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  • Writer's pictureHiro Saito

The Basics of Mindfulness Practice

1. To get started with mindfulness practice, we first need to understand mindfulness practice has both formal and informal components. Formal practice requires devoting time exclusively for cultivating mindfulness, whereas informal practice involves doing everyday activities with awareness. Fundamentally, though, formal and informal practices are continuous, and there is a feedback loop between the two.

2. Typically, formal practice begins with a short seated meditation on the breath. The aim of this meditation is simply to try keeping our attention to the breath. Inevitably, our attention drifts away from the breath because we start thinking about what happened earlier during the day or what we need to do later. But that's perfectly normal. So long as we notice our attention has drifted away and bring it back to the breath, we are practicing formal mindfulness.

3. Generally, the object of our formal practice moves in the order of (I) bodily sensation, (II) emotion/feeling, and (III) thought. Accordingly, we often advance in our formal practice in the order of (i) body scan and seated, walking, and eating meditations, (ii) emotional awareness meditation, and (iii) meditations on stories that we tell about ourselves and the world. This progression makes sense in light of our evolutionary history as Homo sapiens, but these three objects essentially form the so-called triangle of awareness. For example, when we begin to practice a seated or walking meditation, we take the breath or the sensation of lifting a foot as the focal object of our attention; however, breathing or walking can easily involve emotions/feelings and thoughts. Thus, we simply shift which side of the triangle we focus on, depending on a type of formal practice, and we can eventually practice an open awareness meditation, wherein we pay attention to all the sides of the triangle in a single practice session.

4. In parallel with the aforesaid cognition-focused formal practices, we also need to practice loving-kindness and self-compassion meditations to cultivate love for ourselves and people around us. This is because mindfulness is coterminous with heartfulness. In fact, loving-kindness and self-compassion meditations can be said to be the prerequisite for any mindfulness practice because they help us embrace the wholesome intensions, as well as ethics, for which mindfulness should serve.

5. Nonetheless, formal practice means nothing if it doesn't transform our daily lives. This is why informal practice is indispensable. We try to extend the quality of awareness that we cultivated through our formal practice into our everyday activities, such as getting up from the bed, talking with family members, working with colleagues, and sleeping. Perhaps the most commonly used informal practice is "STOP": Stop to interrupt automatic pilot, i.e. whatever we were doing mindlessly; Take a breath to re-establish our attention; Observe our bodily sensations, emotions/feelings, and thoughts; Proceed with what we were doing, this time with awareness. The more we practice STOP, the more we can make our formal and informal practices continuous and mutually reinforcing.

6. Ultimately, though, each of us need to make necessary adjustments in following the instructions of various mindfulness practices, given our unique bodies and minds that continue to change throughout our lives. Learning how to best adapt mindfulness practice for ourselves, and for our ever-changing selves, is part and parcel of mindfulness practice itself.

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