Practicing mindfulness, spanning from one daily mindful moment to participating in longer, more formal programs, has been shown to lead to a host of benefits for overall well-being (Kral, et al., 2018). Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the forerunners of secular mindfulness in America, compares mindfulness to eating; it makes no sense to ask someone to eat your food for you. In order to enjoy and benefit from the food, you must eat it yourself. Mindfulness is a muscle: if you use it, it gets stronger, and if you do not, it atrophies. When you practice mindfulness, you improve various important parts of your brain, and when you do not practice, those improvements are not sustained, similar to the way physical exercise works. Scientists predict that mindfulness is likely to become a part of public health policy similar to healthy diet and exercise decades ago. Through our own consistent practice, we can develop the attitude and perspective for cultivating a healthy mindfulness space in our lives.
So how do we go about establishing our own practice, or inserting mindfulness into our lives in a realistic and beneficial way? “Mitoch shelo lishma, bah lishma.” There is a mashal offered by R’ Chaim m’Volozhin that explains how we best learn mindfulness. A master asked his slave to go to the attic of his home to get something for him. If the slave goes to the stairs and starts to climb them, will the master be upset? No! He knows that the slave is going up the stairs in order to get to the attic. He does not expect the slave to jump and reach the attic; he understands that the stairs are the way to get there. This is how we can understand the maamar from Chazal quoted above. We do not climb the stairs for fun – we climb the stairs in order to get to the attic. So too with mitzvos; we do them lo lishma in order to reach lishma.
So too, there are two ways to practice mindfulness, and they go hand in hand with each other. Formal mindfulness practice is making time, consistently, to engage in formal mindfulness practices. This is the lo lishma, the climbing of the stairs, which we need to do in order to get where we would like to get to. Informal mindfulness practice is allowing it to spill over into every part of our lives. It is the lishma portion. It is reaching the attic. It is having skills to use mindfulness to calm ourselves when we are upset, to choose how we want to react in stressful situations or challenges, to expand our awareness around the parts of our lives that bring us joy, and to throw ourselves completely into experiences that are meaningful to us.
It’s important to engage in formal mindfulness practices in order to learn the skills, the lo lishma. Formal mindfulness practices can be found in abundance on the internet. You will also want to bring your practice into all parts of your life. Your informal practices may involve bringing your mindfulness skills into parts of your everyday life, such as brushing your teeth, making dinner, parking your car, or taking a drink.
Setting an intention is an important part of mindfulness. Machshava is the first step to doing a mitzvah. Without an intention, it would be hard to know what you set out to do. In mindfulness, when we set an intention, we are choosing something we wish to pay attention to, rather than a goal or expectation for where we will end up. “Lo alecha hamelacha l’gmor, v’lo ata ben chorin l’hibatel mimenah,”-“You are not expected to complete the work, but neither are you free to ignore it” (Tarfon). Mindfulness practices begin with a suggestion for an intention for the practice, such as the intention to pay attention to your breath, to the sounds outside, or to the passing thoughts in your mind, and then to return to that intention when your mind wanders. By choosing what you pay attention to and returning your attention to that intention over and over again, you are training your brain and using your mindfulness muscles.
Remember, mindfulness is nonjudgmental, present-moment awareness; if and when our attention wanders, our goal is to notice where it has gone to and invite it to come back. Judgments about our wandering mind are also to be noticed before returning our attention back to our nonjudgmental, observing stance. When we keep this in mind, we can increase mindfulness in our lives.