Mindfulness without meditation

The last post in my current series on mindfulness. The beginning of the series is here.


Let’s face it, not everyone wants to sit and meditate.

Formal sitting meditation is the best way to develop the skill of mindfulness, to stengthen your mindfulness muscle, but there are other ways to perform the meditation cycle. All you need is something to focus on that’s going on right now, and then off you go – focus, get distracted, notice, come back to focusing.

Every day I walk to the tube station (subway) 15 minutes from my house. On the way, I focus on the sensation of my feet alternately making contact with, and then pushing off from, the floor. I can manage about 100 yards before I get lost in a train of thought. But then I notice it’s happened, and I bring my attention back to my feet. I’m meditating by walking! And this means I can do two 15 minute meditations (there and back) every day. No more remembering another thing to fit into my busy morning schedule or worrying if I really have time to spend 15 minutes sitting doing nothing!

And it’s not just walking. If you think about it, there are so many opportunities every day – brushing your teeth, having a shower, washing dishes, preparing food, exercising in the gym. Once you’ve got the hang of it, you can even meditate while you’re driving on the motorway (though I wouldn’t recommend this for absolute novices!)

Even just short check-ins remind you to focus on the present – helping to give you Level 1 benefits. You can stick a sticker on your computer screen to remind you to check in when you see it. You simply spend 30-60 seconds tuning in to your body, your environment, the sights, sounds and smells. And for that short minute, you’re accessing the Level 1 benefits and interrupting whatever you happened to be ruminating on at the time. Sure, you’re not going to develop stable awareness if this is all you ever do (at least, if you do, it’s likely to take quite a long time!) but who doesn’t want an immediately available stress relief? A regular alarm on your phone is also a good reminder.

I’m a particular fan of the way Zen is built into Japanese culture so that it triggers you to be mindful, even without noticing. One example is in Zen pottery, where the master potters deliberately introduce imperfections into the glaze. They spend years mastering how to do this in a way that looks accidental. But the point is that instead of having a bowl in your hands that is perfect, and thereby likely to go unnoticed as ‘just a bowl’, you notice the imperfection, and in that moment you’re pulled away from whatever inner dialog is running through your head, and your attention is focused on the bowl. What it looks like, how the imperfection in the glaze feels under your fingers. You don’t realise, but you’ve just had a mindful moment.

There’s one last way that you can train your mindfulness without meditating. At some point as you practice meditation and approach the Level 2 benefits, the penny will drop and you’ll have an ‘a-ha!’ moment. Suddenly you realise what if feels like to be aware of your thoughts and see them as thoughts. You’ll get what I’m talking about when I talk about watching a movie with the lights on. And once you’ve had a taste of that experience, you can start playing a new game. The game of trying to hold that feeling for as long as possible, as often as possible during the day. And, though meditation is still the best way of strengthening the mental muscle, you can do a lot by repeatedley flexing it wherever you are and whatever you’re doing.

I was at an event the other evening launching the UK’s latest thinking on how to introduce mindfulness into workplaces, and during a Q&A session, someone in the audience made the point that the Sanskrit word that we translate into “mindfulness” is actually quite difficult to translate directly into English. But he prefered the translation “awareness”. I still like to think of it as having the lights on, but either way, that’s the real game. Meditation’s just one of the tools to get you there.

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