Mindfulness of Mind: A Tactical Reflection

The following reflection originally appeared in the newsletter I sent out on February 18th, 2024.

Feel free to read just the bold words and skip the rest, maybe even only reading the sections that interest you. 



For most meditators, practicing mindfulness of body is fairly obvious. For example, right now, can you feel the sensations in your left hand?  Keep your attention there for a moment.  Easy peezy.

However, when first learning about mindfulness of mind, people often become confused.  What is the mind?  How does one notice it?  What to focus on?

Today, I hope to dispel some of the confusion, offering a clear instruction on the practice of being aware/mindful of the mind.

However, if this reflection is way more words than you want to read, instead just take to heart the following pith instruction and either skim or skip the rest of the reflection.

“Intimately notice your mindstates as they arise and pass across the day, understanding deeply that ‘you are not your mindstates’, simply relaxing and allowing them to be part of the weather of the mind.”

If you can do this, you will know the peace of the Buddha.  If you’re not sure how, the following guidance will get you started.


How to Notice the Mind

My teacher would often say you don’t so much notice the mind itself as you do its activities.  This distinction is kind of like focusing on “the furnace” vs “the sounds the furnace makes,” “the visual appearance of the furnace” or “the heat the furnace produces.”  In other words, you don’t so much notice the abstract concept of “furnace,” but rather its “activities.”

Similarly, our practice of mindfulness of mind is to notice the mind’s activities. These include thinking, impulse’ing, mindstate’ing, aware’ing, perceiving/interpreting, reacting, and so on.

In the same way that one would define a furnace as “that which heats a house,” we could say that “the mind” is that which does all of the above activities.  In other words, a formal definition really isn’t too important; instead, it’s the direct observation of it that’s important.

As a fuller analogy on observing the mind, imagine there were times you were experiencing dietary distress and dietary well-being.  If you talked to a nutritionist on how to stop the distress, the basic practice would be to pay close attention to what you eat and how you feel after. An awareness practice.

Importantly, it’s not like you’d need to clear your schedule and do nothing but pay attention to how you feel after eating.  Instead, you go about your life as normal, but with a heightened sensitivity to how you’re digesting things.  After certain foods, are you bloated, gassy, burping, cramping, and so on?

However, even though you don’t put everything aside and just focus on your digestion, if you were constantly eating random things all day, or if you were so thoroughly on autopilot and disembodied, you’d never actually notice how certain foods led to certain feelings.  Without awareness, there would be no possibility of making wise & appropriate changes.

Mindfulness of mind is like this.  We basically go about our life as normal.  In meditation, we might still focus on the breath, sounds, or body sensations.  In daily life, we might still socialize, do our work, and undertake chores.

However, amidst it all, we have a light sensitivity to the activities of mind.  We’re in a conversation and we notice when we get agitated at someone.  We’re in meditation and we notice wanting to be a little calmer.  The list goes on.

As we do this, we collect data, which becomes wisdom that can liberate us.  Similar to how realizing peanuts make our tummy hurt, we might realize that fixating on what could go wrong leads to unnecessary anxiety and worry.  And when we see how a particular habit causes us suffering, we simply stop doing it.


Specific Mindfulness of Mind Practices

In this section, I’ll describe three specific mindfulness of mind practices, which each involves asking yourself a meditative question.  These are not meant to trigger a bunch of analysis and thinking.

Instead, you might respond in your mind with a word or two, but after some time, you might also start to wordlessly know the answer, like if someone asked you, “is it daytime or nighttime?” you wouldn’t need to say a word to “know” which is correct; you look outside and you just know.


(1) How Is The Mind?

The most general mindfulness of mind instruction is to work with the question, “how is the mind?”  This points to the moods, emotions, and mindstates that arise.  Answer this question to yourself the way you’d answer if someone asked you, “how are you?” and you were to give a genuine answer.

This could include states like frustrated, anxious, tired, energized, alert, embarrassed, joyful, contented, and basically anything else you can put a word to.

If you’re not sure how you are, you could give a simple answer: balanced, unbalanced, or neutral.  That is, does your current mind state lean more to the side of stress/suffering/unwholesome, more to the side of well-being/wholesome, or somewhere in the middle?

There are countless variations of the “how is the mind” practice?”  For example, maybe you start to notice that you’re often hurrying, so you adapt the question, and take some time to work with, “is the mind hurrying?” Or perhaps you want to work on joy/happiness, so you regularly ask yourself, “is there joy?”  You might also pick a classic list, like the Five Hindrances or the Seven Factors of Awakening, asking yourself “which of [the hindrances] is present/absent right now?”

Any of these specific inquiries lead to wisdom about that particular state; about how and why you keep slipping into, say, hurrying.  The more wisdom you have, the less you fall into that habit.

However, I’d emphasize that in the beginning, it’s useful to just work with that general question, “how is the mind?”  No need to overcomplicate it.

