In this article, you will learn about the options for meditation practice: informal mindfulness practice, formal meditation practice, and intensive retreat practice. Throughout this post, you can learn the various options for meditation practice, and you can also practice all of the forms of informal and formal meditation practices that you learn here on ProKensho.
All you have to do is choose the right options for meditation practice, and learn to create rituals so that you do them regularly. It’s often best if you try to do formal practice at the same time each day. And if you do a longer dose of mindfulness practice, it’s easier to get into it—because you’ll notice the effects that your practice is having on your life.
I. The Options for Meditation Practice: Being versus Doing
Like learning a musical instrument, learning mindfulness is a dose-related activity. If we do a little bit of practice, we develop a little bit of mindfulness. If we do more, we develop more mindfulness.
Experience-dependent neuroplasticity is how parts of our brain bulk up when we use them over and over. Neurobiologist Donald Tabb says that neurons that fire together wire together.
All mindfulness practices involve “being.” And this is a little unfamiliar for most of us because we have a constant focus on “doing.” Many of us have worries about falling behind. We’re constantly involved in making sure we stay on top of the things we need to do.
It can be very difficult for most of us to be in the now because being in the now opens the door to all sorts of unwanted thoughts, images, and feelings. Our constant activity is one way that we defend against, or push unpleasant things out of, our awareness.
Mindfulness means cultivating awareness of present experience with acceptance. And to do this, typically, we need to slow down a bit and pay attention. Slowing down can be difficult in our information age because it’s so speedy.
We could think of mindfulness as single-tasking. Some people think that it is possible to multitask, but cognitive scientists say, instead, that attention is like a pie. If you try to do two things at once, each gets 50 percent of your attention. If you try to do four things, each gets 25 percent of your attention.
II. Options for Meditation Practice
In practicing mindfulness, there are options for meditation practice: informal mindfulness practice, formal meditation practice, and intensive retreat practice.
Informal mindfulness practices are things we do during our busy days that develop some mindfulness. Formal meditation practice is when we take time out of the day to set aside resources to just develop mindfulness. And intensive retreat practice is when we decide to go away somewhere and continuously practice mindfulness over many days.
We don’t have experimental data on the neurobiological and behavioral effects of informal practice. Experienced meditators report that doing these informal practices helps to sustain and deepen the effect of formal practices during the day.
For example, telephone meditation is a practice suggested by the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. Next time your phone rings, first you have to set it so that it doesn’t pick up immediately and go to an automatic answering system. Give yourself enough rings so that you can listen to it. And just stay with the sound of the phone, and let your attention on what’s going on in the present moment be something to bring you back to awareness of present experience with acceptance.
Nowadays, virtually all phones have some kind of caller ID, and this allows for another opportunity. So, first, we listen to the sound of the phone. Then, we notice the number, and we see what emotional response comes up with each number. We have associations with different numbers. Interestingly, when a different number shows up, very different emotions arise in the body.
An alternative is called taillight meditation. Next time you’re in traffic, use the color and the texture of the form of the taillights on the vehicle in front of you as an object of meditation. Instead of our usual reaction, which is thinking about how the traffic is going to make you late, simply take in the texture and the experience of the visual field.
Because mindfulness practices are becoming so mainstream, it appears that vehicle manufacturers are designing taillights that are especially conducive to mindfulness practice. Many of them look like mandalas. They’re concentric circles of light-emitting diodes that kind of evoke some Tibetan sand painting or perhaps Navajo spiritual art. Some are two interlocking mandalas, to give you a sense of the interconnectedness of all beings in the universe and a real sense of the oneness of the present moment.
In addition, there are many other mindful driving practices you can do. Simply try turning off the radio and focus on the sights and sounds of the other traffic, nature, and the environment. Try to not drive on automatic—not thinking about the break and the accelerator but, rather, bringing attention out to the environment of the moment.
We can engage in mindfulness practice while walking the dog, walking to and from the car, waiting in line, or waiting for the bus. All that is required is that we resist the temptation to check our smartphones every 30 seconds, turn on some media, or do something to bring us out of the moment. Any activity in which we can single-task and be present becomes an opportunity for informal mindfulness practice.
If we want to take our mindfulness practice to the next level, we have to do some formal meditation. And this is what we have a wealth of data coming out supporting the efficacy for. It turns out that formal meditation practice changes both brain structure and brain function.
Research has found that people who do a lot of meditation practice develop more robust brain structures in certain areas. The cerebral cortex thins as we get older.
Sara Lazar at Mass General Hospital in Boston studied the cerebral cortices of older meditators, people who have been doing it for years, and matched controls, who were the same age and had similar life circumstances but hadn’t been meditating. Several areas of the brain don’t deteriorate in the meditators in the way that they normally do in a non-meditator.
