Mindfulness – meditation, practice or way of life?

Meditation and Mindfulness

“Paying attention in a particular way – on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally”

Mindfulness is often thought of as primarily about meditation. Indeed, go to a mindfulness class, and you soon get to understand the importance of meditation as a way of cultivating mindfulness. Many people turn up to a class with the intention of learning to meditate. However, mindfulness and meditation are not one and the same thing.

To begin with, there are many meditation techniques that are not intended to cultivate mindfulness. Concentrative techniques can be very beneficial in other ways, and can help strengthen some characteristics. I first started meditation with TM, which emphasises concentration on a mantra (a particular sound), at least in its main teachings, and I found that beneficial in many ways. I now do regular yoga classes, and there are some meditation practices in yoga (arguably hatha yoga is a movement meditation practice aligned with mindfulness), though some teaching of yoga is not there to explicitly cultivate mindfulness. There are contemplative practices, including prayer, that are also do not expressly cultivate mindfulness.

Mindfulness meditation is a meditation that emphasises present moment awareness, that facilitates guided attention, and that cultivates a number of attitudes (primarily a non-judging attitude). Novice meditators often want to know if they are “doing it right”, not seeing the judgemental aspect of the question. In fact the paying attention aspect is only one aspect of meditation – a key aspect is what you do when attention drifts, as it will, even for the most experienced meditators. The learning to return to the object of attention in a non-judgemental way is a way of cultivating non-judgemental attitudes as well as cultivating attention.

Meditation, therefore, should be seen as an important way of cultivating mindfulness, and not equated with mindfulness. Having a half hour practice every morning, where you are serene and kind to yourself, and spending the rest of the day in a series of fugues, is not really that mindful. Meditation is a form of “practice” for mindfulness, but it is not mindfulness.

Practice and Mindfulness

“What you practice becomes stronger”

Meditators and mindfulness practitioners often refer to their “practice”. By this they usually mean their meditation practice. But practice can be interspersed with daily life – simply taking a pause and connecting with your breath or your feet on the ground, or appreciating the scenery on a walk, can be perfectly good mindfulness practice.

In a sport, in a skill such as playing a musical instrument, in revising for an exam, in so many aspects of our lives, practice is key to development. This is the same with meditation and/or mindfulness. The more you do it, the more proficient you become. So, finding opportunities to practice are ways of cultivating mindfulness, both formally in a meditation practice, or during our daily lives.

Often people turn up to a mindfulness class hoping for some magic process to calm their mind. If they are lucky, then that happens very quickly. However, most people have spent years practicing worry, anxiety, irritation, and it can take a while for other qualities like patience, letting go of worries, and calmness to grow. Usually, after a few weeks, many of these qualities start to grow and become obvious. But it can be slow, and practice is the only way.

Mindfulness as a way of life

So, you sit down for half an hour every morning, you take a few pauses in the day to connect with the moment, and what next? Usually people start to notice some changes after they start a mindfulness practice, in their ease of being in the world, in a little more calmness. It can take a while, which is why formal classes usually advocate about 45 minutes of daily practice over an eight week period.

The real value of mindfulness is when you start to see changes in your daily life. As you cultivate a broader awareness, and start to be able to guide your attention rather than have it pulled this way and that, as you start to become less reactive, then you start to realise the possibility of changes where once you thought change was impossible.

One of the most exciting outcomes of research in recent years is the notion of “plasticity”. Our brains, which were once thought of as fully mature in our twenties and then subject to slow decline, actually grow and adapt throughout our life. As with muscle, our brains atrophy if they are not used. But as with muscle, if you use your brain in particular ways, so parts of the brain will grow.

Eventually the things we practice in meditation become habits. We begin to recognise our reactivity and choose other ways of responding to the world. We begin to be curious about how we think and behave. Instead of recoiling from the world, we engage differently with the challenges the world throws at us.

Does practice make perfect?

Perfection is not the aim of mindfulness. Rather, it is a way of learning to live with our imperfections, and make small changes. We are all human, and mindfulness is more about connecting with our basic humanity than striving for some super-human ideal.

I’ve heard mindfulness practice described as an adventure. Each day is a new beginning. Mindfulness encourages us over and over again to return to the present moment, to look at what is here now, to value what we have. It is not turning off or away from our lives, but engaging fully with them.

So practice makes for improvement. Perfection, if it is possible, is too far away to worry about. Practice for today, not tomorrow. Then practice may become second nature, and then mindfulness may become more the norm than the exception.

And then what? Who knows? Try it and see.


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