Following a mindfulness and meditation research meeting at my University earlier this week, I started thinking about mindfulness without meditation. I have briefly touched upon this concept in a previous blog post, but today I want to discuss it in more detail.
The conversation at the research meeting revolved around this particular topic – the possibility of practicing mindfulness without a daily formal meditation practice. Some attendees argued that it was possible and potentially even preferable for interventions and research studies targeting individuals that may be discouraged by the prospect of a daily meditation practice requirement. Others, however, argued that meditation is the actual practice of mindfulness, the how of mindfulness, and is thus essential for mindful awareness to fully develop.
After a (mindful) discussion, we all agreed that daily formal meditation makes a big difference in our own lives, in terms of how “mindful” we feel throughout the rest of the day. But how beneficial is a mindfulness practice without a meditation component? Is there a dose-response relationship between time spent meditating and benefits gained through mindfulness practice? Or can you gain important mindfulness skills and experience related benefits even without meditating?
Personally, I am a firm believer that a mindfulness practice is incomplete without formal meditation. But after doing some research, I discovered that they are actually quite a few people out there who claim that a state of mindful awareness can be achieved without meditation. Just doing a quick Google search on mindfulness without meditation produced list after list of “how to” articles and tips for practicing mindfulness without having to meditate. (My favourite article was how to meditate without actually meditating, but that’s a story for another day!).
However, the concept of mindfulness without meditation reaches beyond online articles. It has extended into books and even academic research. Some modern mindfulness-based therapies, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, are now opting for mindfulness skills training without a formal meditation component. So this is definitely a topic worthy of future research!
There is of course truth in the idea that you can be mindful outside of your formal practice, and the ultimate goal of a mindfulness meditation practice is indeed to allow mindfulness to permeate every area of our daily lives. In fact, by simplistically breaking down mindfulness into an accepting attitude and an open awareness to our thoughts and experiences, we can see how we are presented with thousands of ways to practice mindfulness every day.
Mindfulness can be practiced in the way we wash our dishes or how we brush our teeth. We can observe our experiences during a mindful walk or while commuting to work. We can notice how our body feels during an exercise session or while we are sitting at our desk. We can attend to our emotions as well as physical and mental cues that occur throughout the day. We can pay attention to the sounds that we hear and the people who we see. We can practice mindful movement or eat a meal mindfully. And we can always take a brief moment to bring our attention back to our breath when we feel stressed or notice that our mind has wandered.
But here is the problem of practicing mindfulness without a formal meditation session. It is incomplete.
Doing versus being
If you only practice mindfulness while you are doing something, it may be hard to stay fully present while doing nothing, or, more specifically, while practicing non-doing. Similarly, reacting to (negative) emotions in a mindful way might also require this simply being aspect of your practice. (Unless you respond to intense anger by doing the dishes mindfully – but hey, to each their own!).
Additionally, doing something relaxing (e.g., gardening, drawing, walking, etc.) does not guarantee that this activity is done mindfully. You can feel relaxed without being fully present, or you may let your mind wander while doing an activity that you are very good at. Some activities can induce a relaxed and automatic state of mind, where you can switch off and tune out, rather than a relaxed but conscious awareness of what you are doing.
It’s easy until it isn’t
And what happens to your mindfulness practice when the going gets rough? Trying to apply mindfulness in a challenging situation (e.g., when going through a stressful period at work or the loss of a loved one) is very difficult if you do not already have an established practice when your mind is in a neutral state.
It may feel like learning how to drive in a bus, learning how to swim in a turbulent ocean, or learning how to run before you have even started crawling.
So it is time to get comfortable with meditation. And I do not mean using a cushion, a pillow, or a comfy robe to meditate in. I simply mean getting comfortable with the idea of meditation. Often, what discourages us from formal meditation practice is either our expectations of it or our direct experience of it.
But, as I have written over and over and over again, meditation does not need to be done for hours each day, it does not have to make you feel a certain way after it is done, and it definitely allows for days off as and when your mind and body need it. It has been suggested that frequency is more important than duration when it comes to meditation, so instead of aiming for 30 minutes every morning, try shorter 5 or 10-minute sessions throughout the day.
Ultimately, meditation is a personal journey, which requires consistency, commitment, and an attention to your own personal needs. This will not happen overnight (trust me, I know!), so in the meanwhile simply focus on getting comfortable.