You can afford to pay attention

When it was explained to me that effective practice is not limited to sitting on a cushion focusing down on the breath, and that consistency is the key to success, then I started to find ways of applying mindful attention during the day. This is a preferred beginning practice in my book and, as I will harp on about forever, completely worthwhile however many hours I clock up.

This is because, instead of suddenly doing a practice that is utterly different to anything you’ve ever done before, you can bring a little wholesome attention to your life, notice conventional things that can make your life a bit easier, not feel like you have to achieve some kind of exalted state, and get out of the habit of colluding with your mind’s desire to distract itself from the actual. ‘Be here now’ goes the title of Ram Dass’s famous book, but as usual it’s worth deconstructing that pithy little statement and seeing how you can fill the sack bean by bean. It’s not called ‘moment to moment mindfulness’ for nothing: there has to be a way of applying your attention to the changing objects of experience without getting distracted.

There is a continuum of practice in terms of mindful living. One end is to be simple and constant in applying mindfulness in a blanket way: either try to be with what is actually happening as much as possible, gently pulling your attention off daydreaming whenever you catch it. Of course this is difficult because it is mundane enough that your attention will default to autopilot easily. You can create reminders, such as a ‘mindfulness bell’ on your phone that rings every fifteen minutes, or wearing a bracelet, though the latter tends to become normalised easily. You can make it a bit more concrete by focusing on a gross object, such as the feel of your feet on the ground. Some traditions get you to count breaths all day, whatever else you’re doing. Both of these require some kind of division of attention between specific objects and the wider sensorium, which needs tinkering with.

Bearing in mind that intensive practice creates intensive side effects, I prefer these days to apply a kind of happy interest to life in general rather than feverishly trying to exist in a constant state of vigilance. Other versions of this would be to dedicate every experience to God, to vow to appreciate everything for a day, to attempt to inhabit the body as much as possible so as to always be in touch with your feelings, or to pay attention to the sensuousness of the senses. All of these keep bringing intention back into alignment with the goal, which is to be where you are, really.

On the other end of the scale is an approach that recognises that taking one object and sticking to it is frankly boring, exacting, slippery and has less immediate benefits. I’ve applied mindfulness to specific habits, tasks, times of day and so on instead at points when trying to have a very pure, one-pointed practice has been difficult- especially when I was only just beginning a formal meditation practice. I have noted things like biting my nails, fiddling with pens, daydreaming while brushing my teeth, checking my phone on the toilet (oh shaddap, you’ve done it too) or listening to the radio at the same time as tying my shoelaces. When I realise I’m doing them, I stop and go back to the present- without wrenching your attention away or kicking your own backside for having the ever-present habit of avoidance.

In the middle is a flexible approach and one that has worked best for me, in that you choose the right practice for the right time. The less cerebral the task, the more you can pay bare attention to it: walking between places, waiting in line, doing manual tasks alone. The more involved the task, the harder it is to even remember to apply a practice, and the less natural it often seems to me. In that case, just trying to do a specific thing has helped, such as remembering to make good eye contact with people to help me focus on good communication, being aware of my posture which stops me slouching in a way that is bad for my back, making sure I read a book slowly and with enjoyment, and so on. Clear, specific benefits as well as developing the factors of enlightenment.