Scientists have known for a long time that when people are happy, relaxed, or engaged in life, there’s a lot of left prefrontal activation. But when they’re anxious, stressed, or hyper-vigilant (in survival mode), there’s a lot of right prefrontal activation.
Richard Davidson at the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin–Madison conducted a study involving the activation of the prefrontal cortex. He wired up a Tibetan monk who had thousands and thousands of hours of meditation practice and found that he was off the charts in terms of the degree to which he leaned left, in the favorable direction, versus leaning right.
Mindfulness practices involve restraint. They’re not about becoming an ascetic, or trying to wipe out desire; rather, they’re about not just doing what comes naturally but taking some time to focus on what’s going on in the current moment.
If you have had the opportunity to do some breath awareness training, you might notice the experience of an itch or an ache coming up and not act on it. Perhaps you saw that the itch or the ache would transform by itself.
This happens with other things, too. We can see anger arising and not just act on it, but notice that it transforms by itself. Mindfulness practices help us to realize that we have choices about whether or not to act on our impulses. And this restraint turns out to be an essential ingredient in using mindfulness practices to work with a host of psychological and behavioral difficulties, including anxiety, addictions, interpersonal conflicts, and stress-related medical disorders.
If you want to take your mindfulness practice to the next higher level, you might consider an intensive retreat, which is where you would go off and spend several days all day in mindfulness practice. The typical setting of an instructor retreat is out in nature, and people don’t talk or check their cell phones. They don’t even make eye contact with one another after the opening of the retreat but, rather, keep their eyes cast downward in what’s often called noble silence.
The idea is to develop sufficient concentration and sufficient open monitoring skills to notice what the mind is doing in each moment. And what emerges is amazing. There’s a concept in psychoanalysis called transference, which means that we don’t see other people as they are but, rather, as reflections of other people that they remind us of.
The mind makes up stories about other people we see doing things, even though we have minimal data about them. Most of the time when our minds present these kinds of stories, we think we’re describing reality. The mind picks up on little tidbits and endlessly weaves whole stories.
(Related: Which Type of Meditation Is Right for Me?)
III. Options for Meditation Practice: Walking and Eating Meditation
During a retreat, one of the kinds of practices that we do a lot of, so as not to get too stiff, is walking meditation. Walking meditation is a wonderful practice because it can be done both as an informal practice as well as a formal meditation practice.
Walking meditation has several different benefits. First, it easily transforms from a formal meditation to informal practice. And it’s an opportunity to be mindful whenever we’re walking.
We tend to walk a lot in our lives, and when we’re feeling more agitated, restless, or sleepy, it’s easier than following the breath. Simply, it brings more wakefulness. And when we’re agitated, it’s difficult to sit still—it’s easier to be in motion. So, it’s quite helpful when we’re dealing with anxiety or depression.
Another practice that also works quite well as both an informal practice and a formal practice is eating meditation. Like walking meditation, eating meditation easily becomes an informal practice or a formal practice. And it’s an opportunity to be mindful whenever we’re eating. After all, there are a lot of opportunities for that, because you have to eat. It’s also very helpful when we’re distracted because eating is a very vivid object of awareness, or stimulus so if the mind is jumpy and is easily distracted, it’s easier to focus often on food.
In addition, eating meditation is very useful if you ever struggle with eating appropriate amounts of food. When we eat mindfully— instead of scarfing down to self-soothe or to distract ourselves— we tend to notice when we’re full. We notice the sensations of distension in the stomach, and we also have time for a natural feedback loop to occur.
Normally, when we eat, if we would eat slowly enough and attentively, as the food reaches the duodenum, a signal is fed back to the hypothalamus that says that there’s satiation happening, meaning that you have eaten enough. And we find when we eat mindfully that most of us eat far less than we normally would. In addition, interestingly, even though we’re eating less, we feel a lot more satisfied.
Note: Meditation can be practiced during a routine walk with friends or anytime you are walking in your daily life.
IV. Options for Meditation Practice: Mindfulness Practice
A foundational practice that can be done either as a formal meditation (using a raisin or a larger quantity of food) or as an informal practice (just paying attention to the process of eating during daily life).
A foundational formal meditation practice that can be done initially as a concentration, or focused-attention, practice. Once some concentration develops, it can be expanded to be an open-monitoring, or choice less-awareness, practice. After spending some time doing formal walking meditation, we naturally find it easy to use walking as an informal practice whenever walking in daily life.
V. Things to Consider:
- Choose three activities that you do most days that could be used as informal mindfulness practices (e.g., walking the dog, showering, eating breakfast, driving to work, listening to the phone ring, etc.).
- Try a few periods of walking and eating meditation. How does your mind respond to these practices, compared to how it responds to the breath awareness practice?