Here is a guided meditation that has a section on this question.


(2) What Attitude Is Present?

The most basic Buddhist teaching is that when we want things to be other than they are, we experience stress/suffering.  When we are free from this wanting, we experience peace. This becomes a direct practice pointer for mindfulness of mind, where we monitor our relationship to right now.  My teacher calls this “mindfulness of attitude.”

While there are loads of attitudes we could notice, there are four basic ones that are considered most important:

  • Craving, the agitated urge to correct, hold onto, obtain, or become something.  Common flavors of craving include grasping, wanting, desiring, lusting, or longing.
  • Aversion, the agitated urge to push something away.  Common flavors of aversion include anxiety, fear, anger, frustration, irritability, despair, and depression.  In many respects, craving and aversion are two sides of the same coin; the part of the mind that wants something different.
  • Delusion, which is basically “non-clear-seeing.”  On the surface, this means non-awareness (i.e. lost in thought) or not being sure how you are / what’s happening.  On a deeper level, it’s the misperceiving of reality that bubbles up into craving and aversion.
  • Balance, which is the absence of craving, aversion, and delusion. It tends to be characterized by equanimity, kindness, peace, patience, contentment, and/or simple presence.

You could check this out right now.  Ask yourself, “what attitude is present?”  In other words, are you completely settled, contented, and at ease (i.e. balance)?  Or is there some part of you that dislikes how you feel, that wishes your mind were a little calmer, that your anxiety would go away, that you weren’t so busy, or that your neighbor’s dog/leaf blower/party would stop (i.e. craving or aversion)?  Maybe you ask the question and you have no idea whatsoever what attitude is present (i.e. delusion)?

When starting out with this practice, I often propose a simpler question, “is there craving or contentment?”  This basic distinction between at odds with what is and okay with what is is the most important part of our attitude.

Sometimes there are multiple attitudes, like noticing some “aversion/agitation” about your busy work day, but also some “balance/peacefulness” as you take a break and read this reflection.

Also, from a meditative perspective, what’s most important is your attitude towards your attitude.  For example, if you notice in meditation that you are craving calm, the moment you notice “oh, the mind is craving right now,” you have the chance to be balanced towards your craving.

In other words, do not get upset when you observe craving, aversion and delusion in your mind — this is actually an exciting realization, as like noticing the piece of broccoli in your teeth, it may not make it “go away,” but a notable amount of suffering dissolves the moment you let go of the fight, and also further sets the stage for release as well as skillful action.

Here is a guided meditation on this question.


(3) Is There Awareness?

While our ultimate freedom comes through releasing craving, aversion, and delusion, the Buddha calls awareness/mindfulness the direct path to accomplishing this.

In turn, perhaps the most essential positive quality of the mind to become aware of is awareness itself.  The more you notice it, the more it happens, like the snowball effect.  And awareness has a way of leading to wisdom, which itself leads to freedom.

In meditation, you can start to track this by noticing the exact moment you were just lost in thought, but now are present.  What is the difference between the moment earlier and the now-aware moment?  As you study this phenomenon, you’ll start to develop an intuitive feel for awareness.  You’ll see that it spontaneously arises all day long.

For example, maybe when you’re eating breakfast, there will be moments you’re lost in thoughts, but then some moments you’re just eating, noticing the flavors of the food.  Perhaps you’ll be walking down the street aimlessly, and then suddenly a little spark of presence comes and you notice the moment more fully.  You can begin to notice the precise moment it shifts.

As you get a feel for this, you realize that often you don’t need to focus on something, like the breath or a sound, to be aware — you can just hang with the awareness itself.  Of course, even when you do focus on something like the breath, you can still more intentionally track how awareness comes and goes.

Anyhow, a basic question to ask yourself is, “is there awareness?”

Here is a guided meditation on this question.


When to Ask these Questions

If “mindfulness of mind” calls you, I’d suggest picking one of the three questions above and spending a month with that inquiry.

The best place to begin is formal meditation, like when you sit still for 10 or 30 or 60 minutes.  This time is like the laboratory of the mind, where we can workshop these practices.

Ask yourself the question when you begin a meditation, a handful of times during the meditation, and when you conclude the meditation.  After a while, just notice how you’ll spontaneously notice mindstates/attitudes/awareness at other points between asking the question.

As you take the question into your day, you can again just periodically ask yourself.  Some common strategies include:

  • Using an interval timer, like the Plum Village App’s mindfulness bell, or the non-smart-phone Gymboss (what I use)
  • Pre-decided mindful moments, like when you use the restroom, take a shower, begin a meal, or enter your vehicle.
  • Reflectively, like finishing a meditation and journaling on which mindstates were predominant, or when concluding the day, reflecting on the attitudes you had in different situations.
  • Whenever you notice yourself getting agitated
  • Randomly, which can work, but is the easiest to forget about and not do.

