Practicing Mindfulness

Mindfulness isn’t difficult. We just need to remember to do it.’

– Sharon Salzberg

Mindfulness gets a lot of media attention these days. Everybody’s talking about it, books have been written about it, seminars and psychologists teach ways to apply it. But as far as actual mindfulness goes, I don’t see much of it around. Even a lot of meditators I know are quite mindless in the way they live their daily life. And I think it’s because many people are getting meditation and mindfulness mixed up, as if they’re the same thing – assuming that if they meditate, then surely mindfulness will follow.

But that’s not how it works.
In the same way as meditation needs to be practiced, mindfulness must also be practiced – as a skill all of its own. Most meditators don’t get that. After completing meditation each morning, they walk into their day thinking that was enough. Result being, as they resume the same mindless habits as yesterday, the mental training of their meditation quickly evaporates.

Now, for sure, as with attention and awareness, there is a reciprocal relationship between meditation and mindfulness. Meditation practice prepares us to be mindful, and mindfulness practised through the day makes meditation much easier. So the two of them are certainly related – but still, for mindfulness to be effective, it must be treated as a different practice.

A Sinhalese monk I practised with some years back, during a group talk to his students, crystallised this relationship between mindfulness and meditation in a humorous way.
Each day we would gather in his house to listen to him speak. This particular day, after waiting for us to take our seats and settle down, he looked around at each of us.
Grinning widely, he said, ‘Are you monkey’s?’
Nobody made a sound. He paused, still scanning our faces, then went on.
‘Every day I hear you monkeys everywhere, chatter, chatter, chatter. Jabber jabber. Talking, talking … and when I look out of my window I see people tripping over roots in the ground as they pass, not noticing where they are going because they are chattering together as they walk. Like monkeys.’
He waved a finger at us.
‘Then you come to me in the daily interview, all you monkeys, and you complain, ‘Oh I am having trouble meditating. I can’t stop thinking. I have pain. I cannot concentrate.’ And you monkeys want me to fix your meditation … and help you feel better.’
Again the pause.
‘But how can you meditate properly if you are living in such a mindless way, chattering all the time and tripping over tree roots?’
We all laughed as the lesson came clear.
He clarified his point with what he said next.
‘Meditation and mindfulness work together!’ he declared loudly. ‘They need each other if you are to progress.’
Again he paused, letting his words sink in.
‘It is not enough to meditate for a little each day, then stumble into your life and spend the rest of the day rushing around and chattering mindlessly. All the energy and habits you nurtured during meditation, it all disappears, and you will have wasted what you have learnt.’
He looked around at each of us, then went on.
‘Slow down!’ he said loudly. ‘Slow down your actions so you are aware of what you are doing. And stop mindlessly chattering to each other. Let your mind know what it’s like to be silent and knowing, instead of advertising itself everywhere like some idiot salesman.’
Again we laughed.
‘If you want to meditate well, you must live mindfully. You must create a mind that is quiet and steady and ready to meditate. ‘
He stopped again. Then he re-emphasized the lesson.
‘Meditation needs mindfulness. And mindfulness needs meditation. They feed and sustain each other.

Essentially, mindfulness is meditation in motion.
Consider what we’re doing when we meditate.
We sit down, close our eyes, and pay attention to the breath, following the movement of our belly as we breathe.
This anchors our attention to the present moment.
With our attention fixed in the moment, we’re able to immediately notice when our attention is distracted by something else – which gives us the opportunity to use a note to let go.
In these simple actions, we’re practicing always being aware of where our attention is, and what it is doing, so we can adjust how it behaves. This bonding of attention with awareness is extremely important.
Mindfulness practice is similar – difference being, when we’re practicing mindfulness, the main object is whatever we’re doing throughout the course of the day – as we’re doing it. Rather than leave our actions to the robotic machinery of our habits, we’re paying attention to everything we do as if we’re learning to do it all over again. In this way we can immediately adjust whatever actions we’re making, to help change the habits behind them.
So let’s look at some of the ways mindfulness can be practiced in daily life.

Basically, mindfulness can be practised anywhere, anytime – while waiting for a train, walking to the shops, mowing the lawn, cooking, driving – anything done mindfully is good practice.
For example, let’s say you’re walking somewhere. Instead of daydreaming as you walk, take the opportunity to practice mindfulness.
1 Slow down a little – not to a snails pace, just enough to remove the ‘rush’ so you can walk at a leisurely pace.
2 In this instance walking is the main object. Pay attention to the actual experience of walking. Try to follow each movement your body makes as you walk, focusing your attention on the sensations.
3 Note any feelings that come up – whether pleasure, boredom, happiness, anxiety whatever.
4 Note whatever distracts your attention and always return to the contemplation of your body as it walks.
5 Notice your posture as you walk. Adjust it if it’s not straight and relaxed.
6 Re-examine the movement of your feet and each action you make – how you’re using your body, the shifting motion of your muscles.
7 You’re still aware of where you’re headed and where you are, but your attention is contemplating the action of walking.

Here’s another example, in more detail this time.
You want to drink a glass of water. Usually this seems simple – grab a glass, turn on the tap, fill it and drink. Your habits automatically take care of all this. They deliver the water and drink it for you while your attention is elsewhere, thinking about other stuff.
But if you’re practising mindfulness, you’ll pay conscious attention to every one of the actions you make to drink the glass of water.
It sounds tedious, but it can be fun.
So let’s break it down and see how a seemingly simple thing as filling a glass with water and drinking is actually a highly complex set of actions (most of them habitual) and sensations.
1 First there is noticing you’re thirsty.
2 Then there is the intention to fill a glass with water and drink.
3 Then there is the act of walking to the cupboard.
4 Then there is your arm and hand slowly reaching out and opening the cupboard and reaching for a glass.
5 The sensation of touching the glass and the curling of the fingers around the glass.
6 Lifting the glass.
7 Turning away and going to the tap
8 The sensation of reaching for the tap and twisting it to make the water flow.
9 Lowering the glass to fill it with water.
10 The sound of the flowing water in the ears.
11 Turning off the tap when the glass is filled.
12 Lifting the glass to drink.
13 The sensation of it touching your lips.
14 Tipping the glass to drink.
15 The coolness of the water flowing into your mouth.
16 The sensation of swallowing.
And so on.