One of the biggest challenges in mindfulness is simply knowing how to be mindful all the time. The trick is to use the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.
You know what it’s like. You take your daily twenty-minute breaks to practice mindfulness (read our guide to mindfulness exercises).
While you are meditating, you feel great. You have that clear consciousness, that inner peace and relaxation. And everything is groovy, right?
Then you stop meditating and honestly, how long does it take you to stop being mindful?
Most of my online meditation students tell me that their mindfulness varies. Sometimes they can stay mindful all day. Othertimes something happens, they get a little frustrated, and they stop being mindful.
If only we could stay mindful all day, everything would feel that much better. So how do we do it?
How To Be Mindful All The Time
If you want to know how to be mindful all the time, you first have to understand the real meaning of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the practice of being non-judgmentally aware of the present moment. So logically what we need to do is return our focus to the present moment and practice observing rather than judging. And thankfully there are many opportunities to do this throughout the day.
Research by Richard Davidson at the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin shows that the more mindful we are the more we can change our mood “setpoint” so that we shift our emotions towards positivity.
So, by learning to stay mindful all the time you will shift your setpoint. Great. So how do you do it?
There are many ways to stay mindful all the time:
- Practice mindful habits
- Set mindful reminders
- 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
- Choose cues that cause you to be mindful. Easy option: Put a mindfulness 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
But for me, one of the best ways to stay mindful all the time is by practising the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Indeed, this is what Buddha would tell us to do.
How To Be Mindful All The Time With The Four Foundations Of Mindfulness
There is an excellent passage in Bhante Gunaratana’s book The Four Foundations Of Mindfulness In Plain English (highly recommended reading, by the way) in which Guaaratana explains that we can maintain mindfulness by practicing what Buddha called the Four Foundations.
The Foundations will help you to stay mindful and will also make meditation easier.
The four foundations of mindfulness are:
- Mindfulness of body (kaya)
- Mindfulness of feelings (vedana)
- Mindfulness of mind (cilla)
- And mindfulness of dhammas (dhammas)
Buddha said, “Dwell contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending, unified, with concentrated one-pointed mind, in order to know the body as it really is. Dwell contemplating feeling in feelings… in order to know feelings as they really are. Dwell contemplating mind in mind… in order to know mind as it really is. Dwell contemplating dhamma in dhammas… in order to know dhammas as they really are.”
Usually, when we meditate, we will focus on one of the four foundations of mindfulness at a time. Usually, we will start with mindfulness of breath such as in Anapanasati meditation.
From the breath, we will progress towards becoming mindful of all things. However, to stay mindful all the time, we should continually check-in with the four foundations, which are as follows.
The first of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness 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.
We usually achieve mindfulness of body by starting with breathing meditation techniques.
When we breathe mindfully, we simply observe what is happening with the breath, as though it were a thing separate from ourselves. This quite naturally leads us to become mindful of the body as a whole. We may then expand this into a body scan meditation, a movement meditation, or a mantra.
I personally find it beneficial to go from breathing meditations into movement meditations because it trains the mind to be mindful while active. You could try meditative yoga too. And another alternative is to be mindful of your body when you’re completing simple tasks.
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 all the time 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 practising mindfulness of 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 helps us to detach from the body and 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 all the time 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 all the time. To do this, we practice mindfulness of feelings.
When we are mindful of feelings, we dissociate from them 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 being mindful of 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. How often have you found yourself thinking one bad thought after another? Have you ever felt as though you were drowning in your emotions, as though you just want all that mental noise to stop?
The best way to make it stop is by practising mindfulness of 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.
Can we stay mindful all the time?
Let me level with you. It is not possible to stay mindful all the time. The mind will naturally wander at times, and this is perfectly normal. Even my Zen monk friends are not mindful all the time. However, they are mindful a lot more than the average person, and the way they stay mindful is with the Four 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 the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, we can take greater control of the mind and can stay mindful for longer. And only then can we achieve enlightenment.
If you would like to learn more about this, book an online meditation lesson with me today.
Paul Harrison is a passionate meditation teacher who believes in genuine, authentic meditation. He has more than 15 years experience in meditation and mindfulness. He studied meditation in beautiful Oxford, UK, and Hamilton Ontario Canada, and earned his degree at Staffordshire University.
“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