What is applied mindfulness?
You’ve probably noticed that mind has a tendency to get distracted, especially when we are uncomfortable. If you have ever tried to follow the breath in meditation, you know that the mind wanders away from the present moment. When our distracted mind is left unchecked for prolonged periods, we may end up ignoring entire aspects of our life.
When we are able to focus the mind for a while, we start to recognise our habitual patterns. Not all habitual patterns are bad—washing your hands after changing the kitty litter is probably a good one to keep. Maxing out your credit card on a retail therapy binge whenever you have a bad day at work might become problematic. Once you are able to see the patterns, then you can start to ask yourself: do I really want to keep doing this?
Luckily, we have a choice. We recognise this choice by practicing mindfulness. We start simply by sitting down to watch our mind in meditation. If we do this on a regular basis, and maintain a certain degree of focus and discipline, we will —sooner or later–start to experience moments of clarity and presence.
But, while mindfulness may provide temporary relief of ignorance —the tendency to avoid the truth of what is right in front of us– it won’t alleviate emotional suffering over the long term.
In order to witness our destructive patterns, we need to take a step back and develop a wider perspective. For that we need awareness, which arises through expanding our view. The key to making mindfulness applicable to daily life is to develop awareness.
What does it mean to develop awareness?
If mindfulness is continuously coming back to the present moment, awareness is recognising the context in which mindfulness takes place. Awareness is observing the process of being mindful; it is conscious involvement in whatever we are doing. Eventually it is seeing into the nature of the mind.
Observing our present experience is surprisingly challenging. We may be so accustomed to a certain outcome, that we may miss things that do not fit with our expectations. But the more we practice, the more subtle detail we observe—in our thoughts, emotions, relationships and environment.
What’s the difference between mindfulness and awareness?
Mindfulness is bringing your focus back to the task at hand, whether we are observing the breath in meditation, or chopping carrots. Awareness is remembering to be mindful of what we are doing. So when we get distracted during meditation, or when we have to suddenly attend to the boiling soup on the stove, we come back and remember our focus. We return to the breath, or to the carrots, and resume our mindfulness—tending to whatever we have chosen as our object of attention.
How can mindfulness and awareness help us to be happier?
The only way to interrupt bad habits that cause suffering is to first become aware of them. In practicing mindfulness and awareness, we learn about our own individual tendencies, which are different from everyone else’s. Once we are able to see our patterns, we can apply antidotes necessary to bring ourselves back into balance.
If I have a tendency to get defensive when provoked, I can learn to stay physically present and engaged. If I easily fly into a rage, I can learn to slow down my reactivity by remembering a mindfulness technique. If I have a tendency to be lazy, I can learn to create structures that motivate me.
Awareness is the great medicine that allows us to heal our emotional wounds. Without our imbalances—our heart-breaks, struggles, disappointments and obstacles– there would be no journey to take—no need to seek medicine. So we should also bow to our weaknesses, in gratitude.
Awareness also leads to recognition of the interconnected nature of every aspect of our experience. We start to see how relaxing the body and deepening the breath affects our state of mind. Eventually we start to see how every thought, word and action sends out waves that affect the subtle details of our environment and relationships.
The dawning of awareness arises when we are able to sustain relaxed mindfulness of the present moment.
Awareness is something that happens naturally when we are fully present, engaged and relaxed. Say you are in conversation over dinner with your beloved, and he or she is telling you all the reasons you are so wonderful. You would probably be so riveted by these words that you would not be at all distracted by the child screaming in the restaurant, or the clatter of plates as the waiters rush about, or by the little spinach leaf on his chin. Mindfulness is what keeps your ears tuned in to the words; awareness is recognising what is happening in the present situation. Essentially, there is no effort involved in awareness. The practice is to stay focused and relaxed in equal measures. So how do we bring this to daily life?
Applied Mindfulness: The Method
Observe the Breath
Make a habit of checking in with your breath. Notice your breath when you are on the computer, or talking to a friend, or driving to an appointment. Get to know how the breath changes with your state of mind. From a yogic perspective, when the “winds” are disturbed, the mind will be agitated. When you settle the breath into a rhythmic flow, the mind also settles. Whenever you notice you are distracted, return again to the experience of breath entering and leaving the body. This is a simple tool to help you relax.
Settle the Mind
Think of a jar filled with water and sand. When it is shaken, the sand swirls around clouding the water. This is what a distracted mind is like—no clarity. A settled state of mind is characterised by the clarity of recognising thoughts as insubstantial and impermanent. The practice of sitting meditation is the most direct way to achieve this settled state of mind, and when you have practiced this for a while you develop the capacity to bring this calm clarity to your daily life. When you ally with the spaciousness of the mind instead of the contents of the mind (distracting thoughts) you automatically shift your perspective. This allows you to more fully focus on whatever you choose.
Become Curious About Your Experience
Notice what is going on around you. Make note of the details of your environment. Tune in to your body to see what messages it is picking up. Notice the body language and facial expressions of others. Listen with your inner ear, or your sixth sense. Open your mind to possibilities you have not yet imagined. Just as there is a difference between hearing and listening with the ears, let the mind “listen.”
Applying mindfulness and awareness to daily life enables us to weather storms with greater ease.
Often we continue to engage in destructive patterns because we’re not aware of them. We can’t see the development of the process and go into “reaction mode.” There is a stimulus – like someone saying something hurtful—that sparks a feeling. We don’t like it, we don’t want to feel it, and so we hurry to find an escape from that feeling. We lash out, run away, pick up a cigarette, quit the job, ditch the partner—anything to distract us from the physical sensations of a disturbing emotion. When we slow the whole process down by using these practices, we give ourself a pause to check in and choose an alternative response.
We can shift our mindset to see our place in the grand scheme of things. We can learn to ally with the spaciousness of the present moment instead of getting caught up in the constant stream of busy-ness. Becoming aware of our own habits through mindfulness practice allows us the freedom to choose consciously to engage in behaviours and patterns, rather than being dragged along by a lifetime’s worth of struggle. So this process of applying mindful awareness to our daily lives offers us the possibility of resting in a balanced state of mind no matter what the moment brings.