The Three Key Elements of Mindfulness

In order to simplify the learning and application of mindfulness, we’ve identified three key elements: Being Aware, Being Nonjudgmental; Being Nonreactive. To equate these to bicycle riding, they’d be: balance, movement, and knowing how to stop!

the 3 key elements of mindfulnessIF YOU do some research into mindfulness you’ll come across a great many definitions, phrases, terms and explanations. My own efforts to produce a summary from the book Mindfulness for Dummies produced the following list:

    • Paying attention on purpose;
    • Being in the present moment;
    • Infusing your being with qualities:
      • kindness (compassion, warmth, friendliness),
      • curiosity,
      • acceptance;
    • Translation from Indian (Sanskrit) word Sati, which means:
      • Awareness (being conscious, and being conscious of being conscious; also of inner and outer experiences),
      • Attention (focused awareness; consciously directing your attention),
      • Remembering (becoming aware of the need to be aware once your attention has drifted);
    • Japanese character combines the words for “mind” and “heart”, implying “awareness from the heart”;
    • Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn: “Mindfulness can be cultivated in a specific way, that is, in the present moment, and as non-reactively, non-judgementally and openheartedly as possible.” This introduces the following aspects:
      • Non-reactive (to react is automatic, which implies no choice, and may not necessarily be the best for you or for others, eg. defensiveness, criticism of self/others versus responding, which means consciously considering and choosing a response that is “better” for all involved),
      • Non-judgemental (not seeing things as good or bad, or through the filter of personal judgements based on past conditioning, but “as they are”),
      • Openhearted (not having to change who you are, but still being able to bring qualities of kindness, compassion, warmth, friendliness to your experience);
    • Dr Shauna Shapiro of Santa Clara University:
      • Intention (intention sets the scene for what unfolds in the practice itself—it may begin as stress reduction, then evolve into “greater understanding of thoughts and emotions” and eventually to “being kind and compassionate”),
      • Attention (paying attention),
      • Attitude (in a particular way);
    • A process and a set of practices (the journey, not the destination).

As you can see, it can take quite some mental gymnastics to get your head around all of that, let alone apply it in daily life.

In an effort to simplify this into a set of simple, recognisable and memorable steps that could be easily applied, Colinda and I identified the three key elements of mindfulness that you will learn about and which provide the guiding framework for this book and for the live and online program.

The three key elements of mindfulness

These key elements are:

    1. Having deliberate awareness (paying attention on purpose);
    2. Being nonjudgemental (not seeing things as good or bad, nor through the filter of personal judgements based on past conditioning, but rather seeing things “as they are”);
    3. Being nonreactive (to react is automatic, which implies no choice, and may not necessarily be the best for you or for others).

Section B of the book defines and explain these three key elements in their general sense. In Section C, these elements provide the framework for the application of mindfulness into various contexts, like emotion regulation, handling stress and building resilience, complexity and decision-making, creating and sustaining the state of flow, and authentic being and relating.

Just in case the question arises for you, we have not specified “being openhearted”, “being compassionate”, or “lovingkindness” as a key element, as we say that those states arise out of practising the other three—in particular, being nonjudgemental—which are more gettable and practical. There is always the risk, too, of overidentifying with one of those aspects of mindfulness, and developing an ego state around it. For example, you might see someone go around preaching how everyone should just chill and be openhearted, the way they are, and that’s not what we’re after.

We say that the ability to autogenerate those states develops naturally and authentically after one has practiced and become familiar with being nonjudgemental and nonreactive at a practical level. Those states are also mentioned specifically in the chapter on authentic being and relating.

The three key elements related to bicycle riding

Once you’ve ridden a bicycle, you will naturally discover that balance is easier when you are moving, which comes about by pedalling. And the thing that makes you most comfortable with moving is knowing how to stop!

You could say, therefore, that these are the three key elements of bicycle riding: balance, movement, and knowing how to stop. Everything else fits in and around that. Similarly, when it comes to mindfulness, everything can be said to fit in and around the three key elements of mindfulness.

Below is a short introduction to each key element. They’re explained in more detail in the book. In fact, there’s a whole chapter dedicated to each one.

Key Element #1 | Being Aware

You’ve already read about presence, for which you can also use the word awareness. You can say that, at a practical level, awareness means paying deliberate attention, not only to your external environment, but also to your own thoughts. However, as you have seen, the mind has a mind of its own, and so this is a challenge. Therefore, awareness is a step in itself.

As you will learn, to be aware of your thoughts, you have to be aware of your own awareness so that you can stay tuned in to the whole process. This is called meta-awareness—being aware of being aware. For example, when you’re doing something dangerous like motorcycle riding, you have to be aware of what you are paying attention to—and aware that you are remaining aware—in order to stay on the track and not crash.

If you read the book or do the online course, you’ll see that being aware also applies to each of the fields of application we have chosen. For example, you need to be aware that you’re experiencing an emotion, and what that emotion is. This enables you to do something about it, instead of just acting it out.

Being aware gives you power. It is the critical first step to personal power and personal mastery.

Key Element #2 | Being Nonjudgemental

The great Indian teacher, Jiddu Krishnamurti, who was regarded as the “guru’s guru” once stopped the mental traffic of his audience when he announced that he was about to share his secret. What he shared was this simple statement: “I don’t mind what happens.” This is what it means to be nonjudgemental.

Being nonjudgemental means giving up your attachment to your preferences, to having to have things go your way. This makes no sense to the Western mind, which is so goal- and achievement-oriented. This is precisely why we need mindfulness—and this program. Stay with us—do the program, or read the book—and you’ll discover how this is possible and why it’s so valuable.

Key Element #3 | Being Nonreactive

As soon as you collapse into your preferences—your strong attachments to what must and must not happen—you lose presence, and you lose the balance of your mind. You become reactive—jealous, possessive, defensive, aggressive, anxious—and either act in ways that are unnecessary or do things you’re likely to regret.

Analagous to knowing how to stop on a bicycle is being nonreactive. Taking that awareness and nonjudgemental attitude and applying it to the situation so that you don’t just react based on your own conditioned fears but respond based on what the situation needs.

Once again, this may seem counterintuitive. If so, then that’s why you’re here.

You will see that you are able to apply the three key elements of mindfulness into any context, whether it be emotion regulation, handling stress, decision-making, activating and maintaining a state of flow, and even relating authentically to others. They can also act as a kind of checklist of stages: Am I aware? Am I being nonjudgemental? Am I being nonreactive?

As mentioned, the program and the book define and explain these three elements in great details and take you through a set of practices so that you can experience and practice them.


practical mindfulness the book

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This an adapted excerpt from the Practical Mindfulness book and online course. You’re invited to explore both options via the links provided.