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How Do I Practice Mindfulness?

The third question I'm often asked, after "What is mindfulness?" and "Why should I practice mindfulness?" is usually, "How do I practice mindfulness?".

This is a good place for me to pause and mention one of the transformative teachings of Dr. Andy Olendzki, the director of the master of arts program I completed. When explaining a teaching, he'd often start with, "As I understand it."

This is a great time to mention that Andy is a scholar of early Buddhist thought and practice with a special interest in Buddhist psychology and its relevance to the modern world. This guy's been studying, teaching, and writing about these topics for decades, so his use of "as I understand it," was fantastic modeling and an impactful reminder that my ability to transmit to you what mindfulness is, why you should practice it, and how to practice it is affected by my ability to understand it. So, in everything I write about mindfulness (and all other topics), preface everything with "As Jill understands it." (Sometimes I include "As I understand it," and sometimes I don't to increase ease of readability.) This is another reason why the invitation to Try It On is included with everything I offer.

As with most questions around mindfulness, the answer to "How do I practice mindfulness?" is both simple and complex. Let's start at the beginning.

As I explained in a previous post, mindfulness is paying attention, on purpose, from a place of non-judgment. Mindfulness meditation is engaging in practices that support the ability to pay attention, on purpose, from a place of non-judgment. The practice of mindfulness occurs in the moment I realize that what I intended to pay attention to is not what I am paying attention to, and then bring my awareness back to what I intended to pay attention to.

Confused? Frustrated? I get it. These terms get thrown around a lot, and one of my biggest frustrations, and the top reason that I do the work I do, is that oftentimes, there's some kind of exhortation, such as "Be mindful!" or "And mindfulness supports the ability to [fill in the blank with whatever complexity you're working with]!" but there's no instruction about how. That's why I'm kinda intense about these definitions, operationalizing the how, inviting you to try the practices on for size, and offering an alternative view that if the practices don't fit, you can alter the practices to fit or use your agency to decide not to engage with a certain practice.

Traditional Mindfulness Meditation Practices

As I understand it, the traditional Buddhist* mindfulness meditation practice postures are sitting, standing, lying down, and walking. But usually, people living in the West like me see images like this when meditation is portrayed in the media:

meditating on beach

or this:

meditation in nature
Are you also worried this person might slip off the moss-covered rock?

or this:

a man and woman meditating together

This isn't to say that the people in these images aren't practicing mindfulness meditation, but mindfulness meditation can also look like this:

walking meditation
Me, sometime in Spring 2020, walking meditation in our yard

If you have a body, you can practice mindfulness meditation. You don't have to be on a beach or wear special clothing, and you can even do it while you're growing out your hair and returning to your natural hair color while wearing a comfy quilt robe.

You can practice sitting on the floor, on a cushion, on a chair, lying down, standing, or walking. When I've engaged in periods of concentrated practice on silent retreat, the instruction was to sit, stand, or lie down in a posture that is both tranquil and alert.

Tranquil and alert

There's a story that when the cofounders of Insight Meditation Society first visited Barre, Massachusetts, to tour the former monastery that would become IMS, they went to a diner in town to discuss the visit. At some point, they looked up and saw a Barre police car with the town motto on the side-- Tranquil and Alert. That's when they knew they'd found the right spot for the first Insight meditation center in the West.

The instruction in choosing a posture for practice is to find a place where the body can feel tranquil (well-supported, at ease) and also alert. I've heard warnings about practicing while lying down because it may be more difficult to stay alert in that position. In my experience, lying down can be a very supportive posture... and also, if I'm feeling tired, it may be that in that moment, I need to rest rather than practice. I generally take whatever posture feels most supportive at the time I'm practicing.

Walking Meditation Practice

The traditional mindfulness meditation practice that I see discussed the least is walking meditation practice. The essence of it is to place the foot and step... and then place the next foot and step... and to place the foot and step... back and forth in a space of 20ish-30ish feet. Sometimes it's v-e-r-y slow, and sometimes it's not.

I have also engaged in other forms of walking meditation practice, such as intentionally paying attention to the feelings and sensations of my body moving through space. Taking a walk among trees and other more-than-human beings is also one of my favorite practices. That's usually more about what I notice with my senses rather than a sense of embodiment.

Formal and Informal Practices

There are two categories of practice in mindfulness meditation: (1) formal or "on the cushion" and (2) informal or "off the cushion." As you might have pieced together, the images above and discussion about practice postures is about the formal practices. Even though I rarely formally practice by sitting on a cushion, I still talk about my "on the cushion" practice. And when you hear or read in one of our Thought Kitchen programs about "getting the reps in," we're likely referring to formal practice. Like any other "thing" you want to learn to do, you must spend time actually doing the practices. And the intention isn't to get "good" or "better" at mindfulness. The intention is to make the practice of mindfulness more accessible as you move about at the Speed of Life.

Imma say that again:

Like any other "thing" you want to learn to do, you must spend time actually doing the practices. And the intention isn't to get "good" or "better" at mindfulness. The intention is to make the practice of mindfulness more accessible as you move about at the Speed of Life.

The posture of the mindfulness meditation practice is one of the ingredients, while the subject of the practice itself is the other. What do I mean by this? There are many different kinds of instructions for practice, and the tradition I'm trained in and teach is Insight (or vipassana) meditation, which is about paying attention to and being with experiences as they arise.

The instructions can be quite simple-- rest awareness in something, notice when your attention wanders away, and then gently bring it back. There's mettā, which is bringing to mind certain people and then sending them well-wishes, which supports kindness or friendliness. There are practices to strengthen compassion as well as joy and empathetic joy. I also enjoy using crystal bowls, chimes, drum, and other instruments to create sounds in which meditators can rest their awareness.

The informal or "off the cushion" practices come in lots of different flavors, too. One example is taking a daily activity, like brushing your teeth, drinking a beverage, or eating a meal and intentionally engaging in the activity as a mindfulness practice. When I do this, the first thing I generally note is that I'm usually on auto-pilot and thinking about other things when I engage in these activities. (Or is it just me who sometimes can't remember if I've brushed my teeth before I got in the shower?)

Another informal practice is noting or noticing what's arising. It can look like "There is ______." There is typing. There is hunger. There is...

Practice of Mindfulness

All of the formal and informal practices support my ability to engage in the practice of mindfulness, which is the actual noticing that I'm not paying attention to what I intended to pay attention to. I do this in the formal practice when I note that my awareness has wandered away. I do this in the informal practice when I note that my awareness has wandered away. In the noting and bringing the awareness back to what I intended to pay attention to, whether in the formal or informal practice, I'm building the capacity to more easefully practice mindfulness as I move at the Speed of Life. What I mean by Speed of Life is at full-speed in my daily interactions with others, emails, texts, Zooms, phone calls, etc. There's so much arising so quickly that I find it difficult to rest my awareness in one place, and that's where the practices help me. I know I'll never be "good" at it, but I have learned through experience that by practicing, I can more easily access the ability to note when my awareness has wandered and bring it back to rest where I intend it to rest.

See-- simple and complex.

If you haven't yet, I invite you to get started practicing by enrolling in Kitchen Essentials and joining our Weekly Sangha Sit. I look forward to practicing with you!

*When I use Buddhist, I am referring to the teachings of Gotama Siddhartha, the original Buddha. I also sometimes use Buddhist psychology to differentiate from Buddhism as a religion. For me, I practice and learn from these teachings like I would other scientists, philosophers, artists, writers, etc. Some people practice Buddhism as a religion, but I do not. Although my teaching is grounded in these teachings, I do not consider my teaching religious.

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