Establishing a formal meditation practice is a powerful way to tap into stillness, manage stress, enhance your overall well-being, and explore the spiritual layers of life. Dedicating time daily to practice meditation creates a habitual retreat into stillness that can serve as an anchor to a deeper level of awareness and keep you from drifting too far out to sea in the turbulent and chaotic activity of daily life. A regular, daily practice is ideal, but with busy lives it can sometimes be challenging to make the time to sit down and meditate.
Fortunately, with some minor tweaks to your attention, everyday activities can become a fertile field for cultivating awareness and present-moment witnessing. It becomes a matter not of what activity you’re engaged in, but rather the quality of attention you bring to that activity. When you begin to shift out of your repetitive thought stream, any activity can become a more conscious and profound experience. Let’s explore the following steps as tools to make everyday experiences more mindful.
1. Intend to Infuse Your Activity with Attention
Think of anything you do on a daily basis and ask yourself how often you set a clear intention prior to beginning that task. Your intention is an almost subconscious autopilot that runs behind the scenes. However, if you bring forth a conscious intention for the activity you’re engaging in, it will activate additional attention on what it is you’re doing. Better yet is to have the intention for increased attention on the task at hand. Begin your activity with the following affirmation: I am awake and aware; I choose to be fully present as I ___________.
2. Be Aware of Your Breathing
One of the reasons so many meditation traditions focus on the breath is because it is always with you; as long as you live, you breathe. The breath, therefore, is an ever-present anchor to the present moment. By bringing your awareness into the fullness of each breath, you ground yourself in the here and now. Deep, full breathing calms the mind, soothes the body, and takes you into the timelessness eternity of each moment. In the middle of any activity that is pulling your mind into the past or the future, settle into your breath and come home to the now.
3. Place Your Attention in Your Body
It’s important to remember that you don’t have a body and a mind—you have a body-mind. The body-mind is a unified, inseparable whole being that is in a state of constant communication with itself at every level. Described by the yogic sage Patanjali as the Annamaya Kosha, the physical body is the sheath or layer of life made of food that serves as your most intimate instrument for experiencing the physical world. When you shift your attention to your body, you begin to eavesdrop on a symphony of sensations, textures, pressures, temperatures, and movements. Think about it, nearly all of your waking energy is directed outward. When you turn your awareness inward (as you do during the practice of yoga), you begin to have a genuine in-body experience. Feeling the body during any activity or experience helps you to be more mindful and aware of the here and now.
4. Focus on One (or More) of Your Senses
Your sense organs are gateways through which the external world is metabolised into your own subjective experience. Each sense is a wonder to behold, a universe in itself. By shifting all your attention to the input received by one specific sense, you become aware of all the subtle nuances, vibrations, and levels contained within just one small sliver of your perceptual apparatus. You also begin to recognise the sheer magnitude of information pouring into your senses at any given moment. This blend of sensory impressions is totally unique, moment by moment. It has never been before and will never come again, so be sure to give it your most precious resource—attention.
5. Notice the Details
Look around you. What do you see? At first glance you may see objects or people in your environment, the large ‟stuff” of the material universe. But look deeper. Everything you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel is made up of molecules, atoms, vibration of energy within an infinite field of consciousness. Details stacked upon details organised in hierarchies from the invisibly small to mindbogglingly large, all governed by the laws of nature. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, let your awareness penetrate deeply into everything you notice. A vast universe of amazing complexity and fascinating detail lies in front of you, waiting to be unmasked.
6. Ask Yourself, “Who Is Having This Experience?”
A version of the profound soul question, “Who am I?” this question shifts your attention away from the experience itself to who is having it. In the middle of any activity, put your attention on who it is that is experiencing the activity. In doing this, you cultivate the witness—not just as a function of your consciousness, but as an actual presence, your soul. In this experience, known as Atma Darshan or “glimpsing the soul,” all your roles, titles, labels, positions, and possessions fall away and you know yourself simply as the ever-present witness to the awareness at the core of your being, all beings, and the entire universe.
7. Cultivate Metacognition
Metacognition means thinking about thinking, knowing about knowing, or becoming aware of your awareness. It is essentially the act of putting your attention on your thinking process and understanding the manner in which your mind generates and perpetuates your moment-by-moment thought stream.
Ask yourself another question—how often do you watch or pay attention to the activity of your mind? Unless you’re trained in some form of contemplative practice, it is unlikely that you do this very often. Instead, you often are led around by your mind, the repetitive thoughts you have day to day, and the karmic programming that hums along in the background. When you put your attention on the content of your thoughts, however—where the thoughts came from, their associations, or how they make you feel when you think them, for example—you step out of the thought stream and are able to witness those thoughts without judgement. As the philosopher Krishnamurti once said, “Observation without judgement is the highest form of intelligence.” In mindfulness traditions, this state is also known as open monitoring. This practice can be performed during any activity and will bring a meditative quality to any experience.
Now that you have the tools to enliven awareness during activity, think of the following everyday activities as a playground for mindfulness. On the surface they may appear mundane, or even boring, but if you look closer you see that each contains a bounty of present-moment opportunities, just waiting to be embraced.
- Doing the dishes. Unless you like dirty pots and pans piled high in your sink, washing dishes is a task that always needs to get done, but that you likely don’t enjoy. Yet when you infuse the doing the dishes with your full attention this activity filled with opportunities for presence. The sensations of hot water, soap, and rinsing—all anchored to the breath—are deeply mindful moments. In addition, this practice also provides the chance to experience gratitude for the meal or food that was prepared or served from those dishes.
- Waiting in line. Society gives you ample chances to wait in line. At the grocery store, doctor’s office, or in traffic, these pauses in your activity are a perfect time to look deeper, feel your body, or tune into the witness within. You likely fight against the wait and often cause yourself to suffer with impatience. Instead, why not use waiting as a chance to connect more deeply with the present moment?
- Taking a shower. A daily shower is often an activity you rush or plot through as you mindlessly follow a set routine for cleaning your body. But consider all the opportunities for tuning into your senses as you wash your hair and body—the possibilities for paying attention to the sounds, sights, and sensations of the water, or as the witness experiencing it all.
- Driving to and from work. Your daily commute is often an autopilot experience with a regular route, radio station or music, or perhaps a meal or coffee along the way. Instead, why not use the daily drive as a chance to focus on the experience of driving? Consider consciously controlling a 2-ton vehicle with all its intricate parts, the physics behind the internal combustion engine, or marvel at how your mind is able to perform the complex act of driving in rush hour traffic with thousands of other motorists.
- Eating a meal. Mindful eating is a practice unto itself. Suffice it to say that using the tools mentioned above to practice mindful eating opens entirely new dimensions in your relationship to food and how you nourish your body. In addition, it is an incredible opportunity to practice stillness and go within during an inherently social activity.
- Walking a pet. Walking a dog or cat adds a new level of experience to the practice of mindful walking. It provides opportunities to enliven your senses, notice the details, and focus on your breathing, all while interacting with your pet and the environment. In addition, animals are much more deeply rooted in the present moment, providing yet another doorway into deepening the awareness that connects you.
- Doing the laundry. While some consider doing the laundry and exercise in drudgery, infused with attention, this activity can also be a portal into higher awareness. Whether it’s the feel of the clothing, the smell of the clean (or dirty) garments, or contemplating the complex and far-reaching chain of events that led to you owning a particular item, you are free to experience any moment from a deeper perspective.
Although these are common examples of everyday mindfulness, these tools can be applied to any activity. When you make everyday experiences mindful, you take the ordinary ‟stuff” of your life and transform it into a pathway toward enlightenment.