There can be a tendency to think of mindfulness practice as a special activity that occurs separate from the rest of our lives. While I’m a huge advocate for regular, dedicated periods of formal mindfulness practice, it’s also essential to learn how to be mindful in the midst of our day-to-day activities. For if mindfulness is something we only do in the privacy of our home or at certain designated times, its value becomes quite limited.
One of the primary aims of our practice is to live with more awareness, choice, and empathy. That means making mindfulness part of the very fabric of our life. Our practice is just that: practice. It is a training that prepares us for the real thing, living life.
And if we can develop more ease and natural awareness in our formal mindfulness practice, it can actually become a foundation for how we live.
I’ve written previously about how cultural pressure and habits of “high volume doing” effect our well-being and our mindfulness practice. When we spend the majority of our time doing tasks and accomplishing things, that way of relating to experience gets imprinted on our mind. This carries over into our mindfulness practice, where we can end up thinking about mindfulness itself as another thing to “do.” We view it as something with a beginning and an end, that we can get right or wrong, rather than as a process of relaxing, observing, and learning about ourselves and life.
Receiving the Breath
To counteract this tendency (and to set the stage for making mindfulness an integral part of our lives), we can begin by shifting our effort in the formal practice from an attitude of ‘doing’ to one of ‘being.’ We can experiment with learning how to access the innate, receptive quality of awareness.
You can explore this by playing with the difference between “paying attention” to your breathing, and “feeling” your breathing. The former often involves an inner contraction – a narrowing of the mental focus, or a subtle leaning forward inside towards the breath. To feel the breathing is the opposite movement. There is an inner relaxation, an opening of the field of attention, a resting and settling back into receiving experience.
What would it be like to let the breath come to you?
The trick here – and one place you can get interested – is keeping the mind alert and engaged yet relaxed. How do we pay attention without contracting or striving? Can you keep your focus light and receptive?
As we get a feel for this quality of balanced, alert presence, we start to notice when there is tension, straining or unnecessary effort in our formal practice. The jaw tightens; the eye muscles contract or the brow furrows; maybe the stomach or hands clench slightly. We become more sensitive to these signals and learn how to investigate what’s driving the tension and gently release it.
Over time, the process carries over into the rest of our life. We may notice how we are leaning forward, or breathing quickly in a meeting. The angst of that becomes apparent and our practice kicks in: we soften and relax. (This doesn’t mean we can’t also take decisive, strong action when needed; it just means we no longer need to grip the steering wheel while stuck in traffic!)
As we notice these signals throughout the day, we learn more and more how to return to an easy, naturally alert mindfulness.
Living with Awareness
When we learn to practice mindfulness in a relaxed and receptive way, we realize that we actually can be mindful all the time. Knowing what’s happening within and without becomes as natural as the eyes seeing light, as the ears hearing sound. The mind is naturally aware all of the time, if we learn how to notice and tune in to it.
When mindfulness is something we do, it happens during discrete periods of day. When it’s about paying attention and learning, it becomes how we live.