Nurturing a Formal Mindfulness Practice

Formal practice is a training ground, a preparation,  a kind of dress rehearsal – but, what are we rehearsing for? Readiness for what? The remarkable situation we find ourselves in today amidst the unfolding pandemic makes this clearer for many of us. We are practicing for whatever we may encounter in our lives, from the ordinary to the extraordinary.

I’ve found myself saying things like, “If I had anticipated this…” and “I didn’t have this in mind when…” COVID-19 has provided a reminder about the limitations of human foresight and imagination. We can’t possibly predict all the potential challenges we might encounter in our lives. This is precisely why formal practice is important. An unimaginable tomorrow becomes the beneficiary of today’s practice.

Artists practice to make something that moves our hearts and minds. They investigate and experiment with forms and sensations so they can better understand how to relate to and share them with others. First responders perform drills to hone their skills, so that when it really matters, they we will be ready, they won’t falter under duress. Practice is the foundation of discipline, it instills confidence, and increases the likelihood that our response, when it matters most, will be skillful.

You’ve probably heard the saying, “What you feed, grows.” This is also true for mindfulness. How might we nourish our practice so that it grows deep roots and flourishes? Our mainstream culture is not yet very supportive of this way of being, so we find we have to set ourselves up for success by changing our social networks and adapting our living and work spaces. We find we have to make room for the formal practice of mindfulness in our daily lives.

Milieu therapy is a type of psychotherapy in which the social and physical environment is managed such that it increases opportunities for desired behavior and decreases undesired behavior. Individuals within the milieu are encouraged to take responsibility for themselves and others, hold one another accountable, and model appropriate behavior. A practice community also act as a milieu within which our mindfulness habit is supported and nourished. We can create a milieu at home and at work by carving out a little time and a physical space for practice, including environmental cues that remind us, and letting those around us know of our intention.

Though we can certainly feed our practice, we have to be careful about getting too attached to outcomes. The pandemic provides us with an important lesson about this – some things we practice for we may only encounter once in our lives and some we may never encounter. Acceptance of this ambiguity is important for sustainability, otherwise we may lose interest or burn out. Instead we might keep our deepest intentions top of mind, offering our practice as a gift that we are giving ourselves and others, and allowing experience to unfold as it will.

Breathing in, I am aware of the seeds of suffering in me from my ancestors — seeds of terror, seeds of rage, seeds of grief
Breathing out, I vow, for the well-being of all beings, to transform these seeds with gentle caring
Breathing in, I am aware of the seeds of well-being in me from my ancestors — seeds of joy, seeds of love, seeds of wisdom
Breathing out, I vow, for the benefit of all beings, to discover and nourish these seeds with tenderness
Breathing in, I touch no birth, no death
Breathing out, I go beyond fear
Breathing in, I touch the Ground of All Being
Breathing out, I know that in this moment I have returned home, to my true self
A smile appears
The precious gift of non-fear, always offered, has been received

– Thich Nhat Hahn, I Have Arrived, I Am Home

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