Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to our present moment experience, whether it be a sight, a sound, a taste, a smell, a sensation in the body, or mental activity (the latter includes emotions and thoughts). Practice it for a few moments or for a few minutes—lying on your bed, sitting in a doctor's office or on a park bench, standing in line. Anywhere.
What's the difference between meditation and mindfulness?
1. Meditative practices are found in almost all religious and spiritual traditions. The Buddha didn't invent meditation. He did, however, devise the practice of mindful awareness—what we call mindfulness.
2. Mindfulness can be practiced inside or outside of formal meditation. Meditation is a technique for practicing mindfulness in a structured setting; it can improve your mindfulness skills outside of meditation.
How do you practice mindfulness outside of meditation?
Take three or four conscious breaths, resting your attention on the physical sensation of the breath coming in and going out of your body. As you do this, you may also be aware of a sound, a smell, or maybe a bodily sensation other than the breath. Careful attention to whatever is happening in the present moment is the essence of mindfulness. The sensation of the breath is often used as an anchor because breathing is always in the present moment.
It may surprise you to learn that practicing mindfulness outside of meditation is a major component of meditation retreats. For example, while eating, the instruction is to pay careful attention to each step in the process. Eating becomes a succession of moments of mindfulness that might include the sight and smell of the food, the physical sensation of your arm being raised to your mouth, the sound of the food being chewed, the taste of the food, and even the thought, "This food is good."
Another example: On retreat, everyone participates in "work meditation." I always signed up to put food away after meals. I'd perform the task slowly, so I could be mindful of the sights, sounds, and physical sensations as I picked an appropriate container, put the leftover food into it, covered it, and put it in the refrigerator.
What are the benefits of practicing mindfulness outside of meditation?
1. Mindfulness gives the mind a rest from our fixation on discursive thinking. Of course, we need to think at times. That said, the mind tends to dwell on stressful thoughts about the past and the future: we replay painful experiences from the past; we mock up worst-case-scenarios about the future. It's exhausting and rarely productive. Bringing our minds out of our stories and into the present moment brings with it a welcome relief from these stressful and habitual thought patterns.
2. Mindfulness takes us out of ourselves. You can see from #1 that most of our discursive thinking is self-focused. It's refreshing and energizing to open our awareness to the world around us instead of always being preoccupied with our personal stories. Mindfulness also helps us cope with painful physical sensations when their intensity takes over our entire sense of self and we feel we are nothing but painful sensations (see my piece, "Mindfulness: Potent Medicine for Easing Physical Suffering").
3. Mindfulness turns a boring activity into an adventure. My work meditation—putting food away after a meal—may have sounded boring. But with mindful awareness, it became an adventure: finding just the right-sized container for the amount of food that was left; transferring the food from the serving tray into the container without spilling it (all the while enjoying the stimulation of my sense of smell!). This intentional engagement with what is happening in the present moment generates curiosity, not boredom.
4. Mindfulness frees us from judgment. Non-judgmental awareness of whatever presents itself to the senses is a key feature of mindfulness. We become friendly and impartial observers, free to put down the heavy burden of judging. In this way, mindfulness is a doorway to equanimity because the essence of equanimity is being okay with our experience whether it happens to be pleasant or unpleasant at the moment. Note: This doesn't mean we wouldn't take action to prevent harm to ourselves or others. Mindfulness should be undertaken with a caring attitude; we know when to abandon our impartial observation and grab a child who's about to step out into traffic!
5. Mindfulness enables us to make wise choices. When our minds are lost in stressful thought patterns, it's hard to see through the mental clutter. As a result, we get confused and become reactive, not reflective. This makes it more likely that we'll respond to others unskillfully, perhaps saying something we'll later regret (when I first became chronically ill, I unleashed anger and frustration on many a person who intended me no harm). By contrast, if we've learned to practice mindfulness in the midst of both pleasant and unpleasant experiences, we're much more likely to catch ourselves before we speak or act unskillfully. We can stop, take a conscious breath or two, and then choose a skillful and healthy way to respond to people and situations.
6. Mindfulness opens our hearts and minds to the world unfolding right before us. The Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Pema Chödrön (a chronic illness sufferer herself) describes this as, "Letting the world speak for itself." When I practice mindfulness outside of meditation, I often use this phrase as a sort of mantra: "Let the world speak for itself," I silently say to myself. The world answers with the full array of life's experiences—the squawking of a scrub jay, the breeze in my face, the sadness in a child's cry, the sight of a young couple in love.
Note: The theme of this article is expanded on in Chapter 7 ("The Mindfulness Path") of my book, How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.
© 2011 Toni Bernhard. Thank you for reading my work. I'm the author of four books, including How to Be Sick: Your Pocket Companion (for those who've read How to Be Sick and for those who haven't). Available May 2020.