Earlier, I made the point that you can be aware of the mind during any activity, so long as you maintain a gentle global awareness, like doing your work but not so focused that you can’t hear the oven timer when it goes off.

However, there is something to be said for practicing open/receptive awareness, where we rest in the present moment, not focusing on anything at all.  Of course, this usually requires some baseline of concentration, but when we can relax into a simple awareness, attuned to the whole panorama, it’s easier to see the micro-movements of the mind.


What To Do After The Noticing

Imagine all mindstates happen on a 0 to 10 intensity.  When the intensity is below a five, it’s possible to just be with them, not fuel them, relax, and allow them to be part of the background.  When the intensity is over a five, they tend to dominate the foreground and it can be difficult to show up in a balanced, intentional way.

In turn, when stressful mindstates arise that are below a five, there are two basic things I recommend.

  • Relax and allow them. We are so wired to fix things and try to make ourselves feel good.  However, meditation teaches us that we don’t need to meddle so much.  In the same way that background sounds don’t need to impact our well-being, mindstates that are light enough to be part of the background also don’t need to impact us.  We just let them be here and they’ll probably fade as we stop feeding them, but it doesn’t even really matter if they do fade or not, because they are just part of the background.
  • Investigate them.  What are they like?  How do they impact your thoughts, sensations, impulses, and behavior?  What gave rise to them?  How do they cease?  As a note, most Westerners tend to be overdeveloped in this kind of analysis, and underdeveloped in allowing, so if that’s you, I’d suggest leaning heavily on the relax and allow.

If the stressful mindstates are over a level-five intensity, take a healthy break!  Focus your attention on something neutral, like the hands, a mantra, or a sound.  Maybe go for a walk, call a friend, do some yoga, or take a shower.  If you are just spinning around and around in the mindstate, not much useful is had by allowing yourself to continue to spin.  Of course, sometimes you have no choice, and here we practice patient endurance.

If you notice wholesome/balanced mindstates, like joy, equanimity, peace, or loving-kindness, simply appreciate them. You don’t need to hold onto them, analyze them, or make them grow bigger.  You could similarly investigate them as above, but it’s enough to relax and allow them, perhaps with a gentle appreciation.  Remember – meditation is pointing us to a simpler and simpler way of being.  Not so much “doing.”


The Deeper Instruction

In the intro, I shared this pith instruction:

“Intimately notice your mindstates as they arise and pass across the day, understanding deeply that ‘you are not your mindstates,’ simply relaxing and allowing them to be part of the weather of the mind.”

A lot of what I’ve shared today is about being aware of your mindstates, but the more reliably you can notice them, you begin to develop wisdom about them.  Traditionally, this is done through formal meditation, building a solid continuity of awareness, and using that depth to see their impermanent, unsatisfactory, and impersonal nature.

A lot could be said here, but I just want to emphasize that by becoming more and more aware of your mind, the various moods and attitudes, some part of you learns more intuitively that there’s nothing to get worked up over.  Your mindstates are just like the weather.  You can let a rainy day ruin your mood, or realize it’s just the weather and remain at peace.

In practice, my teacher suggested reminding yourself often that “mindstates are just nature.”  They arise and pass not because of anything personal about you, but due to a vast web of causes and conditions.  Taking on this more objective perspective, and experiencing them without getting caught in their trance is a gateway to freedom.

So whether your mind is scattered or calm, aversive or balanced, aware or on autopilot, it’s all just weather.  Not you.  Not yours.  Not permanent.  Not worth resisting or grasping.  It’s just weather.

Remind yourself of this often!  As a note, if you remind yourself but can’t seem to access that wisdom in a meaningful way, it’s a good sign that awareness isn’t strong enough.



Something I love about this practice is that it gels really well with daily life.  You don’t need to practice intensively on a retreat to notice your mindstates, attitudes, and awareness.  All you need is a light attention to the “weather of the mind.”  They are right here all day long.

In the beginning, just pick one of the above questions and ask it to yourself periodically.  Keep it simple.  More relaxing/allowing, less doing.

At some point, the practice starts to become intuitive and you don’t need to ask the questions so much.  Similar to how when paying closer attention to your diet, you begin to just know when you feel bloated, you’ll also start to just know, all day long, when various mindstates, attitudes, and awareness arise (and pass).

But again, the deeper purpose is wisdom — to intimately see you are not your mindstates.  The more awareness you develop, and the more you remind yourself of this, the wisdom too starts to become intuitive and natural. As night follows day, freedom follows this wisdom.

Anyhow, before continuing, perhaps take a moment to ask yourself, “in this moment, what mindstates are present?”

If you want to go deeper into this practice, my teacher’s book, “Relax & Be Aware,” is my favorite meditation book and covers this practice more in-depth.  Also, chapter 7 of Bhikkhu Analayo’s excellent book on the Satipatthana Sutta is one of my favorite writings on the subject.


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