The Language of Mindfulness

“Few of us ever live in the present. We are forever anticipating what is to come or remembering what has gone.”
― Louis L’Amour

Last weekend I surprised myself, during a rich and playful discussion, with a sudden wave of uprising frustration. I was participating in one of my favorite annual events, Evolutionary Play-ground, an advanced workshop facilitated by Kathlyn Hendricks. The spacious room, typically used as a Russian Orthodox Church, was filled with many of my favorite people. It was the last day of our 3-day extravaganza of playing with abandon while unwinding obsolete adaptive strat-egies and opening to new evolutionary ways of being. How much laughter can one girl enjoy?

Then the discussion turned to mindfulness. Within a few moments I felt the heat rising as the muscles in my core tensed. Ahhhh, an old adaptive strategy! Whenever I would feel discord with the outer world, my inner ‘manager’ would push the red alert button and take active steps to quell anything that might make ripples in my relationships. In the past, this strategy worked well, keeping my mouth shut and keeping me, at least sometimes, off the radar of my easily en-raged father. Nowadays, I am creating new patterns that invite me to honor my inner responses while still maintaining connection and interaction with others.

I blurted out, “Grrr. The word ‘mindfulness’ is not referring to our limited concept of mind!” Formerly a terrifying act, speaking out, but now no longer an unusual occurrence for me. Ahhh, the freedom!

As I spoke, uninhibited, I surprised myself with the depth of my appreciation for my Buddhist Psychology education. Here’s the gist of what I uncovered.

When I was at Naropa University, earning my Master’s degree, over 20 years ago, Buddhism was not yet a part of the general culture of America. Most Americans had not yet heard the term ‘mindfulness,’ and Yoga classes were not yet offered at local YMCAs all over the country, including small town America. Naropa was founded by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, one of the first and most influential Tibetan Buddhist teachers in America. He died in 1987 before I got to Naropa, but not before the many seeds he planted began to take root. Over the past 24 years, I have witnessed an amazing evolution as eastern thought has seeped more and more into the American consciousness—even in my own family. Shortly before he died, my father, a retired New York businessman, asked me to teach him to meditate. He said he had tried without much luck. That was probably 15 years ago and certainly did foreshadow the changing awareness of Americans regarding mindfulness.

My instructors at Naropa often used the term ‘Big Mind’ when referring to that which is beyond our limited concept of mental processes. This inspired me to translate mindfulness to ‘Big Mindfulness.’ Actually, I prefer the term ‘Vast’ to ‘Big’ since it conveys the expansion I feel when I fully bring my attention to the present moment. Indeed, language is an essential tool. I cannot imagine my life without it. For that matter, how would I write this blog? That being said, language is also terribly limited in its ability to transmit actual experience. Think about trying to verbalize a truly rich experience—for example, the feeling of looking out over the edge of the Grand Canyon. Or try describing a passionate sexual experience. Although words offer a reference point, a pointer of sorts, they are completely inadequate for truly ‘sharing’ an actual experience. Having never been to the Grand Canyon myself, when someone describes that experience to me, I have to imagine my own experience of something similarly inspiring. For me that would be standing on the prow of a ship as we slowly floated for miles and miles through Glacier Bay, Alaska. For 5 hours my eyes were filled with tears and my heart with wonder as I basked in an expanse of natural beauty that I could not have imagined. Water, glaciers, and mountains appeared to spread out toward infinity in all directions – 360 degrees of nature. Wow! And as skilled as I may (or may not) be in writing about my experience, I could never adequately ‘give’ you my experience. And as memory fades, I can no longer give it back to myself, the way I once could.

The same issue applies in trying to talk about mindfulness. It is not something to be solely dis-cussed but something to be experienced. The word offers little more than an idea. To truly grasp mindfulness, we need to invite the experience.

So let’s all take a breath and notice how our bodies feel, now, in this moment. I am aware of my breath, and my feet, and the sweet sound of the dog snoring across the room. I can feel my fingers on the keyboard, and the words flowing out as I type. I also notice the pre-dusk lighting outside my window and the first rumblings of hunger in my belly. There is a slight pressure that tells me it is time to get up and relieve my bladder. I have a choice, the beautiful choice, to move my attention toward any of these experiences, putting more or less awareness anywhere I choose. What are you noticing?

This is but one example of Vast Mind. And I notice it is putting a big smile on my face right now because this luscious attention to my present moment is a delicious experience. And, how lucky I am that life is made up of billions of such moments.

