In trying to present mindfulness in a way that is both true and easily understood, I refer back to an excellent teacher in the Theravada Buddhist tradition.
From Ajahn Sumedho’s talk “This is the Deathless” in the collection Don’t Take Your Life Personally:
Now, to talk about ‘relaxed attention’ sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? You might think attention puts you into a state of not being relaxed; and relaxation often means not paying attention. But in this context these two words ‘relaxed attention’ are pointing to an attitude of being present without trying, without having some preconception of becoming attentive or making yourself meditate, or putting yourself into the usual striving attitude. For most of us, when we think of paying attention, it is usually with a sense of striving, of making ourselves do something as an act of will; whereas the kind of attention I am talking about has nothing to do with willing ourselves to pay attention; it is a natural state of ease, of being present, more like listening but not controlling.
‘Leting go’ is another concept that might help us understand this sense of relinquishing rather than holding onto anything. We are allowing ourselves to be present without getting caught up in ideas that we have to get something out of this, that we have to control everything or get rid of negative thoughts. All these attitudes are part of our cultural conditioning. We have these tendencies to want to control, to judge, to discriminate, to try to get something we don’t have yet — some idealized state, something called ‘enlightenment’ that we imagine we don’t have right now — or try to get rid of bad thoughts, greed, hatred and delusion in order to become this enlightened being in the future. But with the attitude of relaxed attention, we let go of all that — all our concepts, ideas, views about ourselves, about Buddhism, about meditation, about enlightenment, about everything — and there is nothing we have to get or get rid of.
This description of relaxed attention is very similar to what Sayadaw U Tejaniya calls “seeing things as nature”. Instead of collecting experience, labelling it as “ours”, and trying to make sense of it in relation to whether it’s good or bad for us, we see that all the things happening around us are the natural unfolding of causes and conditions, and that new causes and conditions are arising all the time, and that we are just a little part of this big unfolding called nature.
In both cases, we recognize a possible attitude we can take, different from our normal grasping attitude. When we channel our perceptions through this lens, it changes the quality of our experience, and this is called mindfulness.