The Three ‘R’s of Mindfulness

The term “Three R’s” refers to the foundations of a general educational program: reading, writing and arithmetic. The term has also been generalized to mean the basic fundamentals of any system of study or practice. So, I am going to propose the “Three R’s of Mindfulness” which can be considered to be a foundation for this practice. In mindfulness practice the first R stands for the word “Recognize.” Recognition is the ability to identify a particular experience. To be mindful is to recognize “thinking” when a thought arises, to recognize “feeling” when an emotion arises and to recognize “sensing” when a sensation occurs. Recognition requires awareness. Mindfulness means that I am aware; that I am aware that I am aware; and that I recognize the object of my awareness.

It’s particularly important to recognize those highly charged experiences that often trigger us to lose our mindfulness and to go unconscious. Intense pleasure or pain can trigger a reactive flight into unconsciousness; strong emotions can do the same. Recognizing our experience before we react is an essential component of mindfulness.

The second R stands for “Refrain.” This means to refrain from reacting automatically when strong feelings arise; it means to refrain from acting out habituated behavioral patterns that are based on fear or judgment. We typically act out these reactive patterns with the experience of intense pain or pleasure, or when very strong emotions arise. With intense pain we tend to react with some form of aversion, resistance or judgment; with intense pleasure we often react with a pattern of clinging or attachment.

The mental equivalent of physical pain is that of uncertainty and not-knowing. The human mind abhors a vacuum; it wants answers-- and if it doesn’t have any then it will often make something up! To refrain is to be willing to live in the unknown and to allow the self to feel vulnerable.

To refrain means to take a deep breath and drop into direct awareness rather than into unconscious reactivity. This is not suppressing our experience; it is simply not reacting automatically or unconsciously. Any response that we then make can be deliberately chosen. To refrain is to pause and to experience life directly rather than living on autopilot.

The third R stands for “Relax.” This means to relax the body, to open the heart and to quiet the mind. We begin by breathing deeply, sensing the body, and being present to the heart; be willing to stay open rather than tightening up and shutting down. To relax also means not clinging to pleasure, but simply accepting it when it is here and letting it leave when it does. To relax the mind means not clinging to our views and opinions and not grasping for desired outcomes. It means to hold our judgments lightly and to be willing to live with uncertainty. Certainly we have our preferences and our opinions, this is an inevitable part of human nature, but we can relax and hold these lightly, rather than addictively clinging to them.

Recognize, refrain and relax; and we could possibly add a fourth “R,” which would stand for Repeat! Repeat the above process, again and again. Mindfulness is an ongoing process—we never do it “perfectly” (according to the ego’s definition of “perfect”). Our ego conditioning is to strive to “always get it right.” In mindfulness practice there is no absolute “right,” there is only what is right for this moment. We are never “finished” because we are not trying to get somewhere; the starting block and the finish line are always right here and right now. We simply seek to live this present moment with as much wisdom and compassion as we can… and that is our practice!