Mindfulness is always mindfulness of something…
We can cook our breakfast mindfully and continue to produce the energy of mindfulness, concentration and insight.
We do not have to go to a temple, to a meditation center in order to generate these three kinds of energies.
You don’t have to set aside time to practice mindfulness—you practice while you brush your teeth or take a shower, do the dishes. And you are fully alive in these moments. This is the art of living.Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Suffering Retreat Day 1
Many think that you need to use traditional meditation practices in order to cultivate mindfulness. However, this is not entirely the case—at least, it doesn’t require meditation in the conventional sense.
Any activity can be carried out mindfully – and as a meditation – and can serve to sharpen your awareness and concentration abilities when you make it your singular focus.
Further, you can enjoy activities you dread (chores) simply by your total immersion in them, following the breath, and relaxing the body.
A “Meditative State”
Meditation is defined as a “deep concentration on a singular activity.” The pastime can be anything—walking, cooking, even simply breathing.
Mindfulness is a very related – but distinct – concept. It can be viewed as full immersion in the moment. It is a mental state obtained by bringing one’s attention to the present, while being conscious of and accepting one’s thoughts, feelings, and sensory perceptions.
This ability is strengthen through meditation. When I use the term mindfulness, you many envision an image of someone sitting with their eyes closed, face relaxed and hands in their lap.
But as I alluded to, ‘meditation’ doesn’t require you sitting in the lotus position (cross-legged) with the back of your hands resting upright on your knees. You can cultivate your mindfulness capacity by bringing your attention to your breath and body, and concentrating on a sole undertaking, releasing other thoughts from your mind.
When you are fully present and engaged (mindfully engaged) with a singular activity, it can dramatically impact your ability to focus, be present, and your capacity for insight.
The fundamental mindfulness exercises generally produce straightforward insights, like awareness that you have a body, period, or that you’re holding tension in a particular area—insights into the body.
The more profound insight that comes with a more developed practice are those into the tendencies of your mind and its formations (it’s attachments, impulses, feelings and afflictions).
“Insight is the fruit of mindfulness and concentration. It is by ignorance the we suffer. But when we begin to touch the insight, the insight touching our true nature, there’s no longer any fear—there’s compassion, there’s acceptance, tolerance.”
Mindfulness, Concentration and Insight
Thay describes the process of mindfulness (breathing, consumption, walking) as composed of three components, or as he refers to them, three energies.
Wherever mindfulness is, concentration is also. When you are mindful of your in breath, you are concentrated on your in breath. When you are mindful of your tea, you concentrate on the tea.
First come mindfulness and concentration. Then insight arrives, which can be viewed as the byproduct of mindful and meditative (focused) states, practiced together.
Mindful breathing or walking brings you back to the present. And when you’re established in the present, you are aware of what’s going on. Thus, you recognize things as they are, i.e., obtain insight.
As I mentioned, your first recognitions will be regarding your body—your posture, tense areas, etc.
But as you further develop your consciousness-spectating ability through routine practice, you’ll begin to see the inner-workings of your mind and its shortcomings, leading you down the path towards self-actualization—if you’re so inclined as to follow it.
Mindfulness of Something: Reaching Self-Actualization
According to the practice, everything you do in your life should be done mindfully. And if you do it mindfully – like walking or driving or cooking – you are truly alive.
The practice of living mindfully helps you to look more deeply at everything as it presents itself in the present moment.Thich Nhat Hanh
As noted, this type of insight, and ultimately, self-realization, doesn’t require a traditional meditation practice to be attained. You simply need to practice and deploy mindfulness and concentration as you conduct your daily activities, and pass from one to the next.
I think this is the main distinction between traditional Chinese Qigong and Buddhist meditations styles. Taoist Qigong meditation typically involves some form of dedicated practice—either one incorporating movement (Dao Yin) or simply Taoist breathing techniques (Tuna).
And while the movement component is beneficial, in terms of opening up Qi blockages in the body and improving mobility and mental wellbeing in general, it is distinct from mindfulness meditation in the traditional Buddhist view. Meaning, it is not a necessary means for releasing tension or ultimately, cultivating self-actualization.
I often get more profound tension release, insight, and awareness from just mindful breathing or walking than I do when trying to be mindful during dedicated Qigong practice on a particular day.
Maybe it has to do with intention, but if I’m not looking forward to practicing for whatever reason that day, it’s much easier for my mind to wander. However, I can typically steady it eventually and release it into my body and focus solely on the breath if I’ve cultivated sufficient present-moment focus through mindful walking or mindful cleaning that day.
I think contrary to many, I often don’t find it difficult to deploy body awareness while doing chores or going about my daily routine. It’s just easy for me to transition effortlessly between mindful walking or breathing will sitting the the following activity while staying aware of my body and the mind.
Ironically, I have a more challenging time being mindful when I’m engaging in pleasurable activities—likely because of the concomitant dopamine release, i.e., the “molecule of more.”
