Making mindfulness a habit seems paradoxical: habits are things that we do automatically and with little attention, whereas mindfulness is about paying attention to the present moment. Yet we can develop a habit of paying attention to the present.
One purpose of meditation practice is to cultivate habits. Josh Bartok, a Zen priest who leads a sangha, or Buddhist community, in Boston, says that meditation practice is just that. “It isn’t a matter of blissing out or being relaxed,” he told me. “It is literally practice, as you might go to a batting cage to practice your swing. You practice in the easy situations of special time, special place, special cushions.” Then you can apply your meditative practice when it really counts — in day-to-day living. Practice makes you more mindful and compassionate in less accommodating situations.
It’s been said, “You do not rise to the occasion. You sink to the level of your training.” [On Combat, by Dave Grossman]If you want to cultivate mindfulness, you’ve got to practice. Keep practicing until it becomes the habit that you fall back on when you are under stress.
Cultivating the Habit of Kindness and Mindfulness
The Buddhist teacher Narayan Helen Liebenson told me that even in stressful moments that push our emotional buttons, reacting with kindness can become a habit if we cultivate it. “In that moment — this is where practice comes in — we’re able to remember. Metta becomes our fallback instead of ill-will being our fallback or instead of confusion being our fallback,” she said.
Practice also makes behaviors easier to do by strengthening brain areas involved in the task. Sara Lazar’s research team at Massachusetts General Hospital found that an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course resulted in measurable changes in the gray matter of the brain — the brain cells that do much of the work in processing thoughts and feelings. Practice can lead to physical changes in the wiring of the brain, a phenomenon also known as neuroplasticity.
Developing an Automatic Habit of Paying Attention
Despite the paradox of developing an automatic habit of paying attention, I have developed certain mindfulness habits. For instance, I have practiced mindful dishwashing enough times that when I’m standing in front of the kitchen sink, I think without prompting, “Oh, opportunity for mindfulness.” And then I wash the dishes mindfully, without having planned to do so.
If I drive to a nearby hiking trail, I might be a little distracted during the drive, but once I have my boots on, I think, “Hey, I can be mindful,” and it comes. So being in certain locations now triggers my mindfulness habit and wakes me up from whatever reverie I’ve been in.
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Exercise: Making Mindfulness a Habit
To develop a habit of mindfulness, it’s more important to practice frequently than to practice for a long time. The habit will become more ingrained if you meditate every day for five minutes than once a week for forty-five minutes.
In cultivating good habits, we can take advantage of the fact that the habit system works by means of triggers. Because habits are triggered by locations, it can help to have a special place for meditation. It should be a place that you pass by frequently enough that it reminds you to meditate regularly.
Because habits are also triggered by time of day, it can help to set a special time to meditate. A few minutes in the morning or around lunchtime can become a habit. Many people use the trigger of a phone ringing to take a mindful breath.
Taking Time for Mindfulness
If you only have time for brief meditations on most days, a longer meditation once a week can help you deepen your practice. Being part of a group that meets regularly is a good way to incorporate it into your schedule. If your meditation practice doesn’t settle into a slot somewhere in your routine, it’s likely to fizzle out.
But even if you can’t find time to meditate, it is certainly possible to integrate mindfulness and loving-kindness practices into your daily routine. You can practice loving-kindness toward coworkers and people you see on the street (whether you tell them about it is another story). You can walk mindfully, noticing the space around you, the sounds and the light.
You can select events to serve as triggers for informal practice. For instance, if practicing loving-kindness toward everyone seems burdensome, you can practice it the first time each day that you walk by someone you don’t know. If your mornings are too busy for mindful dishwashing, you can mindlessly stuff the breakfast dishes into the dishwasher. But after a relaxed dinner, try washing the dishes mindfully — or just the forks.
Tips on Creating Your Own Mindfulness Group
- Hook up with existing national groups. They may know of other people in your area interested in forming a group.
- Use a social networking site to organize. Although the Humanist Mindfulness Group gets some attention through Facebook, we have found that most newcomers learn of us through Meetup.com, which lists groups and activities by locality.
- Find free or low-cost space. In the summer, you may be able to meditate in a park or other outdoor area. At other times, you may find that a school or community organization will allow you to meet in their space.
- Try to find a regular time to meet, so that people can work it into their schedules and make it a habit.
- Be welcoming, but also be clear. In our group we welcome newcomers and briefly explain to them our humanistic philosophy. Sometimes people with supernaturalistic beliefs come to check us out. We are friendly and don’t try to argue with them about their beliefs, but we do state the guiding principles of our group in clear and positive terms.
- Give instructions, but don’t talk too much either. Providing instructions before starting a meditation is useful as an introduction for new people and a reminder for others. But don’t talk too much: people are there for a meditation, not a lecture.
- Practice compassionate and mindful speech. Many secular groups are plagued by friction and angry splits. Although arguments can be stimulating, discussions should be conducted in a way that incorporates loving-kindness and keeps people feeling connected to each other.
- Encourage people to speak about their emotions and respect their confidences. Don’t offer advice unless it’s been requested. Make sure everyone has a chance to speak, but don’t require people to speak. Secular groups often feature lectures and highly intellectual discussions. These can be enjoyable, but life is more than that. A mindfulness group is a place where people can open up about their emotional lives and find support.
- Socialize afterward. People will show up for the meditations, but they’ll keep coming back when they find they can relate to the people in the group. Going out to eat afterward has helped many members of our group get to know and like each other.
A Secular Invocation
Political speech in the United States seems to be increasingly toxic — quite the opposite of compassionate speech. One opportunity for setting a compassionate tone is to offer an invocation before public meetings. I offer the following as an example of a secular invocation:
We are in this space to further the public good. We have different perspectives because each of us has had different life experiences. To help us love — or at least not despise — our opponents, let’s take a moment to summon feelings of love and kindness.
Let us all think of a person who really helped us at some point in our life. When we think of this person, we feel warmth and gratitude. If we can, let’s visualize this person in our imagination and look upon them with eyes filled with kindness and love.
Even with loved ones, we sometimes disagree, but we find a way to work out our differences. Let us bring this same spirit to our dealings with the people we encounter here.
Let us also remember that not everyone in our community is present here. Let us be considerate of the interests of those who are absent and also of the interests of those not yet born who may live in this community someday.
Finally, let us breathe in and breathe out, and when anger rises, remember to take a breath before speaking, so that we are reasonable people engaged in dialogue.
©2015 by Rick Heller. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
New World Library, Novato, CA 94949. newworldlibrary.com.
About the Author
Rick Heller is a freelance journalist and meditation instructor. He is the facilitator of the Humanist Mindfulness Group and has led meditations sponsored by the Humanist Community at Harvard since 2009. Rick holds a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from MIT, a master's degree in public policy from Harvard University, and a master's degree in journalism from Boston University. Visit his website at www.rickheller.com