Sometimes we can’t ignore external signals to be mindful. My puppy is a reminder. When I am absorbed in a task, usually at the kitchen table on my laptop, she will quietly move into position next to the chair and nudge my leg with a toy. If I ignore her attempts to get my attention in this gentle way, she will increase her efforts by pressing the toy into my leg more forcefully. If that doesn’t work, whimpering will. Recognizing the need for a break, I take the stuffed toy outside so she can chase it. I am reminded that life exists beyond the computer screen. Sometimes it takes a puppy to nudge us toward mindfulness.
In Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes: “In my tradition, we use the temple bells to remind us to come back to the present moment. Every time we hear the bell, we stop talking, stop our thinking, and return to ourselves, breathing in and out, and smiling. Whatever we are doing, we pause for a moment and just enjoy our breathing.”
In mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) we practice both formal and informal meditation. Formal practice is sitting and lying-down meditation, or a guided body scan. In these practices, the focus is on the breath, or—in the body scan—the area of the body we are focusing on in a guided meditation. When our mind wanders, we bring it back to the breath without judgment, doing this over and over again for the duration of the meditation. Minds will wander off the focus of the breath a million times, but the instruction is to bring the mind back to the breath a million times.
Informal practice means performing a routine activity mindfully. By being fully present in a mundane activity that we often do thoughtlessly, we change the experience. Eating a meal mindfully, without watching TV or reading—noticing the food, sensing the texture, the flavor, the smell, the colors, and really tasting the food—is one informal meditation practice. Usually, we eat with numerous distractions and wolf down food so that before we know it, we are done eating and don’t remember having tasted our food or even having eaten.
Practice doing any routine activity mindfully. Brushing teeth, folding laundry, washing the dishes, and getting dressed are all ways to practice mindfulness. We often use distraction when performing mundane activities to prevent boredom. Yet by bringing awareness to a puppy’s prompting or a child’s insistence on playing one more game of Chutes and Ladders, we find them surprisingly interesting. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says in Letting Everything Become Your Teacher: 100 Lessons in Mindfulness, “If you are cultivating mindfulness in your life, there is not one thing that you do or experience that cannot teach you about yourself by mirroring back to you the reflections of your own mind and body.” It is in the stillness of focus that we observe where our minds wander. Later, we use this information to know ourselves more deeply.
Bringing Awareness to Daily Life
When a child or a puppy interrupts you, you can use the opportunity to notice your thoughts and your breathing. Being attentive to what you are doing in the moment invites inner stillness and reflection. By bringing awareness to aspects of life that otherwise may slide by, it is possible to wake up from automatic pilot and connect more intentionally with the present. If you have been living life on automatic pilot, as most of us do, then taking these opportunities when they present themselves opens up experience. If you are fully aware of thoughts, feelings, and sensations in your body, you can change the experience; you have more choice, more freedom. And this can have a profound effect on feelings of depression and anxiety. In a recent MBCT group, several participants commented that being mindful allowed them to stay focused without judging when family tensions arose. Being able to experience difficult emotions knowing that they will pass brings equanimity in the face of challenges.