Staying Mindful During Pleasurable Sensory Experiences
Thay uses an excellent analogy between eating chocolate and mindful breathing in one of his’ Dharma talks. To indulge in the chocolate mindfully is to let it melt on your tongue, feel it move slowly down your throat, and taste all of the flavor nuances as it osmoses into your being.
Well, he surmises that a good practitioner can get these joyful sensations (and insight and eventually self-realization) from elementary mindful walking or breathing as well; enjoying each breathe or each step as much as every luscious bite of cacao—with the added benefit of not having to worry about excessive consumption.
This intrigues me on a number of levels.
The first being that other Buddhist practitioners I’ve heard address the subject of eating discuss not putting emphasis on or attaching to taste.
The other idea I like is the excessive consumption aspect. As someone who had been going through a long stretch of progressively worse and worse attachment, it was encouraging to hear that my material longing can be replaced by simply enjoyment of each mindful breath or step in the present.
Maybe the reason Thay believes in the enjoyment of pleasurable impulses received by the sensory perceptions is because he’s not clinging to the experience produced by the stimulus—he’s alright with indulging in the pleasurable ones so long as that indulgence doesn’t become a fixation.
For the record, these fixations don’t just manifest as pleasant experiences. They can also arrive in the form of unfavorable or dreadful ones. Like cleaning the apartment, for example.
Finding Joy in Mindfulness of Dreaded Activities
When you wash the dishes, if you know how to breathe and smile and produce the energy of mindfulness, concentration and insight, washing dishes becomes a very pleasant thing.Thich Nhat Hanh
Returning to the chocolate analogy, something else encouraging for me is to know that activities traditionally thought of as unfavorable, like doing the dishes or dusting countertops can be pleasurable when done mindfully.
There is hard data to support the mood-boosting effects of mindfulness during unpleasant activities. A study in the journal Science titled “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind” found that a person’s awareness during a given activity had more influence on their happiness in that moment than the activity itself.
Somewhat surprisingly, regardless of if they were thinking unpleasant or happy thoughts, if their mind was elsewhere instead of engaged in the activity, they were more likely to report feeling unhappy at that time.
Embodying this practice and belief has also helped me eliminate the tendency to procrastinate.
As a side note, I’ve discussed it before but another way to kill procrastination tendencies is to consider the sense of accomplishment you feel when crossing things off your to-do list.
Distractions also provide an avenue for procrastination and are a coping mechanism for unfavorable tasks, in addition to just preventing us from being mindful. When we are swayed by distraction, we forget that we have a body.
I’ve received many insights about myself through mindful consumption and living, but probably the most significant about the external world is how the sensory stimulation so prevalent in our society serves a purpose—to prevent us from living and consuming mindfully, and generating insight.
The sheer nimiety of clutter we face in many daily circumstances – whether mindless entertainment, anticipating salivary stimulation (namely sugar or excitotoxins) or endless push notifications of “breaking news” on our devices – is a calculated means of stopping us from connecting with each other, our inner-voice, and generating meaningful insight.
Insights into human nature – like how we’re all connected – or into our own personal true nature; i.e., discovering our calling or pinpointing what’s preventing us from seeing it.
Whatever it is that keeps us running from the present and is vying for and winning the battle over our consciousness is what we need to renounce.
Large scale automation is also partially to blame for our inability to practice mindfulness. Because so many of our daily tasks are now delegated to machines (like driving, for example) it is very easy for the mind to wonder, instead of staying conscious of the task at hand.
I can’t genuinely say if this absent-mindedness is a goal of automation – as with keeping us wrapped up in distraction – or just a byproduct, but regardless, that’s what transpires, at least for me.
However, by deploying mindfulness and focusing our attention on solely the activity we are currently engaged in, we can come back to the present, and hear the voice within (our intuition)—the inner compass that tells us what we need and subtly nudges us in the right direction towards self-realization.
If I need a mechanism – some kind of practice – to produce Qi, I can’t do it with pure awareness, then’s there’s probably too many distortions on the nature to apply it to the mind to allow that quality to grow from inside.Damo Mitchell, Hidden Intention in Qigong Practice – Part 3
These “distortions” are expectations, longings, emotions and judgements that come from the distractions I discussed previously. But by bringing our awareness back to the present – to the body or the breath – we become conscious of these distortions.
We all have distortions. However, some people are more aware of and better at letting go of them than others. The key is to not judge yourself for having them.
Through mindfulness they will come into your consciousness, which is a great start. And with enough practice their grasp on you will begin to loosen, eventually fading away entirely.
No doubt, there are detrimental physical (and mental) health effects that can be attributed to laying on the couch all day. And they probably outweigh the benefits gained through laid-out mindful breathing.
However, the point is, peace and joy, healing, insight, and potentially even self-attainment can arrive be being present, aware of your body, and following your breath.
Now, take the power back!