Three Core Elements of Mindfulness
Mindfulness comprises three core elements: intention, attention, and attitude. Intention involves knowing why we are doing what we are doing: our ultimate aim, our vision, our aspiration. Attention involves attending fully to the present moment instead of being pulled into the past or future. Attitude, or how we pay attention, enables us to stay open, kind, and curious. These three elements are not separate—they are interwoven, each informing and feeding back into the others. Mindfulness is this moment-to-moment process.
The first core component of mindfulness is intention. Intention is simply knowing why we are doing what we are doing. When we have discerned our intentions and are able to connect with them, our intentions help motivate us, reminding us of what is truly important.
Discerning our intention involves inquiring into our deepest hopes, desires, and aspirations. In chapter one, we asked you to make a list of the qualities and capacities you hope your children develop. Reflect on this list now and ask yourself, “Is this truly my list? Or are these qualities society has told me are important, rather than qualities I authentically hope for for my child?” This reflection can help you with the important work of teasing out your unconscious beliefs about what a good or happy person is from your more consciously chosen values and aspirations for your life and for your children. Listen deeply for the answers, allowing them to arise organically. This deep listening, with trust in the process and the timing, allows your truth to emerge at its own pace. Mindful attention to our own intentions helps us begin to bring unconscious values to awareness and decide whether those values are really the ones we want to pursue.
Intention, in the context of mindfulness, is not the same as (and does not include) striving or grasping for certain outcomes for our children or ourselves. Rather, as meditation teacher and psychotherapist Jack Kornfield puts it, “Intention is a direction, not a destination” (personal communication, 2012). We step readily in the direction our intention points, but we step lightly, with open eyes, ears, and heart as well as the consciousness that life has its own say in the matter (whatever the matter may be) and that there is much we have yet to learn.
The second fundamental component of mindfulness is attention. Remember, mindfulness is about seeing clearly, and if we want to see clearly, we must be able to pay attention to what is here, now, in this present moment. Paying attention involves observing and experiencing our moment-to-moment experience. What is interesting is that as you begin to pay attention, you realize how much of the time you are tuned out, spaced out, not present. For example, how many times have you read a sentence over again because you really didn’t take in the meaning the first time? Or driven somewhere only to arrive without remembering anything about the drive? The human mind is often referred to as a “monkey mind,” swinging from thought to thought as a monkey swings from limb to limb.
Mindfulness is a tool that helps us tame and train our mind so that our attention becomes stable and focused, and attention is the component of mindfulness that allows this focus.
Often, as we try to pay attention, our attention becomes tense and contracted. This is because we mistakenly think we have to be stressed or vigilant to focus our attention in a rigorous way. However, the meditation traditions teach us of a different kind of attention, a “relaxed alertness” that involves clarity and precision without stress or vigilance (Wallace 2006). This relaxed alertness is the kind of attention that is essential to mindfulness. Mindful attention is also deep and penetrating; as Bhikkhu Bodhi notes, “[W]hereas a mind without mindfulness ‘floats’ on the surface of its object the way a gourd floats on water, mindfulness sinks into its object the way a stone placed on the surface of water sinks to the bottom” (Wallace 2006).
Attitude, the third core component of mindfulness, comes into play once we have learned to intentionally pay attention in the present moment. When we do so, we may notice something: our mind is constantly judging. The attitude with which we pay attention is essential to mindfulness. For example, attention can have a cold, critical quality, or an open-hearted, compassionate quality. The latter is what brings out the best of our humanity and our parenting, and it is what we are talking about when we speak in terms of mindfulness.
Attending without bringing the attitudinal qualities of curiosity, openness, acceptance, and love (COAL; Siegel 2007) into the practice may result in an attention that is condemning or shaming of inner (or outer) experience—yours or your child’s. This may well have consequences contrary to the intentions of the practice; for example, we may end up cultivating patterns of criticism and striving instead of equanimity and acceptance.
These attitudes of mindfulness do not alter our experience but simply contain it. For example, if while we are practicing mindfulness impatience arises, we note the impatience with acceptance and kindness. We don’t try to substitute these qualities for the impatience, or use them to make the impatience disappear. The attitudes are not an attempt to make things be a certain way, but an attempt to relate to whatever is in a certain way. By intentionally bringing the attitudes of COAL, we relinquish the habit of striving for pleasant experiences, or of pushing aversive experiences away. Instead, we attend to whatever is here. Doing so within a context of curiosity, openness, acceptance, and love not only makes it much easier to stay present, it can also transform our parenting.
Note that while mindfulness allows and accepts whatever is present, it also discerns between wholesome and unwholesome. For example, through the lens of mindfulness you can see that your daughter is throwing sand at her friend and causing harm. You accept that this is what is happening, and also notice your emotional response (anger, frustration, embarrassment). You regulate your emotions and make a skillful choice to firmly remove your daughter from the situation, without removing your love or harming your relationship with her or yourself.
It may be useful to you to think of mindfulness as a presence of heart as well as mind. In fact, the Japanese kanji for mindfulness is composed of two symbols, the top meaning presence and the bottom translated as “heart” or “mind.” Mindfulness involves bringing heartfulness to each moment—bringing our full aliveness and care to all of our experiences. This enriches not only our own lives, but the lives of our children as well.
This article is excerpted with permission from Mindful Discipline: A Loving Approach to Setting Limits and Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, New Harbinger Publications (June 1, 2014).