I want to offer a quick aside for those of you plagued by your inner critic. The more present I am, the less attention I have for my critical thoughts–’who wants to read what you write? You don’t know enough to talk about mindfulness. You’re not a Buddhist teacher,’ etc. Those thoughts fade and my attention finds a myriad of pleasant sensations to tend to instead.

At Naropa, we both studied and practiced mindfulness. I remember the dharma talks that would happen in the evenings while I was on a 3-month meditation retreat. I looked forward to them. I must admit, that the primary reason was that, on evenings without dharma talks, we simply meditated for those two evening hours 7-9 pm. After meditating from 7-8 am, then again from 9-12, 1-3, and 4-6 pm, I was happy to be cleaning toilets from 3-4, or else prepping dinner or doing whatever other chores we got to do during that hour. After such a day, an evening dharma talk was as exciting as seeing the Rolling Stones in concert!

Dharma talks are full of space—long pauses where nothing is said. There is an unspoken invitation to ‘feel deeply into’ the ideas being shared while also being fully aware of your current physical, emotional, and mental experiences. My sense is that dharma talks were a way for me to expand my meditative experience into ‘real life.’ How much rich awareness could I just sit with while simultaneously processing the ideas being shared? There is another dynamic that happens too during a powerful dharma talk, one that is is also challenging for me to put into words. I have heard it called ‘transmission’ and also ‘osmosis’. It happens when a speaker shares and the listener absorbs that speaker’s experience. Prior to the evolution of language, I imagine humans used this to communicate quite readily. Grog would not need words as he ran back into the cave terrified and miming the actions of a Grizzly Bear. His wife and children would absorb his fear and respond accordingly without needing to hear, “Quick! Run, hide, or play dead!” It is not unlike our modern day game of charades except with dire consequences. Scientists have discovered that we have mirror neurons that actually mimic, inside our brains, what we see in others. This is one explanation for why we smile automatically when someone smiles at us. We automatically ‘mirror’ their experience. So the ‘trick’ involved in an effective dharma talk is for the listener to feel what the speaker is simultaneously articulating. This is also the key to being a good story teller. The words being spoken must come directly from the experience rather than simply being used to describe the experience. The speaker must be calling it up in real time, a subtle yet key nuance.

Before concluding, let’s take a look at the definitions of ‘mind’ and ‘mindfulness’. The primary Oxford dictionary definition of mind supports this broader sense of the mind not being limited to a solely mental experience. “The element of a person that enables them to be aware of the world and their experiences, to think, and to feel; the faculty of consciousness and thought”

However, has a third definition that clearly limits the realm of the mind to the mental process: ‘intellect or understanding, as distinguished from the faculties of feeling and willing; intelligence.’

According to Wikipedia, ‘mindfulness is “the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment” which can be trained by meditational practices derived from Buddhist anapanasati. These three different sources offer variations on the meaning of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is as simple as being present with what is. But it is also complex enough to cause a disagreement of definition in modern day, as well as to have moved the Buddha to speak about four foundations of mindfulness. These have been translated as mindfulness of the body, mindfulness of feelings or sensations, mindfulness of mind or consciousness, and mindfulness of mental phenomena or mental objects. These ideas are complex enough that there are entire books written about these four foundations. Robert Walker, an early student of Choygam Trungpa Rinpoche, in describing his teachings, articulates that “Trungpa Rinpoche’s teachings on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness are an intuitive approach rather than a contemplative-intellectual one. In this sense, practice — both on the cushion and in everyday life — takes place in the moment, in the midst of the rushing stream of experience. There is no detached reference point or peanut gallery to take a step back and consider what one is going through philosophically. In this context, both meditation practice and awareness practice in everyday life are based on being with the simplicity of the immediateness of experience.” (

Learning about mindfulness can be likened to learning a new language. Some people want to learn only enough to travel with ease in a new country, to be able to ask for direction, order food, and find the bathroom. Others want to be able to go to a bar, hang out and talk with the locals. They care about understanding and being understood but are not too concerned with sounding erudite or being skilled with conjugating verbs accurately. Still others are excited to learn the nuances of grammar, pronunciation, and sentence structure. They want to read and write in this new language, as well as speak fluently. There are others still who want to under-stand the roots of how this language has evolved over time in relation to the culture of the people who speak it. At its most simple, mindfulness is available to everyone in every moment. And perhaps at its most complex, studying Sanskrit would facilitate reading the myriad of original texts that explore its depths and breadth. Remember as you read this that these are merely words pointing to experience. To read them simply offers an idea about what they are. If you are interested in more, find a good mediation teacher and give yourself the experience, both in meditation practice and in daily life.

by Lesile A Chertok