Is there a difference between a formal, structured practice of mindfulness, and simply practicing it in your everyday life?
As I’ve been writing about this secular, evidence-based meditation practice I’ve been doing, some people have been commenting that they don’t do any sort of formal or structured meditation practice… but they do work on being mindful in their everyday lives. They work on being more conscious, more present, less tuned-out, when they’re eating, walking, talking, listening, reading, petting cats, and otherwise just getting on with their life.
So I’ve started wondering: Is this something that would work for me?
I’ve actually been doing both of these kinds of practices. I’m doing what I’ve been calling a formal practice — setting aside time every day to step away from my regular daily activities and meditate: sitting or lying quietly and focusing on my body, or my breath, or something else very specific, and noticing when my attention has wandered, and gently returning it to my intended focus. And I’m also doing what I’ve been calling an everyday practice — working on being more present, more conscious, less spaced-out and inclined to think about a hundred things other than what I’m doing, when I’m eating, walking, talking, listening, reading, petting cats, and otherwise just getting on with my life. Also noticing when my attention has wandered, and gently returning it to my intended focus.
This latter bit, this everyday practice, isn’t something I brilliantly came up with on my own. It’s something that was specifically taught in the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course I took. It’s a central part of it, actually. We learned an assortment of more “formal” meditation techniques… but we also learned an assortment of methods for being more mindful in our everyday lives, in our interactions with other people and with our surroundings and just with ourselves. (“Formal” and “informal” are not the best terms, in fact, since the everyday practice can be pursued in a very conscientious, disciplined way… but I’m failing to come up with better terms, so I’ll stick with these for now.) To a great extent, the “formal” practice really is just that — practice, literally, for being more present and less reactive in my day-to-day life.
So could I ever get so good at being mindful in my everyday life that I didn’t need the formal practice?
The more I think about meditation, the more I draw analogies to physical exercise. When I meditate, I’m strengthening the part of my brain that’s able to be really conscious and present in my life, that’s able to turn my focus where I want it to go, that’s able to thoughtfully respond to events in my life rather than reacting to them and being whipped around by them. And doing this feels very much like strengthening a muscle group, so I can make better use of it when I need to. It’s like lifting weights at the gym, so I can carry a sack of cat litter into the house; it’s like doing sprints on the treadmill, so I can run for the bus. And like physical exercise, it’s not just about building strength in one particular part of my body or my brain — it’s about improving my overall health. Working out improves my general health and stamina and well-being, in countless ways; meditating improves my mental and emotional health, in countless ways.
So. Let’s extend this analogy.
If I had the kind of job or the kind of life where I got regular vigorous exercise as part of my daily routine — if I were a construction worker or a piano mover or a park ranger — I might not feel a need to go to the gym. I might decide that the physical exercise I got as a routine part of my day was enough. (I could also see going the opposite way — I might make a point of getting extra exercise to keep me good at my job, or to get kinds of exercise my job didn’t afford — but not necessarily.)
But I don’t. My work, and most of my hobbies and interests, are pretty sedentary. If I don’t make a point of setting aside time to get vigorous exercise, it isn’t going to happen.
And if I were more of a natural athlete — if I were someone who just naturally gravitated toward lots of physical activity, if my hobbies included hiking and bicycling and skiing and tennis and kayaking — again, I might not feel a need to go to the gym. I might decide that the physical exercise I got through the rest of my life was enough. (Again, I could also see going the opposite way — I might want to make a point of getting extra exercise, like strength or endurance training, to improve my hiking and bicycling and skiing and tennis and kayaking — but not necessarily.)
But I’m not. My personality does not naturally gravitate towards physical activity. My personality naturally gravitates towards sitting on my butt thinking about stuff. I enjoy exercise and physical activity once I start doing it, and I can tell that it has a strong positive effect on my life — including my ability to sit on my butt and think about stuff — but I am not naturally drawn to doing it unless I make a conscious point of it. If I don’t deliberately set aside time for it, it isn’t going to happen.
And now, let’s bring the analogy back.
My life, and my personality, are not a natural fit for an everyday mindfulness practice. My work sucks my attention in twenty directions at once, and it strongly reinforces my tendency to live in my head. My personality includes a strong tendency to live in my head… and a strong tendency to live in the future, to worry and plan and fantasize, to come up with endless “If A happens then I’ll do B, if C happens then I’ll do D” contingency schemes.
Now, it’s true that my personality is also drawn, at least somewhat, toward mindfulness. When I look over my writing over the course of my career, I notice the theme popping up again and again, everywhere from my atheist rants to my smut. The ability to stop and literally smell the roses — like my character Dallas in my erotic novella “Bending,” to “just notice that she was alive, here, in this place and time… [to] be filled with the immensity of the moment, the clear understanding that infinity and eternity were present in this minuscule sliver that was her life” — this is something I treasure.
But when I don’t do a formal meditation practice, this happens pretty sporadically. And it happens to me, coming out of the blue. It isn’t something I choose to do. If I don’t set aside time to formally practice mindfulness, it isn’t something I’m going to keep up in my everyday life. Even if I did, it wouldn’t be something I’d do particularly well. When I do set aside time to meditate, being present in my everyday life is easier, and more natural… and I do it a whole lot more often.
Like I wrote before: Meditation is literally a practice — in the sense that it’s something I’m doing over and over and over again, so I can get better at it and more comfortable with it. If the skills I’m learning came to me more naturally, or folded into my life more fluidly, then I might, at some point, be able to let go of the formal practice, and just incorporate the everyday practice into my life.
But for now — I don’t think so. Not for the foreseeable future. Maybe not ever. I’m not even sure I would want to — I like meditating, it’s often pleasurable and feels good, just like going to the gym is often pleasurable and feels good. But I go to the gym even when I don’t think I’m going to enjoy it, even when I’m absolutely not in the mood. And I meditate every day even when I don’t think I’m going to enjoy it, even when I’m absolutely not in the mood. I work out regularly so I can be strong and healthy in my life. And I meditate every day so I can be mentally healthy and present in my life. For me, that’s just how it works.