There is much being written about and discussed regarding Mindfulness these days. In the West we tend to get a little faddish about things and we find that the current fad passes as the next one arrives. The 2,400+ year old practice of Mindfulness will be around long after the current trend here in the West moves on.
Practitioners of Mindfulness realize that a lifelong commitment to the practice is essential. There is an understanding that the fundamental goal of Mindfulness is not to attain some heightened state but to live our lives in the present moment - to be here now. The practice helps us to be present for our lives as they are now.
Practitioners learn that the past is a dream and the future is a vision, but the present moment is where we actually live. We learn to watch our thoughts and to be with our feelings and emotions. We recognize and become aware of our suffering and emotional reactivity, and begin to cut through self-deception.
The practice is in many ways healing and naturally leads to an increase in compassion, empathy, and understanding for ourselves and others. No wonder it has gained some notoriety in the West! But make no mistake; this is not a hobby to be picked up when one has some spare time. The realization of the benefits of Mindfulness practice requires both a formal daily practice and an informal daily practice.
The formal daily practice involves Meditation. It is a fundamental. Learning to meditate takes time and can be facilitated by engaging with a meditation teacher, reading instructional materials, viewing videos, listening to audio presentations, going to meditation retreats, and getting involved with other meditation practitioners.
As a long time mediator it has been my experience and understanding that it is not how long one sits in meditation, but how often. Yes, there are wonderful benefits and understandings to be attained by longer periods of meditation. But sitting every day, no matter what is taking place in your life at the moment, is where the most significant impact of meditation can be realized.
Sitting when you feel great or ill, sitting when you don't really want to, sitting when you are traveling, and sitting when conditions are not ideal - this is where you find the greatest learning and insight into your own life. So, formal sitting or walking meditation every day, no matter what... this is what will facilitate and maximize our ability to develop a deeper relationship with the thinking mind and to touch the heart.
Through the formal practice of meditation we learn and develop skills. We learn to concentrate on our breath, to observe our thinking mind, to name and note thoughts and feelings, and to deal with a myriad of distractions. We learn about impermanence and the fact that nothing lasts and that change is our constant companion. We learn how to return to the present moment.
As we progress and grow in our meditation practice these skills begin to fully develop and we gain habit strength with them. Our ability to recognize and be aware of emotional reactivity and suffering strengthens and expands. We learn to note and/or name the thoughts and resultant feelings that arise, and let them pass. We learn to return over and over to the present moment.
The informal daily practice begins to take shape from the formal daily practice. This is what is sometimes referred to as everyday mindfulness. We take the learnings and experiences from our daily meditation practice and begin to utilize and apply them in our daily lives. We take the formal meditation skills and begin to apply them on an ad hoc basis as we move through the vicissitudes of our lives.
There is a growing recognition that we cannot know what may happen to us next and we begin to understand the groundless nature of our lives. Trust in ourselves and our ability to open to our lives as they are begins to expand. Over time we are able to recognize emotional reactivity as it is arising in the moment, note and/or name it, and (with some practice) let it pass. Suffering (defined here as what we add to our experience) becomes increasingly apparent and we begin to comprehend that we no longer need to engage in the (sometimes habitual) thoughts that serve to extend or increase uncomfortable or painful experiences, as well as positive/desired experiences.
We learn to accept what is happening and to move on with our lives. In this way we bring greater freedom and equanimity to our daily lives. The informal practice then begins to inform and enhance our formal practice. There is an interdependence and interconnected-ness that develops in our practice between the formal and informal daily practices. This then becomes a way of life for the practitioner and helps her or him to live life in the present moment in a consistent manner.