As I prepare to go off on retreat for a couple of weeks this month, I’ve been reflecting more on the cultivation of Mindfulness through formal practice. Mindfulness practices do not necessarily involve sitting quietly and watching the breath, sensations in the body, sounds or thoughts, or, as is also taught in the MBSR curriculum, attention directed sequentially throughout the body into its ‘felt sense’ in a practice called the 'Body Scan'. However, it is these formal practices which teach us how to ‘informally’ drop into our experience mindfully in our day-to-day lives. Becoming mindful in our daily life activities is possible because of the way we cultivate the practice formally. This understanding informs the structure of the highly regarded MBSR curriculum (MindfulnessBased Stress Reduction – the originalsecular mindfulness curriculum created by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD.)
Formal Practice as a 'Container':
How Mindfulness is Taught in MBSR
In the MBSR program we start by learning the formal practices and how to integrate time for this into our lives in a way that works for each of us individually. We work with the challenges of the practice itself; learning how to navigate mindfulness beyond ‘techniques’ and into the living practice that it is, as well as working with the challenges that inevitably come up when trying to create a new habit.
By learning this in a group setting and over a designated period of time we create a ‘container’ for engaging the practice. It’s harder to blow it off, procrastinate or rationalize when we’ve made a commitment with others to go on this journey of learning. I’ve had many tell me that they’d tried to learn the practice through books and on their own without much success; so having this container for learning is actually an integral part of learning the practice. This parallels the importance of the formal practices themselves as a ‘container’; when we take a seat and set a timer and resolve to, for example, watch our breath for 30 minutes regardless of whatever comes up in our body or mind (discomfort, restlessness, sleepiness, the thought that we need to ‘get something done’, doubt about what we’re doing.. etc.) we are likewise creating a container for ourselves so that we begin to actually see all these ways in which we try to run away from the experience of the present moment, and this is a critical aspect of learning a new way of relating to our experience. This is the crux of what we are training ourselves to do with mindfulness.
As we’re establishing a certain level of understanding or insight about what the practice actually is, and how to do it, we begin to see some results in our internal experience. Often there is insight into some personal patterns that we never recognized before, and a surprising ability to hold some of our own experiences in a new way; without reactivity.
This internal understanding then begins to influence how we relate to our external experiences as well. We begin with our relationship with ourselves and this naturally evolves into an understanding of how we relate to others. The MBSR curriculum actively engages this unfolding of understanding by providing exercises and reflections with regard to mindfulness with our daily life experience and mindful communication. And, finally, as our practice begins to develop more robustly, and mindfulness becomes more of a natural way of being that we come back to throughout our day, we begin to see how we not only influence our internal experience through mindful awareness, but also how we are in relation to others and to the world. All the while, our formal practice time informs and deepens our understanding of how we hold ourselves and our experience in our day-to-day lives.
Through this process we begin to become mindful more and more in our daily
life activities outside of any ‘formal’ practice time, and the formal practice maintains and cultivates our ability to do so. The pianist and composer Ignacy Jan Paderewski said of himself:
“If I do not practice one day, I notice it. If I do not practice a second day, the orchestra notices it. If I do not practice a third day, the world notices it.”
Mindful Awareness Goes Beyond Mundane Awareness
In order to fully engage mindfulness practice we must learn the formal practices, since mindful awareness is something that is beyond a mundane awareness and is difficult to comprehend or access without creating the kind of container that a formal practice time allows. One of my friends who has been a long-time practitioner reflected to me about establishing and maintaining a regular ‘sitting’ practice, she says;
“The ability to step back from myself in this way, stepping back from ‘conventional’ experience, gives me the space to see my own reactivity and to create the stability that is needed to find that pause in my daily life.”
While mindfulness is something larger than any technique and cannot be defined by any particular formal practice, it is the formal practices which cultivate our ability to engage our experience mindfully. Because mindfulness practice is something that continues to deepen and unfold over our lives, it is a habit that is worth cultivation. Most of us take the few minutes a day to brush our teeth because we know that this practice will support our health and our quality of life, it’s not even something that most of us think too much about since our parents enforced the practice when we were very young; we just do it. When we don’t, we notice the effects. Likewise, formal mindfulness practice can become a habit that we ‘just do’ – and when we don’t practice we feel the results; like a fuzzy-feeling mouth after forgetting to brush the night before- we begin to notice the effects its absence.
Integrating formal practice time into our daily schedule plants the seed of mindfulness in order to become more present and skillful in relating to life. The MBSR program is one of the best ways to learn the practice in a totally secular environment, though attending a retreat or connecting with a local practice group (meditation groups practicing ‘Vipassana’ or ‘Insight’ are practicing mindfulness in a Western Buddhist container) are also great ways to learn or to deepen practice (the Buddhist container is held quite lightly in this tradition.)
I feel fortunate and grateful to have the opportunity over the next few weeks to take the time out of my life in the container of a formal retreat atmosphere. I continue to cultivate my own practice to deepen my practice and become more skillful and aware in my life. If you are interested in taking time out to practice for 5, 7, or 9 days, or even longer, you might check out the opportunities at places like Insight Retreat Center and Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California, or Insight RetreatSociety in Massachusetts. Of course, taking the 8 week MBSR program is also a great way to learn and integrate the practices of mindfulness into your day-to-day life.