Mindfulness teachers often talk about the synergistic relationship between *formal and informal practice. Mindfulness "OFF-the-cushion," or out-and-about through one's day, supports an "ON-the-cushion" practice, and vice-versa. There's no other way around it, in my opinion.
Meditation is not about escaping life, but rather it is a way to experience life more fully. When we make this kind of commitment, we begin to notice the areas in life where we are unhelpfully reactive, or where our behavior feels flat, or "off." Seeing this kind of behavior clearly gives us a fighting chance to choose a different path, one that is more in line with how we would like to live.
Sitting meditation is a great way to get started with this kind of intention, one that is geared toward observing the mind and its patterns, while tuning into the full vibrancy and dynamism of a life. This intention can be as simple as bringing full, engaged attention to the present moment. Simple, but not easy.
If you've tried to be more present in your everyday life but keep falling short, below are three tips I learned from my teachers. These practices have "protected my mind" for years from the stormy weather of, well, my mind. Sometimes they help to cut through prolific mind wandering during mundane everyday tasks such as washing dishes, and other times they have served as a balm to heal from more destructive emotions.
A supportive phrase or "gatha”
What & Why
A gatha, as I've learned it, is a Sanskrit word for a kind of teaching verse. Classic supportive phrases traditionally taught for lovingkindness meditations include, May I be happy, May I be healthy, May I live with ease. There is no hard formula for this. Words have power, particularly when there is heartful effort behind them.
As we teeter back-and-forth into mindfulness, we can use a simple phrase to get "back on track” and in the present moment. And since there can be so much flexibility in the content of the phrase, there is potential for not only mindful presence, but also a leaning in toward other qualities of the mind and heart we feel drawn toward.
When I became a monk, we were trained to recite an ancient Buddhist gatha, two couplets worth of text, as we put on our robes every morning (when I left the monastery in the middle of the pandemic, I continued to recite this gatha every time I washed my hands. It helped keep me stay connected to the teachings, and it also takes about 20 seconds to say the whole thing). Simple, everyday tasks are not just something to get through, but are an opportunity to practice being present. No part of life is excluded. This was the teaching of this particular gatha.
Additionally, I began attaching several different gathas to different activities throughout my day.
When I would wash my hands (this was while I was still at the monastery), I would silently recite the following gatha, Water flows over these hands, may I use them skillfully to protect this precious earth.
When I would first begin to walk after getting out of bed: To walk on this earth is a miracle. Each mindful step reveals the wondrous truth of existence.
Both of the above examples are from a little book called, Present Moment, Wonderful Moment: Mindfulness Verses for Daily Living, by the late Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh.
This can be more simplified also. Any idle moment throughout the day, one could gently say to themself, presence. Just as a simple reminder. These days I have been using the word, feeling, peppering it in throughout my day to remind myself to be present with both my body and mind.
When we join deep-meaning words with simple activities, any busyness in the mind is at least temporarily suspended. So even if we are not feeling the depth of the words every time we say them, we are still giving ourselves a chance to be with the sensory experience of now, i.e. the present moment.
2. “What else is here?”
What & Why
I learned this practice recently from meditation teacher, Stephen Snyder, and have found it very helpful for working with strong emotions and states of mind. The practice is simple: When we experience pain, we feel the pain as fully as possible and then ask the question, “What else is here?”
When we have an experience of anger, for example, it is common to believe that that moment of anger is all that is happening, and we reflexively disregard the multidimensionality of our being. Remember, meditation and mindfulness is not about escaping. Asking, What else is here? immediately softens the strong emotion because curiosity and care are applied.
When a strong emotion arises, locate where you feel it in the body. Gain a strong sense of familiarity with it, while being as nonjudgmental as possible.
While still feeling the presence of the emotion, ask the question, “What else is here?” With this kind of open invitation, possibilities abound - pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Keeping with the example of anger, one may notice that here is actually also some peace present, even some de escalation into relaxation. Sadness may arise. If in a quiet room, a feeling of quiet or stillness may arise.
Snyder writes, “This practice lets us see more fully the totality of our experience in any given moment as well as helping us quantify our hurt and pain as a percentage and location of what we are feeling.”
This practice isn't just for strong emotions either. We can habituate ourselves toward this kind of openness with more placid states, such as boredom, irritation, or restlessness.
3. Flipping the script - “Others feel this too”
What & Why
This one is a kind of prelude to compassion. Often when we experience suffering, our personal experience becomes magnified, as if we were the only ones to have ever experienced such pain! However, when we collapse into ourselves and shield off the rest of the world, we actually make the suffering worse.
The alternative is to actually use our imaginations and imagine others (or think of real people) going through the same difficulties we are facing. Now, why on earth would we do such a thing?! There are at least two reasons I can think of: (1) Our world opens up, and we are reminded that we are not so alone with our suffering. (2) We increase emotional resilience.
As much as it goes against our subjective experience, we are not the center of the universe. My suffering is just as real as the suffering of anyone else.
Know that we are not ignoring our own suffering with this one; we are including others within our field of awareness, and recognizing the connective tissue of suffering itself.
A way to flip the script on the seemingly immediate self-centeredness that happens when we suffer is to include in our experience the phrase, “Others feel this too.” Feeling heartache? Others feel this too. Broken finger? Others feel this too. Anxious about ________? Others feel this too. Take a moment (or many consecutive moments) to really pause and feel this one. If we are not settled, then the words are less likely to land.
The additional “bonus material” to this practice, is to extend the wish for freedom. Which would go like this: Others feel this too…And may they be free from it. This addition of wishing compassion for yourself and others is what keeps the suffering from, in a sense, moving along lest it get "stuck" within us. Feel the suffering, then let it float away with the powerful wish of relief.
So, there they are! Three of my favorite ways to bring skillful attention to the peaks and valleys of any given day.
Of course, there are countless informal practices out there. It's important to see which ones resonate with you, while at the same time not bouncing around too much from one new strategy to the next.
Recall that these are informal practices bolstered by a regular formal practice. Any kind of grounding, anchoring, concentration, and/or awareness meditation will support these informal practices. In fact, all three of these practices (and I highly recommend this) can be practiced as - or part of - a complete sitting meditation session.
Lastly, with any new teaching it takes time and genuine effort for it to begin to "work on us." And around that time, it's quite possible that practices likes these become second nature. They seep into our marrow. They become our new default behavior. Small changes can produce big results.
*Formal practice: This is typically sitting (or lying down) meditation. One intentionally engages in a particular practice for a set period of time.
Informal practice: This is the application of any kind of mindful awareness and/or heart practice throughout one's day that is not during formal sitting practice.