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Mindfulness is not the same as meditation. There are many meditation techniques. Mindfulness meditation is one of them. Because it’s done in a structured setting, it can improve your mindfulness skills, but you need not be meditating to benefit from practicing mindfulness.
How do you practice mindfulness outside of meditation?
Mindfulness is the practice of paying careful attention to what is happening in the present moment. You can do it anywhere—lying on your bed, sitting in a doctor’s office or on a park bench, standing in line.
Try this: Take three in-breaths and three out-breaths, resting your attention on the physical sensation of the breath coming in and going out of your body. You may have been aware of a sound, a smell, a bodily sensation other than the breath, or even mental activity (the latter refers to thoughts and emotions that arise in the mind).
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 moment that makes up “eating lunch.” Eating is a succession of short moments that include the sight and smell of the food, the physical sensation in your arm as you raise it to your mouth, the sound of the food being chewed, the taste of the food, and even the thought, “This food is good.”
If you try this at home (and I hope you will), you’ll be surprised at how much is involved in taking just one bite of food! Not only are there many steps, but each one is interesting when you’re paying careful attention.
Here are a few of the many benefits of practicing mindfulness outside of meditation:
Mindfulness practice helps you respond more skillfully to others and yourself
When you’re lost in thought instead of consciously resting your attention on the present moment, you’re more likely to engage in harmful speech or action. For example, you might vent your frustration on someone who intends you no harm. But if you pause before you speak and take three mindful breaths, breaths that bring your attention to the present moment, you’re giving yourself time to choose a skillful and beneficial way to respond. As for how you treat yourself, more often than not, that pause will reveal that what is of benefit to you is self-compassion, which simply means being kind to yourself when you’re troubled.
Mindfulness practice takes you out of the tendency to always focus on yourself
Most discursive thinking is self-focused. George Harrison expressed this phenomenon well in his song title: I, Me, Mine. Opening your awareness to the world around you instead of always being preoccupied with your personal stories is like putting down a burden. Mindfulness also helps you cope with painful physical sensations when their intensity takes over your entire sense of self, and you feel as if you are nothing but physical pain (see my post, How Mindfulness Can Help with Physical Suffering).
Mindfulness practice helps keep troubling thoughts from escalating into disaster stories that make you feel worse
When you’re lost in stressful stories about your life—stories about the past and the anticipated future—it’s hard to see through the mental clutter. Practicing mindfulness outside of meditation helps you catch thoughts before they turn into full-blown disaster stories. And the more you practice, the earlier you’ll notice that your thoughts are escalating in a stressful way. As soon as you notice, you can switch your attention to the present moment. This brings with it a calmness of mind.
Mindfulness practice turns mundane activities into an adventure
You’ve already seen how taking just one bite of food can become an engaging activity. This is also true of tasks that are thought of as boring: putting food away after a meal, making the bed, standing in line. If you pay careful attention to what you’re doing, tasks such as these can become an adventure.
Take putting away food as an example. Slow it down and notice how this task includes finding the right-sized container in which to store the leftovers; discovering you have several lids that don’t fit on any container; transferring the food from the serving bowl into the container without spilling it (all the while enjoying the stimulation of your sense of smell); finding a good place for the container in your refrigerator. This intentional engagement with what is happening in the present moment generates curiosity, not boredom.
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Tibetan Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön uses the phrase “Let the world speak for itself.” If you softly or silently say this phrase to yourself, the world will answer with an array of engaging experiences—the sound of a bird, a light breeze in your face, the sadness in a child’s cry, the sight of a young couple in love .
Mindfulness practice helps free you from the heavy burden of judging yourself and others
Non-judgmental awareness of whatever presents itself to the senses is a key feature of mindfulness. You become a friendly and impartial observer. This doesn’t mean you wouldn’t take action to prevent harm to yourself or another. You’ll know when to abandon your impartial observation to stop a child from touching a hot stove.
Mindfulness practice gives your mind a rest
Minds tend to get fixed on stressful thinking patterns about the past and the future: you replay troubling experiences from the past (this replay is often accompanied by self-blame); you mock up worst-case scenarios about the future. It’s exhausting and rarely productive. Paying attention to what’s happening in the present moment offers relief from stressful and habitual thought patterns. This gives the mind a much-needed rest. We rest the body. Why not the mind?
Note: The theme of this article is expanded on in Chapter 7 (“The Mindfulness Path”) of How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.