Developing a mindfulness practice
"Only that day dawns to which we are awake."
Henry David Thoreau
A PROFOUND DIMENSION of human experience present in each of us, but often undeveloped, is our capacity to be mindful. To be mindful is to deeply touch the present momentóthat is, the living reality of our lives. When we bring our awareness and attention in an open, non-judgmental way to the present moment, our aliveness becomes real for us. We can experience freshness, vitality, and wonderónot as an abstract concept, but directly, for ourselves. We can experience ourselves as connected and engaged, not alienated and empty.
What happens when we begin to practice mindfulness with some dedication? At firstómaybe not much. One thing beginning practitioners of mindfulness meditation soon notice is the unbelievable busyness of their minds, and the mindís tenacity in keeping attention focused on its "stuff." This can be an uncomfortable discovery.
But when we continue to practice mindfulness, with a gentle but firm intention to engage again and again with the way things are right now, we find that the mind can quiet down. We can begin to experience calm, peace, and nourishment in a direct and vivid way. what is happening n the present is what is real, and to engage with what is real is to be present with the wonderful blooming of our world, moment after moment.
For people who would like to cultivate their capacity for mindfulness, I have a few suggestions from my own experience:
Get qualified instruction from an actual person. Books can be helpful, but only up to a point. Mindfulness practice is best learned from someone whom has a solid experiential base from which to speak and teach, and whom exemplifies the practice directly.
Arrange structured support for mindfulness practice. Join a class, connect with a practice group, or plan activities with a partner. Donít depend on "willpower" alone. A teacher once described the principle of "right effort" as putting oneself in a situation that will result in the intended outcome. This is a very different understanding of effort than our usual expectation of internal struggle in an attempt to "make" ourselves do something. Since mindfulness practice gets so little support in general in our culture, itís important to design in some concrete ways for us to be supported in our practice.
Practice mindfulness in both formal and informal ways. By "formal," I mean making the practice of mindfulness our top priority for a given period of time. When we choose to simply practice mindfulness with our whole body and mind, we often do something that can be described as sitting meditation. We assume a posture that directly supports mindfulness practice by being stable, comfortable, strong, and alert. Other formal practices of mindfulness include walking meditation and mindful bodywork. It is important to remember that the body is a full partner in meditation practice.
Informal mindfulness practice occurs when we bring an attitude of mindfulness to activities that we are doing anyway. For instance, when we brush our teeth, we can either go on automatic pilot and "space out," or we can practice being present with our toothbrush, our hand, our teeth, an the process of brushing. When we are walking from our car or the bus to work, we can be present with our walking, perhaps going a little slower than usual to support our mindfulness. This is a fundamental for mind-body harmonizationónot having a split between where the body is and where the mind is.
Whenever possible, bring awareness to the breath. As long as we are alive, we are breathing, and so in some way each breath is life for us. It is often a revelation to discover what a profoundly grounding and calming effect the breath has when we are simply aware of it, rather than losing touch with it in forgetfulness.
Remind yourself regularly of your deep intentions. Every day we are bombarded with suggestions of one kind or another to aspire toward superficial goals, and it is easy to lose touch with our deep hopes and aspirations. Thich Nhat Hanh recites this wonderful verse each morning:
Waking up this morning, I smile.
Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment
and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.
To begin the day with this kind of "mission statement" has the function of realigning our efforts giving us a reference point for our choices.
The practice of mindful awareness brings together body, mind, spirit, and environment in a dynamic interplay of ourselves with other beings and things. It is a continuing practice, one that doesnít happen automatically just because we "understand" it or decide we would like to practice it. It requires a gentle, firm, continuing effort. It is a deeply nourishing and healing practiceóone that is always available to us to cultivate, moment by moment.
Michael OíNeal is co-director of the Center for Mindful Living (612-825-7658) in Minneapolis. The Center offers courses and retreats in mindfulness and mindfulness-based stress reduction. Michael has been teaching meditation for over 15 years. He studied and practiced with Dainin Katagiri Roshi for 10 years in the Soto Zen tradition, and has participated in trainings with Thich Nhat Hanh and Jon Kabat-Zinn.