Writer: Erin Lee
I am often asked how I practice mindfulness, and for how long I meditate every day.
And I explain that while I have a daily morning routine of sitting at my meditation spot, my mindfulness practice goes beyond dutifully dwelling in stillness. As much and as best as I can, I make it a point to bring awareness to every waking moment of each day, as a way to sustain and strengthen my practice.
Over the years I have learned the importance of informal mindfulness - the practice of bringing mindfulness "off the cushion" and into my daily life. As I go about my day-to-day schedule of activities, I intentionally practice attending to both my internal and external environments.
As present-moment awareness becomes an anchor to my way of life, the benefits of practicing daily life mindfulness have proven to be tremendous.
I find myself functioning less on autopilot and much more alert to what is happening around me.
I notice improvement in my ability to observe myself in times of distress and the capacity to respond to situations or crises with greater calmness and clarity.
And as I invite attentiveness to my interactions with others, I enjoy healthier and more meaningful relationships.
Our everyday life offers us numerous opportunities for practice, and in this article I'd like to share seven of my favourite ways to pay attention to life with mindful awareness.
1. During self-care routines:
Self-care activities can feel really banal, since we go through the same motions every single day. We tend to fall into autopilot mode during these routine activities and allow the mind to wander off on an endless trajectory of random thinking, planning, or evaluating.
My go-to mindfulness practice with self-care is brushing my teeth with awareness. I engage my senses to stay present with the experience, allowing my awareness to take in the taste and smell of the toothpaste, the texture of the foam, the wetness of the water, the sounds of gargling and the tap water running, and the sensations of brushing at the teeth and gums.
I also recommend practicing this way when we are showering, washing our face, shaving, changing our clothes, etc.
2. During household chores:
Housework can sometimes be laborious to get through, but it is an activity that can be made more bearable (or less dreadful) when we pay attention to the experience of cleaning and tidying, and observe our aversion towards the task.
While not all chores work for me, I have found washing the dishes and folding the laundry to be most feasible for practicing informal mindfulness. On top of bringing awareness to my five senses as I engage with the chore, I remind myself of why keeping my physical space clean and liveable is important to me.
The tedious nature of housework, when approached mindfully, has also helped me cultivate more patience and tolerance towards a task that I would otherwise procrastinate on doing.
3. While I'm eating:
It's been an interesting experience paying attention to my eating experiences. I have discovered a lot about myself through observing my relationship with food and how I choose to take care of my body.
I notice moments of rush and impatience, when I catch myself reaching for another spoonful while there's still food in my mouth, and when I hastily swallow my food without chewing enough.
I also notice how often the mind wanders off to dwell in thoughts, or gets distracted by the impulse to check my phone, and how stingy I am with my attention towards the experience of eating a meal.
The ability to be present with my mind and body also empowers me in managing tendencies of emotional eating, regulating my consumption behaviours, and designing my diet.
4. When I'm walking:
Walking can become an almost entirely mindless activity for me when I don't pay attention to the experience of it.
When I am only focused on getting to my destination, I often go into autopilot mode. The body moves on its own while the mind gets pulled away by a never-ending stream of events in the headspace. My attention tends to be everywhere else except on my own body and with my immediate surroundings.
With such mindless walking, not only am I compromising my own safety, I also miss the opportunity to connect with my body and my environment in the present moment.
But when I choose to take a step back from the headspace and engage in walking with more mindful awareness, my whole experience transforms.
I notice moments of habitual rush, even when I'm not at all in a hurry. I observe how readily the mind switches off from the journey and gets lost in thinking, thinking, thinking.
Wherever I may be walking, I purposely slow down my pace a little, and bring my attention to the body's movements and sense of balance, and how the body is responding and interacting with the external world in each moment.
With every step that arrives in my awareness, I consciously observe how different parts of my body work together to enable this miraculous feat of seamless coordination.
5. When I'm with nature:
I am blessed to be living in a city intentionally developed with an abundance of nature, but all too often I take my urban environment for granted.
My mindfulness practice has taught me to step out of the mode of non-stop thinking and doing, and learn to simply be with the beauty and wisdom that nature has to offer.
I don't need to travel very far to access nature; all I need to do is pause and open my awareness to my surroundings when I'm outside, and this is when I am able to appreciate the grace of an old tree, the varying shades of green on an unassuming grass patch, a subtle scent of flowers in the breeze, and the resonant sounds of birds calling at one another.
I recognise that I feel well - physically and mentally, when I consciously pay attention to nature, even if it's just for a few minutes or moments in a day.
6. During a conversation:
Ever since I started bringing mindful awareness into moments of interacting with people, it has been amusing to observe just how much of the time my attention is not actually on the conversation!
My body language and facial expressions would make me appear attentive and engaged, but in reality my mind would be constantly distracted by thinking - thoughts of my to-do list, thoughts of yesterday's events, thoughts of where to visit during my next holiday, thoughts of judgement towards the person I was "listening" to, thoughts of assumption towards what this person was sharing with me.
Mindfulness also allows me the space to observe any reactivity arising in the body and mind when the conversation becomes difficult or when my point of view gets challenged.
It is with this awareness of my internal environment that I have learned to work with my impulses to interrupt or jump in with solutions and unsolicited advice. It is because of this mindful awareness that I am able to develop the skills of deep listening and responsible, helpful speech.
7. During transitions:
I always remind myself to take mindful pauses throughout the day. This has been helpful for me in getting through particularly hectic days.
For those of us who frequently get caught in schedules of back-to-back meetings and tasks, it is all the more essential that we take a breather in between activities so that the mind and body get the chance to rest and recalibrate amidst all that busyness.
I like taking mindful pauses as I transition to the next activity or task, or as I exit one physical space and move into another. I take a minute to rest in stillness and check in with the state of my body, or tune in to my immediate environment by engaging my five senses. This helps me shift out of the doing mode and gently ground my attention to the present moment.
Occasionally when I even don't have a minute to spare, just taking a deep breath with full awareness of the complete cycle of the breath in the body can invite a sense of relaxed alertness. This is when I am able to move on with my day from a better space.
As you reflect on how you could more seamlessly integrate moments of mindfulness into your daily life, allow me to close this article with three helpful tips for practicing informal mindfulness:
Try to do one thing at a time (let go of multitasking).
The core of the practice is to know that you are doing as you are doing it - always maintain awareness of what is happening in the present from moment to moment.
Keep reminding yourself to practice mindful awareness as often as you can - the hardest part of informal mindfulness is to remember to practice!