, our mind’s habit is to react to the fact that this is not how things were meant to be.

The founder of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, Jon Kabat-Zinn, introduces us to nine ‘attitudinal factors’ (originally there were seven); he often describes these as the pillars of mindfulness; attitudes that we can bring to our life.

“The two parts of genuine acceptance —seeing clearly and holding our experience with compassion—are as interdependent as the two wings of a great bird. Together, they enable us to fly and be free.”

— Tara Brach

We can think of mindfulness practice as having 2 wings: one is present moment awareness, and the other is these 9 attitudes; they come together in terms of how we are meeting and relating to this experience in this moment.

Whether we are practising formally or in everyday life when we are with our children, family or peers and team members, these attitudes provide us with a way of deepening both formal and informal practice and our embodied understanding of mindfulness.

The nine attitudes are:

1.  Non-judging

2.  Patience

3.  A beginner’s mind

4.  Trust

5.  Non-striving

6.  Acceptance

7.  Letting go

8.  Gratitude

9.  Generosity

These pillars are not independent of each other — they are interdependent, and by developing one we are automatically deepening our knowing of the others. These attitudes are all embedded in each other and point us to a different understanding of what the root of mindfulness truly is: heartfulness. 

Participants undertaking mindfulness training with us are encouraged to explore these for themselves, both in their formal practice of mindfulness exercises, and also in their personal and professional lives.

Here is an overview of each principle: as you read on, reflect on your own responses to each and consider how these may support you in the way that you are living your life:

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 than judging yourself for not being able to pay attention to your breath, simply take account of the fact that your mind has wandered, relax back into your body (without any commentary) and return your attention to your breath, with a mindset of kindness and compassion for yourself.

Through mindfulness we are learning to understand how we relate to our experience, and see it how it is rather than 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 that 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: mindfulness is a practice of forgetting and remembering. Every time your mind is wandering, and you notice and come back to the practice, 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 from autopilot and paying attention.

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 and attending to the people in your life?

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 practising 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. We are learning to trust ourselves.

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 practice we are undertaking and by 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. By doing this, we experience that it will come to pass.

8. Gratitude

One area that participants of our courses discuss with us regularly is that through practising mindfulness they become more grateful for their lives.

Yet often, as a result of us being on automatic pilot, we often take for granted the miracle of life — that we are breathing and that our body is functioning right in this moment.

When we bring gratitude to this present moment and notice this amazing body and that we are alive, our experience changes. This attitude is a way of reminding us of this.

9. Generosity

When we authentically give time and attention to others, it deepens our experience of interconnectivity.

Prioritising someone else’s needs over your own, and giving what will make them happy, has been shown time and time again in studies to have strong association with psychological health and wellbeing.

What have you noticed?  

So now after reading these, what have you noticed?

How has this impacted your understanding of mindfulness practice?

How might these effect the way you are showing up in your life?

As you undertake training in mindfulness, you will come back to these principles time and time again. We encourage people training with on our mindfulness courses to do this formally and informally throughout their 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?

Every time you sit down to practice, pause and remember the metaphor of the two wings of mindfulness practice, one being present moment awareness and the other being these attitudes (how we meet and relate to the experience).


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