When you hear the word ‘mindfulness’, what do you think of? Many people have similar ideas of what mindfulness entails, and yet there are many different definitions of this seemingly simple word.
For instance, some people see mindfulness simply as paying non-judgmental attention to the present moment, whereas others believe it is about cultivating loving awareness. Additionally, it is sometimes paired with qualities like alertness, equanimity, or intention.
Amidst these many different understandings of the term, it is possible to grasp the concept of mindfulness if we consider the question:
What are the three components of mindfulness?
Though mindfulness is associated with many different qualities, it is enough to begin with the three core components of what this word entails. From there, we will naturally discover why it is associated with many other qualities, such as compassion, intention, and equanimity.
By getting to know the three core elements of mindfulness, it then becomes possible to cultivate them. Let’s explore what these elements look like and how we can practice them.
The Three Components of Mindfulness
One common definition of mindfulness is as follows:
Mindfulness is the practice of paying non-judgmental attention to the present moment.
According to this definition, the three core elements of mindfulness are: attention, non-judgment, and acceptance. But what do these terms really mean and how do we cultivate them?
In order to practice mindfulness, it is necessary that we give the present moment our attention. Attention is the act of taking notice, or focusing our awareness on something.
There are many things we can give our attention to mindfully, such as the rhythm of the breath, sensations in the body, the color of the leaves on the tree outside, or the gentle flicker of a candle flame.
Some mindfulness practices cultivate awareness over attention. What’s the difference?
You can consider attention to be awareness directed towards a single object, such as the breath. Open awareness in mindfulness is the practice of noticing more broadly.
For instance, you might be mindful of the way your attention moves from object to object. So long as you are attentively noting the shift in your attention, this type of awareness is included within the practice of mindfulness.
How do you cultivate attention or mindful awareness? A great place to start is by closing your eyes and noticing the breath as it enters and exits your body.
Center your attention on a single part of your body, such as your nostrils, your chest, or your belly. Let your attention rest there as you notice what happens as you breathe. You do not need to look for anything in particular; simply observe.
The second core component of mindfulness is non-judgment.
To not judge is to refrain from evaluating our experience to be good or bad, right or wrong. It is about remaining open to things as they are rather than denying, suppressing, avoiding, or manipulating our experience to be something else.
To better understand what non-judgment looks like in practice, it can be helpful to note what non-judgment isn’t.
For example, let’s pretend that someone lied to us about something. In response, we may feel a wave of anger and betrayal move through the body and mind.
Non-judgment does not mean that we condone this behavior. Rather, it is an invitation for us to release the story about what happened and to tune into our present moment experience (in this case, the felt sensation of betrayal or anger) without evaluating or criticizing it. Remember, mindfulness takes place in the present moment.
To develop greater non-judgment, you might close your eyes and note what thoughts, sensations, or emotions are moving through you.
As you observe various happenings in your body or mind, try to refrain from labelling any of it as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘fair’, or ‘unfair’.
For example, if you notice that negative self-talk comes up, refrain from labelling your thoughts as ‘right’ and from deeming those thoughts to be ‘wrong’. They simply are. Just notice what is there. If your experience is difficult to sit with, send yourself words of compassion for extra support.
Lastly, the third component of mindfulness is acceptance.
In fact, acceptance goes hand-in-hand with non-judgment. Acceptance means to allow. In mindfulness practice, it is about refraining from arguing with what is happening and letting things be as they are. Can we allow our experience to be what it is?
This can be difficult to practice at times because we often deny our experience or try to ‘fix’ it in some way.
Many people ask, “How can I accept something that I don’t like or that is painful?” But acceptance is not about liking what is present or agreeing with something that has happened. It is about acknowledging the reality of our experience.
For instance, it is possible to accept grief without liking whatever situation led to this emotion. It is less about accepting what has happened in the past (though mindfulness tends to lead to this form of acceptance) and more about allowing what is happening for us right now.
To enhance your ability to accept your experience as it is, consider a mild inconvenience that occurred recently. Perhaps it rained on your day off. Perhaps you lost your transit card. Consider if it is possible to accept that experience without liking it. Can you accept it simply because it happened?
Practice this in the present moment the next time some small inconvenience arises. As you practice acceptance for the minor challenges, your capacity to accept life as it is will grow.
Radical Acceptance is the willingness to experience ourselves and our lives as it is. Tara Brach
Additional Qualities Associated With Mindfulness
As mentioned, there are many qualities that naturally fit into this understanding of mindfulness. Some important ones to consider are as follows:
Equanimity – Remaining calm in the face of difficulty is largely associated with mindfulness. This arises due to the cultivation of non-judgment and acceptance of our experience as it is.
Compassion – When we accept our experience exactly as it is, a sense of compassion often arises quite naturally. When fear, resistance, and judgment dissolve, loving-kindness often shows its face.
Intention – Mindfulness is not about setting intentions, but it is often born out of a desire – an intention – to open up to a deeper truth about our experience. Mindfulness also tends to shape our intentions.
Non-Striving – Another key element of mindfulness is non-striving, which invites us to ‘do’ less and ‘be’ more. When we practice mindfulness, we embrace things as they are – not how we want them to be.
A few tips were offered to help you cultivate the three components of mindfulness.
In addition, you can enhance your embodiment of mindfulness by: keeping an open mind, cultivating curiosity towards your experience, and intending to see things as they truly are.
Whether you are practicing mindfulness formally or informally, the three components (and the other noted qualities of mindfulness) can be returned to again and again.
Let go of concern for not being mindful in the past and release your attachment to being mindful in the future.
Begin by being right here – right now.