One of the most common questions people ask when they are first introduced to mindfulness is ‘can I practice mindfulness without having to do a formal practice, such as sitting meditation?’ The answer is, ‘yes, you can’, and ‘no, you can’t’. It depends on why someone became interested in mindfulness in the first place. Some of the mindfulness practices, like eating a meal in silence and tasting every mouthful, or walking down the street and feeling the contact between the soles of the feet and the ground, or pausing every now and then and tuning into the different senses, are easy to do, and they do have a positive cumulative impact over time. Even just slowing our life down by 10 percent, or learning to take deeper breaths from the diaphragm rather than shallow ones from the chest, will improve our wellbeing.
Just taken by themselves, however, these practices aren’t really what mindfulness is about. If we think of mindfulness as non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, we can see that simply noticing that the birds are singing as we walk to the station isn’t going to help us develop this non-judgmental attitude. In fact, we might get caught up in the idea that only the birds should be singing, and that the car noises and lawn mower have no place in our walk to the station. We might get precious about our ‘mindful lunch’, and become annoyed when someone interrupts us. Simply stopping to smell the roses isn’t going to help us develop some of the core attributes of mindfulness such as non-judging, non-striving, letting go, patience, trust, and so on.
In order to develop these qualities, we need the protective setting of a formal mindfulness practice such as sitting meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, or the body scan. The formal meditation practice is like a greenhouse where the tender young shoots of these qualities can be nurtured and protected before being exposed to the more challenging weather conditions of our everyday lives.
Because of how we have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, our brains don’t just naturally become more mindful simply because we’d like them to be so. Trying to be mindful in the midst of a crisis without having done a regular practice is like facing championship point at Wimbeldon as an amateur tennis player. It’s only the years of hitting forehands and backhands in training which give a tennis player any chance of hitting a winning return under that pressure.
A greenhouse is an artificial environment, just as sitting still in the meditation posture for half an hour is a purposefully-created space. The encouraging aspect is that it doesn’t take long for meditation students to notice the benefits of protecting and nurturing the mindfulness qualities in the greenhouse setting of formal practice.
Weekly practice idea:
If you already have a formal meditation practice, take a few moments to appreciate the protective nurturing this offers you. If not, make a commitment to spend at least twenty minutes this week in a formal mindfulness activity such as meditation, yoga or Tai Chi.