Can you be mindful all the time?
Last weekend we were driving on the freeway with the radio on, kids singing and teasing each other in the back, sharing apples and chips and debating the pros and cons of living in Sydney when we missed our turn-off. We looked at each other horrified for a moment and then shook our heads. You can’t be mindful all the time, we laughed as we looked for the next exit.
A moment later we wondered: Can you be mindful all the time? Is that the point of practising mindfulness? Could you still function normally if you attended purposefully to everything you are doing? Is it even possible? Or desirable?
Mindfulness is paying attention to what you are experiencing, in the moment you are experiencing it, without judging it in any way. You can practise mindfulness by focusing on your breath as it flows in and out of your body. You can also practise mindfulness by focusing on your senses in any given moment, ie what you are seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction teachers recommend formally practising mindfulness for only 45 minutes to an hour a day.
You can go for a mindful walk by feeling your feet against the ground as you take each step, you can mindfully hang out the washing, feeling the weight and wetness of the clothes against your hands, and you can mindfully drink your coffee, smelling the spicy aroma of roasted coffee beans and feeling the warmth of the cup in your hands while the hot liquid runs down your throat. You can have mindful conversations, mindfully feed your baby and mindfully send an email. You can even have mindful sex! (Actually, isn’t that the point?)
So, it seems we can do almost everything mindfully. But should we? Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction teachers recommend formally practising mindfulness for only 45 minutes to an hour a day. This allows our brains to practice focusing completely on the present moment and helps us to become more aware of those patterns of the mind which often carry us away.
But you can’t sit in formal practice all day, every day and, as we know, it’s useful to be able to drive to work, walk down the street or take a shower without having to think too much about it. Thankfully, we have evolved in a way that allows us to turn on autopilot for mundane tasks to free up our minds for other things. The problem is, we can stay on autopilot for hours, days and even years, especially when we’re stressed, completely missing the wonder of our lives.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, says that “mindfulness is about living your life as if it really mattered, moment by moment by moment by moment”.
For me, a formal daily practice of around 45 minutes plus as many small mindful moments as I can muster during the day helps to be more attentive in those moments when I’m not sitting in meditation. It’s like turning down the black and white dial of autopilot and turning up the vibrant colour of here and now.
The problem is, we can stay on autopilot for hours, days and even years, especially when we’re stressed, completely missing the wonder of our lives.
But there are also many times during the day when I’m not being mindful and I get caught up worrying about the future, feeling stuck and overwhelmed or just switch off entirely. I don’t wish these moments away but I am more able to recognise them when they occur, giving me the choice to continue or return to the present moment. You could say, I’m becoming more mindful of when I’m not being mindful! And as well as noticing more of what’s good in my life, I’m better able to sit with what’s not, and to let go of negative emotions more quickly and easily.
So what is the answer? You can’t spend all day feeling the sensations of your breath or focusing on the greenness of a leaf (unless you’re at a retreat, in which case, go for it!) but you can train your mind to notice more of what’s happening right here and right now, with you, within you and around you. The soft touch of your skin against another’s, the delightful feeling of your child’s hand within yours, the brightness of the sunlight and shadows as you drive past the trees and the heavenly scent of freshly baked bread as you buy your morning croissant.
And, in these small ways, we really can live our lives as if they truly mattered, moment by moment by moment by moment.
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