Whether you’re new to the field of mindful meditation, or an experienced practitioner, you’ve likely come to understand that mindfulness is not a magical pill. It is a practice. It is something we do that provides its promised benefits in proportion to the extent that we actually engage in the practice. Reading about it without applying it will yield no rewards.
Experiencing the benefits of mindfulness requires training oneself to be mindful. Like a good fitness program, mindfulness involves different forms of training, each with a different focus and emphasis.
Formal practice is one type of mindfulness practice that has huge benefits. It replenishes us and allows for deep insight and rest. As I further explain in my book, A Practical Guide to Mindful Meditation, there is another type of meditation practice that can be just as important and meaningful: informal practice. This type of practice is critical to keeping focus in our lives and to developing insight and wisdom. To practise formal meditation without informal meditation makes little sense. Both are needed.
Comparing gym training with mindfulness training illustrates the importance of focused practice. During our gym time we may focus on a regimen aimed at strengthening particular muscle groups. At some point we complete our training regimen and walk out the door, using our newfound strength as we go about our daily life. We don’t live to train; we train to live.
This is doubly true of mindfulness training. When undertaking formal meditation practice we dedicate a particular time and place to cultivating mindfulness. Once we complete our meditation session, then our practice actually begins. This is informal practice, or mindfulness training in everyday life.
There is a particular reward in deliberately cultivating mindfulness in the routine aspects of our lives, doing things we are most likely to dismiss as being of little or no value. This is the perfect training ground for informal meditation. It may include anything where you can pay attention, be present, non-judgemental and aware during your daily activities.
Examples of informal meditation include the following:
Driving: Turn off your radio, and focus on driving. When you find yourself caught up in thinking, realise you have forgotten what you are doing, drop these thoughts and return to driving. While driving, it is easy to lose mindfulness and forget our driving, then remember it, then lose it, over and over. With mindfulness, we find ourselves paying attention to what we normally miss.
Washing dishes/housework: Focus your attention on washing. Feel the water, the dishes, the soap. It is easy to forget the washing and slip into thinking, then remember what you’re doing, then forget again. Become interested in the process of washing, thinking then washing, then thinking. Ground yourself in the washing, and notice how awareness moves from one event to the other.
Mindful walking: Drop the thoughts you have and stay focused on the body as it walks. Feel the touch of foot on floor. Feel how your weight shifts from one side, to the other. Don’t hurry. Focus on the movement, rather than the destination.
Listening: Listening is also a wonderful way to practice mindfulness. Tuning out can hurt your relationships and erode your own inner wellbeing. Tuning in to others deepens trust and understanding. Listen as if it’s a meditation. It’s a great practice.
As you can see from these examples, informal practice is not mindlessness. It is mindfulness of what you are doing, as you are doing it, and awareness of your mind and body’s responses to what you are doing. When we are continuously aware, rather than alternating between awareness and habitual dreaming, our life transforms. We are more alive; the world is more alive. We notice things we might otherwise not, and act consciously rather than absentmindedly.
Informal meditation is a richly rewarding practice, and a wonderful method for measuring the impact our formal meditation is having on our day-to-day lives.
Michael Bunting is the bestselling author of The Mindful Leader and A Practical Guide to Meditation. He runs leadership consultancy WorkSmart Australia, a certified B-Corp.