You take your daily twenty-minute breaks to do mindful breathing. You feel great but it doesnt last all day. And honestly, how long does it take until you go back to being mindless all the time?
Most of my meditation students tell me that their levels of mindfulness fluxtuates. Sometimes it’s a few hours. Othertimes it could just be minutes before they go back to Monkey Mind.
To maintain conscious awareness, we need to practise regularly returning the mind to the present moment. And thankfully there are many opportunities to do this throughout the day.
How To Stay Mindful
- Set a reminder on your phone that tells you to breathe
- Put up some notes around your house or office that tell you to be mindful
- Do the things you normally do on auto-pilot mindfully instead (e.g. washing the dishes)
- Meditate first thing in the morning
- Notice when your mind is wandering and gently bring it back to the present moment
- Practice mindfulness while you wait in queues
- Choose cues that cause you to be mindful. Easy option: Put a quote on the background of your phone.
- Use meditation apps like Headspace and Calm
- Use the “4 T’s”. They are: transition, toilet, telephone, and teatime. These are times that occur frequently throughout the day. Train your mind to be mindful at these times and you will continually return to mindfulness. This is an idea from Meena Srinivasan, author of Teach, Breathe, Learn: Mindfulness In and Out of the Classroom
- Frequently return to the breath. As Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says, “The breath is my anchor.”
- Take a mindfulness lesson online with me
- Use the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Indeed, this is what Buddha would tell us to do. So let’s take a look at that.
Be Mindful All Day With The ‘Four Foundations’
Have you read Bhante Gunaratana’s book The Four Foundations Of Mindfulness In Plain English? Great book. Anyway, in it, he explains that we can maintain mindfulness by practicing what Buddha called The Four Foundations. These also make meditation easier.
The four foundations:
- Mindfulness of body (kaya)
- Mindfulness of feelings (vedana)
- Mindfulness of mind (cilla)
- And mindfulness of dhammas (dhammas)
Usually, when we meditate, we will focus on one of the foundations at a time. Usually, we will start with mindfulness of breath such as in Anapanasati meditation.
To stay mindful, we need to continually return to the foundations.
Let me show you how.
1) Mindfulness of body
The first Foundation is mindfulness of the body.
Simply take a moment to tune in to your body. In other words, ask yourself: what physical sensations am I noticing, and what am I doing with my body?
When we practise mindfulness of the body, we observe the sensations of the body as simply something of which we are aware. The body is not a part of us ourselves; it is simply an experience in the present moment.
So, take moments to tune in to your physical being.
Author and mindfulness expert Ed Halliwell recommends trying to do the things you usually do on auto-pilot mindfully instead.
Traditionally, Buddhists would take this further in the following ways:
- Meditating in different postures
- Practising clear comprehension (sampajañña)— this is Comprehension of Purpose (why are you doing something?), Comprehension of Suitability (is it correct to be doing this now), domain (can the present action be done as meditation practice), and Comprehension of Reality (impermanence, suffering, and not-self)
- Reflection on the reality of body—this is about seeing the body as a combination of different parts and elements
- Reflection of material elements: seeing the body as a combination of the elements of earth, water, motility and fire.
- Cemetery contemplation—these are meditations on the body after death that are done to shatter the illusion of immortality
Many times, what stops us being mindful is something happening in the body, or ideas thereof. Health concerns, for instance, can cause acute stress that may prevent us from being mindful for long times. Sensations in the body too, both pleasant and unpleasant, can drag us into mindlessness.
By bringing awareness to the body, we detach from the body. We no longer see the body as part of the “self” but as a temporary thing that is separate to us. This reduces our reactivity to bodily sensations so that we are less likely to stop being mindful because of a physical experience.
Feelings (vedana) are the tactile sensations that we feel. These are different to “emotions”.
Feelings are identified as:
- Pleasant, neutral, unpleasant
- Bodily or mental
- Wordly or unwordly (worldly feelings include foods, sexual feelings and so on, where unwordly feelings are states of mind like grief and sadness).
One reason we struggle to stay mindful is because of feelings that drag us off course.
If we feel pain, for instance, we might think “This pain is a bad thing that is happening to me.” And as such we identify the pain with the self, and so we cling to it.
We need to let go of feelings if we are to be mindful always. To do this, we practice mindfulness of feelings. We dissociate from feelings and stop seeing them as part of us. Plus, when we watch feelings come and go, we learn that they are temporary, and this helps us to let go.
Mindfulness of mind (Citta) is about bringing awareness to our consciousness. This is distinguished from the mind that thinks and feels.
When we practice mindfulness of mind, we are mindful of the different mental states, which include emotions and sensations, feelings like drowsiness, and so on.
When we observe these states of mind, we come to accept them and be non-reactive to them.
If there is one thing we identify as the “self” it is the mind. Our thoughts and feelings are more “us” than anything else. For this reason, mental states are the leading cause of mindlessness.
Therefore, to maintain mimdfulness we need to keep a check on the mind.
By being consciously aware of our thoughts and emotions, we can dissociate from them and be less affected by them. This helps us to let thoughts subside so that we can stay mindful all the time.
Mindfulness of Dharma is essentially mindfulness of the way things are. Here we become aware of impermanence, of selflessness, and of mental objects.
Traditionally, Buddhists would be mindful of the following:
- The Five Hindrances that lead us to stray (sense-desire, anger, sloth-and-torpor, worry and flurry, sceptical doubt).
- The Five Aggregates of Clinging
- The Six External and Six Internal Sense-Bases
- The Seven Factors Of Enlightenment
- The Four Noble Truths
When we practice mindfulness of dharma, we learn to understand the processes of the mind, and this understanding can help us to accept the way things are.
For instance, this very article is about staying mindful, which implies that we lose mindfulness. You might feel frustrated because you lose mindfulness. And that feeling of frustration is only going to make things worse.
If, however, you accept that it is natural for mindfulness to come and go, if you stop thinking “this is my weakness, that I lose mindfulness”, if you simply accept it as a process, then you will be less affected. In this way, understanding the way things are and the processes of the mind can help us to let go and to be more mindful.
Is It Possible To Be Mindful All The Time?
The mind will naturally wander at times, and this is perfectly normal. Even my Zen monk friends are not always mindful. However, they are mindful a lot more than the average person partly because they practice is the Foundations that we have looked at above.
The Foundations of Mindfulness are like the foundations of a house. When they are structurally sound, the house stays in place.
By using these foundations, we can take greater control of the mind and can maintain our conscious awareness for longer. And only then can we achieve enlightenment.
Giving Is Caring
Paul Harrison BSc is a qualified meditation teacher who believes in genuine, authentic meditation. He has more than 15 years experience in teaching meditation and mindfulness both to individuals and to corporations and is the author of four books on meditation. He has been featured in Psychology Today, Breathe Magazine, Healthline, Psych Central and Lion’s Roar.
Paul studied meditation in beautiful Oxford, UK, and Hamilton Ontario Canada, and earned his degree at Staffordshire University.
Paul’s biggest inspirations include Thich Nhat Hanh, Jon Kabat Zinn, and Jack Kornfield.
“My goal is to provide the most authentic meditation sessions so you can harness the power of your own mind for personal transformation” – Paul Harrison