Mindfulness, put simply, is paying careful attention to what is happening in the present moment—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). You can practice it for a few moments or for a few minutes, anywhere: in your bed, sitting in a doctor’s office or on a park bench, standing in line. Anywhere.
How? Try this:
Take three or four conscious breaths while resting your attention on the sensation of the breath coming in and going out of your body. You may have been 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 present in the 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 the food being pierced by the fork, being raised to your mouth, touching your tongue, being chewed and then swallowed.
This eating sequence is a succession of moments of mindfulness and may 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.”
On meditation retreats, people often participate 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 and sounds and physical sensations as I picked an appropriate container, put the leftover food into it, covered it, and put it in the refrigerator.
6 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. But the mind tends to get lost in 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. Paying attention to what is happening in the present moment is 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 that 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.
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 calmly present in the midst of both pleasant and unpleasant experiences. Note: This doesn’t mean we wouldn’t take action to prevent harm to ourselves or another. In true mindfulness, 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 caught up in stressful thought patterns, it’s hard to see through the mental clutter. We get confused and become reactive, not reflective. Then we’re more likely to respond to others unskillfully, perhaps saying something we later regret. But if we’ve practiced mindfulness in the midst of both pleasant and unpleasant experiences, we’re more likely to be aware of our reactive tendencies and can catch ourselves, take a conscious breath, and choose a more skillful way to respond.
6. Mindfulness opens our hearts and minds to the world unfolding right before us. The meditation 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. 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.