I came across a rather unusual sight as I pulled into the parking lot of my gym the other day — something that stopped me in my tracks. I am used to seeing people scurrying to and from their cars, heading into the gym or heading back to their cars to carry on with their day. But instead, there was a man standing by the edge of the parking lot — just standing… for a long time… in stillness. He was looking out toward the trees and tall grasses and a small bog at the edge of the parking lot that I had honestly never noticed before. He was just taking in the moment, taking in the natural world beyond the concrete pavement, and despite whatever things he had to do in his day.
It struck me how rare it is to see someone pause in the midst of the busyness of their day and savor the moment in this way. It also surprised me that in all of my times back and forth to the gym I had never once noticed this little patch of nature.
Consider these questions:
- Do you have informal moments, as you go through your day, when you pause to be fully present to what is within you or around you?
- Do you ever set aside a few minutes in your day to intentionally engage your senses fully and completely in something you are doing, such as eating a meal (without mental or other distractions pulling you away), or even something quite ordinary such as taking a shower or walking to your car?
- What is it that you miss in the course of your rushing and busyness?
Informal Practice of Presence
Much has been written about the benefits of formal meditation practice, but many people are less familiar with the idea of informal practice. With informal meditation practice we look for opportunities throughout the course of our ordinary day to be fully present, mindful and awake. Rather than setting aside a formal time to practice meditating, one can make activities such as walking, taking a shower, washing dishes, or talking to others as an opportunity for full on presence.
Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson has written extensively about the benefits of “taking in the good” by looking for positive moments in our day that we can enrich and absorb by pausing to experience these good moments as feelings in our bodies. These can be ordinary moments that we might otherwise overlook, like sipping a cup of tea, exchanging a friendly glance with someone, or enjoying the feeling of satisfaction that comes from completing a difficult project. They can also be imagined moments such as calling up a time in our mind when we felt safe or peaceful or supported, and experiencing those feelings in this moment. As we allow ourselves to experience these positive moments as a “felt sense” throughout the course of our day, Dr. Hanson explains that this hard-wires these experiences into our brains so that we build inner resources we can later draw on.
A Study Exploring the Benefits of Informal Meditation Practice
A recent preliminary study by Dr. Barbara Fredrickson and colleagues explored the benefits of informal meditation practice on participants new to meditation, to see if informal practice improves well-being independent of formal meditation practice. Adults new to meditation took part in a six-week group, either learning mindfulness meditation or loving-kindness meditation. They were encouraged to engage in informal meditation practices during the course of their day over a period of 9 weeks and to record the time spent doing so each day. Examples of informal meditation in the former group included paying attention to the physical feeling of breathing, paying attention in the body to a routine activity such as brushing one’s teeth, or eating a meal mindfully. Examples of informal meditation in the second group included sending kind wishes (in one’s mind) to oneself or others during the course of their day.
What the researchers found was that the more one reported practicing informal meditation on a given day, the more that individual reported experiencing both positive emotions and feelings of social integration (feeling socially connected or “on the same page” as others) on that day. In addition, those people who spent more time engaged in informal meditation practices overall experienced higher levels of positive emotions and more feelings of social integration than people who spent less time engaged in informal practice. These findings were independent of the effects of formal meditation practice, though it should be noted that they were correlational in nature and this study could not prove causality. Importantly, previous studies have linked both positive emotions and social integration to greater mental and physical health, so there are implications in this study that informal meditation practice could be beneficial for one’s overall well-being.
Bringing Informal Practice into Your Day
While more research needs to be done on the effects of informal meditation practice, I am a big believer in its impact. After I saw that man at my gym pausing to take in the little patch of nature, it was a great reminder for me to practice what I teach. So after I left the gym, instead of rushing to my car, I made sure to walk over to that spot and take in the peace of the sun and grass and bog and wildlife that could have so easily gone unnoticed for yet another day. After those few minutes, I drove home with a more peaceful and grateful heart.
I invite you to find just a few minutes within the course of your day or evening today to absorb yourself wholeheartedly in a moment of presence. Use as many senses as possible to step out of your thinking-only mind and into your body, to fully experience whatever you are doing — whether an activity or a moment of pausing. Then notice how you show up for the next moments of your day.