The Three Keys to Mindfulness by Tim Burnett

5 Mar 2020 11:28 AM | Catherine Duffy (Administrator)

Three Keys to Mindfulness

by Tim Burnett

We all go through seasons of suffering.  We change, others change. There are periods of relative stability and there are the crises - small and large - that come. 

As I reflect on my own life's ups and downs, I'm inspired anew to take a fresh look at the practice of mindfulness. I'm thinking about the way mindfulness helps - but also about ways I can end up using mindfulness to try to avoid difficult moods and problems that may simply have to be weathered and seen through.

The mindfulness approach encourages us to explore a really nuanced view around acceptance and improvement. Around fixing things. On the one hand improvement is great. We can make all kinds of changes to improve our situation. For example: I've been trying to focus on exercising more regularly and sleeping better. They help.

On the other hand, trying to fix and improve things can become an endless treadmill that orients us away from accepting how things are. And in my experience from my own practice and the people I've had the privilege to work with over the years: it all starts with acceptance.

We all have difficult periods. Transitions are hard. Illness is hard. When relationships get tangled, it's hard. And it's natural to want to solve the problem. It's natural to want to fix things. To improve the situation. Right now.

And yet we will often approach making improvements so much more wisely when we can start the process with more acceptance.

As I've taught mindfulness over the years and explored the practice myself I've come up with a few lists of pointers and reminders for myself. A current favorite is what I consider the three key attitudes in mindfulness (and thus: in life!): curiosity, willingness, and kindness. These three attitudes feels especially important when times are tough.

Curiosity   A colleague recently introduced me to a helpful distinction in thinking about curiosity. She suggested we notice whether we're in "deficit curiosity" or "interest curiosity."

Deficit curiosity is the curiosity of lack and impatience. It's the curiosity that sends us so quickly to our phones to Google up a fact. Deficit curiosity can contribute to impatience and has a sense of lack to it. Deficit curiosity isn't the quality of mind I'm thinking of here as helping us accept our challenges and get interested in them. Deficit curiosity is more likely to have us grasping for a quick fix.

Interest curiosity is more what I'm pointing to. Interest curiosity is open minded. It has that quality of "hmm…I wonder…." Where deficit curiosity can be a bit desperate and impatient to be "in the know", interest curiosity supports humility and even values "not knowing" and that quality of "beginner's mind."

Being human is so complicated. No matter how much we learn, how many courses we take or articles we read, or teachers we work with, we'll never really understand it. Interest curiosity keeps us going and supports us in appreciating each insight along the way while accepting that we'll never know it all.

Willingness  If we're not willing to try something new, nothing will ever change. And that begins with a willingness to accept things as they are. It includes a willingness to feel. A willingness to accept that "this is how it is right now."

And a willingness to change is essential too! Willingness is also open minded (like interest curiosity). I think of willingness as being a realistic quality also: we can't do and try everything given the limits to our time and resources, but maybe we can expand the confines of our lives in more ways than we think we can with this willing orientation.

One close friend has an often used phrase, "I'm always willing to feel better." When I think about willingness in light of mindfulness practice I remember some of the best parenting advice my wife and I received as new parents: if the baby is fussy and you can't figure it out, just "change the vibe." If you're inside, go outside. If you're outside go inside. Change something. Try something. Not expecting instant results, not expecting anything to work every time (or even most of the time!) but being willing to try. Be willing.

Kindness   When I first took up meditation I didn't understand the essential contribution of kindness. I thought meditation was to chill myself out, to stay calm at all costs, to develop an unshakable kind of equanimity. And while calm and equanimity are valuable for sure, without the emotional dimension of kindness these qualities can also become ways to avoid our feelings at our peril. I eventually learned that I'd walled myself off from my own emotions in a way that was blinding and unhelpful, and ultimately made it difficult to really take care of myself.

The practice of kindness in the context of mindfulness calls on us to ask ourselves what we need right now. It encourages us to see if we can offer ourselves some warmth, some kindness. Not because that will make challenging emotions go away or solve our problems, but simply because we're suffering. Kindness is an essential component as we meet our challenges.

Kindness can be practiced. We can weave a sense of self-care and kindness into our formal mindfulness practice and we can see the informal practices of taking purposeful pauses during the day not just as a stress reduction technique but as real gifts to ourselves. As self-kindness.

And kindness for ourselves can help us rebalance the common tendency to take care of everyone around us while ignoring our own needs. We can be so strongly conditioned to focus on others first can't we? Whether that's purposeful and well-meaning, or out of habit, or even out of some deep fear that we might be unlovable. We can notice our many choices throughout the day in service of others and start to remember to include ourselves in the equation in an explicit way. "After I help so and so with this, I'll take a break and give myself what I need too."

Loving Kindness  Finally, the signature practice in mindfulness training - Loving Kindness Meditation - is also a great option. I was resistant to this practice at first - no surprise given my initial orientation to prize a kind of "Zen calm" over all else. But now I've come to appreciate it deeply. I'm especially moved by the innovation in the Mindful Self-Compassion curriculum to find ways to really personalize Loving Kindness Meditation by finding your own language to coach yourself in it.

See our Loving Kindness Meditation page ( for the basics on this practice and the Finding Our Phrases page ( for more on making this practice your own.

Tough times  happen for all of us. I hope the practices and the orientation toward starting with acceptance of mindfulness is helpful to you. I invite you to see if the three attitudes of curiosity, willingness, and kindness prove helpful in your own journey. Especially when times are tough.

TimQuestions? Call us: 360.830.6439 x 0, or email:

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