More Than Being Present

Originally posted as “There’s More To Mindfulness Than Simply Living In The Moment” at

Imagine you’re cooking some soup and, upon tasting it, you feel it has too much salt. What might you do to improve the taste? Add more salt, right? Of course!

But then, that makes the soup even more salty, which means even more salt must be needed. It’s obvious, really.

My apologies to any cooks out there who, by now, might be shouting, “Eh? Are you mad?!” at their newspaper. To balance the taste, there are a range of ingredients you could add to the salty soup – the last thing you’d add is more salt, silly boy.

A similar frustration arises in me whenever I read or hear someone define mindfulness as “being aware of the present moment”, “not judging what is”, or “being in the zone”.

Once upon a time, a security guard was helping his employers prepare for their holiday. They reminded him to watch their property and to be aware of anything that may be amiss while they’re gone.

Two weeks later, the guard’s employers returned to find their home had been ransacked. In complete shock, they called the guard, “We told you to watch our property! Didn’t you see the thieves break in and steal our valuable possessions?!”

The guard replied, “Yes. I paid attention to the thieves going into the house, and I paid attention to them leaving with your possessions. I was extremely observant.”

From this hypothetical example, we can see there’s much more to being mindful than simply being “in the present moment”. In the early Buddhist texts, the Buddha never mentions the present moment, but talks about giving “appropriate attention” to our mindfulness.

One of the common issues that comes with modern teaching of mindfulness is the idea that we should simply be aware of the present, placing no judgment on whatever arises, and to “let go” of anything – uncomfortable thoughts, feelings or sensations.

Approaching mindfulness in this way is a passive practice that’s likely to lead to few results in terms of cultivating qualities of concentration, focus, alertness, peace and contentment. To make positive changes to our mental states, thoughts and behaviours, of course we need to be aware of what’s happening, but that’s only one ingredient to being mindful. If we simply try to be more aware – as with adding more salt to the soup – it will surely cause more problems than solutions.

In a short essay on mindfulness, the Buddhist monk Ajahn Thanissaro touches on two other ingredients, equanimity and patience, that can help us to better understand ourselves and how we operate.

He writes, “Equanimity means learning to put aside your preferences so that you can watch what’s actually there. Patience is the ability not to get worked up over the things you don’t like, to stick with difficult situations even when they don’t resolve as quickly as you want them to.

“But in establishing mindfulness you stay with unpleasant things not just to accept them but to watch and understand them. Once you’ve clearly seen that a particular quality like aversion or lust is harmful for the mind, you can’t stay patient or equanimous about it.

“You have to make whatever effort is needed to get rid of it and to nourish skilful qualities in its place by bringing in other factors of the path: right resolve and right effort.”

Had our diligent security guard received thorough instructions from his employers, he would have resolved to put a stop to the burglary and made the right effort to call the police to have the thieves apprehended.

In a nutshell, mindfulness might be defined as the practice of being aware and knowing the appropriate attention required and action to be taken in any given situation. Developing mindfulness is a great way of dealing with the stresses and strains life throws at us, but results will be few and far between if it’s not understood properly and taken to mean that we’re simply to remain in a state of non-judgmental acceptance.

Indeed, mindfulness training brings a number of benefits to the table, such as a stronger immune system and better psychological responses to stress, as well as an increased ability in rational judgment where we learn to respond rather than react to our thoughts, feelings and emotions.

If you find yourself interested in mindfulness training at any time, it’s a fantastic practice to take up, but do make sure check that the training you receive goes much deeper than breathing exercises and letting go of negative emotions. That way, you’ll avoid any frustration that comes with poor teaching, and instead gain a much more beneficial experience that provides you with the tools to navigate any challenging times that arise.

Sandy Clarke has been a keen practitioner of meditation and contemplation for the past 16 years, and believes that the better we understand ourselves and our emotions, the more likely we are to cultivate a positive outlook and sense of contentment.