By Corey Plante
For many people, the terms “mindfulness” and “meditation” go hand-in-hand; one must sit cross-legged in silence and meditate in order to be more mindful. Or do they?
As published research becomes more prominent and frequent practice more popular, the scope of what it means to be “mindful” is evolving — or it might be more accurate to say its roots are in a period of revival.
The basic guiding principle behind both yoga and meditation — that ineffable sense of self-understanding that we call “mindfulness” — can and should be applied to just about anything. Julie Fraser, a long-time meditation teacher, said, “Mindfulness is a way to live. It’s not just a formal practice.”
She explained, “A lot of mindfulness is just sitting and noticing your breathing. In all of the work about mindfulness and meditation, there’s also an opening to bring mindfulness into whatever you’re doing, to truly be present and as non-judgmental as you can be.”
Following that mindset, Mindful Boston offers a monthly Mindful Beat event in which local musician Rick Landwehr guides attendees through a free session of what he assures is NOT simply mindful drumming. “It’s… a… beat,” he said.
“It’s a common myth in meditation that you have to be perfectly still,” Landwehr said. “The point is to take care of yourself and do what feels good. Do things as mindfully as you can. And don’t beat yourself up if you fail or your mind wanders. Or even if you do ‘beat’ yourself up (laughing at his own pun) you can even do that mindfully.”
During the introduction to the session, Landwehr offered a brief reflection on meditative states of mind: “A lot of people think that meditation is about not thinking, when that’s actually impossible. It’s about gently returning to the moment as many times as you have to.”
By focusing on the sounds of the drumbeat, people use the noise as an anchor into the present moment. Landwehr started with his own hand drum and led the group through a monotonous beat that gradually induced a vaguely trancelike state of mind. The beginning started out as a dull metronome:
Over the course of a half-hour, the sound evolved into an impromptu jam session of different beats drumming in concert with one another:
“Simple but not easy” is a go-to phrase that Mindful Boston founder and coordinator Gena Bean is fond of when talking about mindfulness. Landwehr took her MBSR course in 2014 and since has been pursuing his own unique ways of engaging with the practice of mindfulness, but he’s not the only one.
The Joyfully Together Sangha out of Providence practices mindful walking and mindful sharing as part of its meditative sessions. “Sangha,” a largely Buddhist term referring to a group meditation, focuses on engagement within a community, hence the synchronized walking and sharing. The practice of mindful walking is visually peculiar to any outsider, no doubt appearing to some like a procession of linear-obsessed zombies ambling in loops. The principle behind it is much like mindful beat: focus on the sensation of the experience as an anchor into the moment.
Towards the end of the Sangha, meditative sharing allowed those in attendance to speak openly and freely, decidedly avoiding any kind of responsive conversation in favor of open monologues and intensely focused mindful listening.
Brown University’s Health Services department also lists several options for producing mindfulness in everyday life as a means to improve one’s lifestyle:
- Walking: Be aware of the sensations of walking, like the quality of the pavement under your feet and how your body feels. Notice when your mind wanders and, without judgment, come back to awareness of walking.
- Taking a shower: Notice how the water feels on your body and the movements of your body as you shower. This can be a good time to focus on your breath as well.
- Brushing your teeth: Pay attention to all of the sensations, tastes and movements involved. Since we begin and end the day with this task, it can also be an opportunity to give yourself compassion or lovingkindness.
Mindful eating is also common in many circles, having been highlighted in Anderson Cooper’s “Mindfulness” piece on 60 Minutes, along with walking. Tasting the food, bite my bite, chew by chew, rather than eating all at once or being distracted by conversation, becomes the focus of the experience.
Some groups, like the The Mindfulness Project — a secular mindfulness group in London — also includes mindful photography, art therapy, and even wine tasting. A mindfulness expert or trained meditation leader guides people through these experiences, coaxing them through a mindful perspective while limiting distractions.
Rick Heller, the meditation leader of Harvard’s Humanist Hub group, leads groups in meditation every Tuesday night. Though many of his sessions include your typical focus on breathing or body scans, every now and then they’ll try something unconventional.
“All this focus on clearing the mind is good in some cases,” Heller explained. “But other times you might just want to relax and focus on other things, so we developed this “intentional daydreaming meditation.”
Free of any guidance or restrictions, those in attendance at the session were given a quiet, peaceful place to let their minds wander free of any distraction or rules for an extended period of time.
Even yoga itself, though more recently branded as something of an exercise regimen rather than the ancient meditative practice it truly is, rests its ultimate aim within the realm of mindfulness.
Local yogi Rebecca Pacheco, in her recently released book “Do Your Om Thing,” wrote, “Your inner life, the one with which yoga is chiefly concerned, changes your experience of everything. The fundamental problem for modern yogis is how to understand the ways in which yoga influences our inner life at a time when yogas largest and most popular appeals are to our exterior.”
The bottom line? There is no straightforward path towards mindfulness. Julie Fraser, founder of Present Source, said as much. “Some people prefer to be guided and others do not,” she said. “Frankly, I think that if it works for you and it gives you the capability to be present in the moment, I don’t care what the mechanism is; that’s wonderful! There are things that tend to work for a lot of people, but there’s no one thing for everyone.”
Even within the realm of business, these open-minded sentiments hold. Founder and CEO of Jebbit Tom Coburn said, “So many people have the misconception that in order to be mindful you have to set 20 minutes aside every day and go sit on a pillow and cross your legs and have no one bother you. But you can be mindful while washing dishes or driving your car or walking from one meeting to the next. It helps take the excuses away. To say, ‘Oh, I didn’t have time today’ is a lie because we always have time to be more mindful in our lives.”