Practice is... [fill in the blank]
Updated: Apr 1, 2022
In our third episode of Mindfulness Off the Cushion, we pick up right where we left off in episode two: defining the term ‘practice’ as it applies to meditation and mindfulness. With some time to reflect on our recent conversation, Lance decided to initiate our latest with a pop quiz of sorts.
We’ll preface with a list of questions here for you to ponder as you read or listen along:
Practice is: fill in the blank.
Practice is important because: fill in the blank.
Mindfulness is meditation: true or false?
Is mindfulness the same as meditation? (Yep, that’s a different question).
Are we actually practicing mindfulness when we are engaging in formal meditation, or meditating on the cushion?
If one is actively practicing gratitude, or acceptance, is that mindfulness? Or does there need to be some level of awareness involved for it to be a mindful practice?
Full disclosure: we frequently found ourselves derailed from, even in direct contradiction with, thoughts that we had shared in our previous episode - and that’s okay. One of the goals of this podcast is to expand our worldviews by bringing in more diverse perspectives on the topic of mindfulness. If our discussions happen to lead us towards evolving our own perspectives, then we will have done something right - right? We’ll let you decide.
Things start off warm enough, with Christina defining practice as the creation of a capacity for love and attachment. Claudio takes things in a different direction, paraphrasing Insight Meditation Society co-founder Joseph Goldstein in his definition of practice. Here, practice is understood as consisting of two not-so-simple steps: one is becoming aware of the present, and the other is not clinging to the present.
While we frequently diverge in terms of how we define our terms, we do all agree on one point: mindfulness practice is important to living a more balanced, non-reactive, present life. We can optimize our very human nature of creating habits by focusing on creating more constructive habits for ourselves- mindfulness practice being just one of many. Practice can provide us a useful framework for understanding - and accepting - just what it is to be human.
Things begin to derail
When it comes to questions concerning whether mindfulness is meditation, or vice versa, things begin to derail a bit in our conversation. In our attempts to be concise in our responses, we find that reexamining our definitions of practice from the previous episode actually leads to significant gaps in our understanding. These gaps present opportunities to reframe our perspectives - and we’d like to think we’ve accepted that challenge well, if with a little good-natured ribbing to get us through the discomfort of admitting we don’t have it all figured out.
First, in terms of meditation vs mindfulness, both are neither mutually inclusive nor mutually exclusive terms. Not all meditations are mindfulness. Not all mindfulness is a meditation. In other words? The two aren’t synonyms - and while it took a bit of backtracking for us to arrive there, we are now able to approach the problem from a fresh perspective.
Take for example, something like a soundbathing meditation. During a soundbathing meditation, participants lay down and relax while musicians play gongs, bells, tuning forks, and other instruments meant to calm and cleanse the mind. This experience may contribute to a more mindful state for some participants, but it does not necessarily make it a mindfulness practice.
Another example of a meditation that is not necessarily mindfulness is kundalini meditation. A kundalini meditation, rooted in the Hindu religious text of The Upanishads, involves certain prescribed yoga poses, mudras or hand movements, repetition of mantras, and deep breathing techniques. Again, while this experience may elicit or encourage mindfulness, it does not in and of itself equate to a mindfulness practice.
Back to the meditation cushion
Now that we’ve managed to confuse you along with ourselves, let’s return to the more practical aspects of practice. When we actually sit on the mat, in formal meditation, what we don’t always realize until we stop to interrogate is this: practice is both a verb and a noun. If we are engaged in the practice of meditating, say performing a body scan meditation, we are in the act of performance. Doing. Or at least attempting to ‘do’ at our very best! That engagement is with a noun - we are engaging with the practice of meditation, perhaps but not necessarily mindfulness, itself.
Now, what if during the entirety of that meditation practice we are with it, truly engaged, and while our minds naturally wanders from time to time, we remain committed to the practice. The mind is attentive to each step of the body scan. Are we then practicing? Are we verb-ing? Are we being mindful? Or take the reverse. What if during the entire practice, someone just can’t stop thinking about hotdogs. They allow their minds to travel to the condiments, the bun, the merits of grilled versus broiled. Is that person still practicing mindfully?
These sorts of philosophical, if silly, questions lead us to an important realization: that overthinking the semantics may actually disrupt the intention behind spreading awareness of mindfulness. If we are so engaged in the judgement of what is and what is not a mindfulness practice, are we getting in our own way? If the intention is to learn these tools to ease suffering and allow for greater balance and acceptance in life, then how do we more practically and efficiently do so?
How do we practically practice?
With our renewed commitment to do away with rigidity and judgement concerning definitions, our conversation is allowed to move into more practical, more experiential realms. We discuss everything from the mind-body connection, to clinical situations in which acceptance may actually be counterproductive, to the representation of mental illness in graphic novels, to personal experiences with trauma that led to feelings of gratitude.
In the end, we agree that whether you call it a meditation practice or mindful living, our vulnerability is enhanced when we are more present and aware of our conditions. Enhanced vulnerability is a strength that allows us to see, be with, the emotions that arise in us and in others. To be more grounded in our bodies and our realities. This is a skillset that we will explore and practice together in later episodes, and we are so excited to have you on board with us. No matter your mindfulness experience - in practice, practicing, or otherwise - we are all learning together.
Looking for help in your daily dance with suffering? Listen to the Mindfulness Off the Cushion podcast and learn how to be as alive as you can be while you have the chance!