The Courage to Be Present

Ancient wisdom from Buddhism for today's therapists and clients.

Practicing Mindfulness Without Meditating

How to cultivate mindfulness without meditation

As a Contemplative Psychotherapist, one who bases my psychotherapy practice on the Buddhist understanding of mind, I am especially interested in helping my clients to develop mindfulness. While the most direct way to cultivate mindfulness is the sitting practice of mindfulness-awareness meditation, not everyone is ready for, or interested in, doing that.
     As I've written about before (see my previous blog entry), there are often good reasons for me not to become the meditation instructor for my clients. When I have clients who are interested in learning how to do formal meditation practice, I usually tell them how to connect with people, classes, or books that can get them started.
     Some clients have other formal contemplative practices like yoga, tai chi, or contemplative prayer. These kinds of practices are already designed to help their practitioners become more mindful and attentive to their moment to moment experience. Together we explore how they can apply what they know from their contemplative practices to the rest of their lives.
     Still others have what I like to call "informal mindfulness practices." These are the everyday activities of life that can support the cultivation of mindfulness.
     For example, a man I know plays a lot of golf. He has learned a great deal about how to work with his mind as a result. He knows, for example, that he needs to pay attention to what he is doing with his body when he swings a golf club. He pays attention to where his head is, how he twists his body at the beginning of the swing and how he moves through it to the end of his swing. He attends to the placement of his feet and the shifting of his weight.
     At the same time, he also pays attention to his mind. He knows that if he is thinking too much about what he's doing or getting distracted by memories of how he has played well or badly in the past, he will mess up this present drive. He has learned something about how to let go of thoughts and come back to the present moment.
     In addition, he has learned the important lesson of not holding his mind and his body either too tight or too loose. If he tries too hard to get everything right, he will become tense and awkward. If he doesn't try at all, it won't work well either.
     Finally, he knows that he also needs to let go of the drive once it's completed, no matter how it turned out. If he tries to do exactly what he's done before, he won't be present for the next stroke.
     All of these things he's learned are principles of good mindfulness practice:
1. Paying attention to the moment-to-moment details of experience
2. Paying particular attention to the body and one's experience of it
3. Recognizing the experience of mind and not getting caught in memories of the past or         plans for the future
4. Trying neither too much nor too little
5. Letting go of distractions and paying attention to the present moment
6. Noticing one's experience without judging it

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     I work with my clients to identify the activities that they already engage in that can become occasions for practicing mindfulness. Most people have a number of possibilities. Practically all sports can work: basketball, baseball, soccer, volleyball, and so on. What's it like to stand at the foul line before you try to make a free throw?
     Other physical activities can be used, too: biking to work in traffic, walking the dog, going for a jog, shoveling the driveway, buying groceries, picking out what to wear, putting on make-up, driving the car. What these activities have in common is the opportunity to pay attention to sense perceptions in the present moment: what one can see, hear, smell, taste or touch.
     When we engage in these activities, especially if we are willing to let go of distractions like listening to an iPod or playing the car radio, they give us the chance to tune into what is happening right now. We can pay attention to our sense perceptions, our emotions, and our thoughts.
     I often walk our dogs in the morning. When I am using my walk time as a mindfulness practice, I pay attention to all my senses. This time of year the branches are bare, and the ground is often icy in patches. I pay attention to where I place my feet. This takes even more awareness when I have to dogs with me, running one way and another in their eagerness to check out all the smells. I guess they are doing their own sniffing practice! I pay attention to the movement of the dogs, the sloshy sounds of the traffic nearby on the wet street, the crows that caw from dumpster behind the market. I notice smells -sometimes the moist earth, other times the smell of dog poop as I pick it up in a newspaper bag. I feel the cold air on my face and the thoughts about wishing I'd worn my warmer hat. As we move along, the sights, smells, sounds and feelings change. My emotions how my irritation with Sadie, as she pulls on the leash and barks as she tries to get to the neighbor's dog, changes to delight as she bounces happily along soon afterward. I notice tenderness as Sunny starts to limp, and I remove the burr she's picked up on her paw. I note the sharp pinch as I get stuck by the burr myself. When I find my mind wandering to the meeting I have later at school, I simply come back to the present moment with the dogs.
     Other activities that lend themselves to cultivating mindfulness are cleaning the house, cooking dinner, working on the car, paying attention to people as we speak with them at work, filing papers, typing. We can also pay attention to body experiences when we feel well or when we feel ill. Bringing mindfulness to physical pain is particularly illuminating. We may find that we have added tension to what might otherwise be a tolerable experience and made it worse.
     We can attend to our emotions when we feel uneasy, happy, sad, scared. There's a whole range of emotions we can attend to. In fact, in therapy, this is often our work together: bringing mindfulness to the experience of emotions as they are arising. Some experiences are more difficult to do this with, and it's best to practice bringing mindfulness to easier ones first. For example, it's quite difficult to bring mindfulness to intense experiences of anger. Still, the more we attend to our present experience, the more we cultivate the courage to be present with whatever experience we are having.
     With all of these activities, we begin by setting an intention to be mindful of our experience. It's best to pick a particular activity as your mindfulness practice. Getting too ambitious and thinking we can bring mindfulness to everything right away is, for most people, trying too hard.
     As always, it is important to be gentle but also steady. So pick a particular activity and set a particular amount of time when you're going to use it as a practice. Then, gently pay attention to the sensations in your body; note your sense perceptions, your emotions, and your thoughts as they come and go. Notice when you hang on to a feeling or thought. Let it go when you can. If you forget that you're practicing mindfulness, just start again without giving yourself a hard time.
     There's really no limit to the different activities that can become opportunities to practice and cultivate mindfulness. Happy practicing!

 

Karen Kissel Wegela, Ph.D., is a professor at Naropa University and the author of The Courage to Be Present.

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