Put simply, meditation is the practice of awareness and compassion in a controlled environment. When we sit and close our eyes, turn our attention to the breath or to a visualization, we’re training in the stability of that awareness. When we do this with the mind, we begin to experience each and every moment with an increasing sense of ease.
Now we might think that this is hard enough as it is, nevermind trying to apply the same awareness to activities in everyday life. But that’s what mindfulness is, simply being present with whatever we are doing at the time and, with the right guidance, it’s actually much easier than it sounds. That doesn’t mean being present 24/7 – our monkey mind is likely to be far too active for that to occur, but we can definitely set out to do certain activities with the specific intention of remaining aware.
I usually recommend brushing your teeth as an exercise to start with. It’s something that most of us do every day, hopefully, and one we probably do on autopilot. It can also be a rather boring experience, something that we perhaps rush through as quickly as possible. Well, here’s the perfect opportunity to practice some mindfulness.
When you go the bathroom to brush your teeth in the morning, instead of being lost in thought the whole time, gently bring your attention back to the body each time you realize the mind has wandered off. What can you see? What can you hear? What’s the color of the toothpaste? The smell? What flavor is it? You don’t need to think too much, it’s more a case of being present to notice all these things.
Next, gently focus your attention on the sensations, just as you would concentrate on your breathing during meditation. Be mindful of your arm moving from side-to-side and the sound of the toothbrush against your teeth. Feel the bristles against your gums, against your teeth.
At first glance this might sound a bit silly, but brushing your teeth is an especially good activity for practicing mindfulness, precisely because it’s so repetitive. Like meditation, it offers a very defined framework within which to focus.
Our minds seem to be set up to go into autopilot for those actions that we repeat over and over. And when we look at certain actions, like eating, or even our relationships with the people closest to us, it’s possible that these, too, might become a matter of routine. The practice of bringing our attention back to things anew, as though every time was the first time (the ‘beginner’s mind’ as it’s sometimes known), is as useful for keeping our teeth squeaky clean, as it is for giving our friends and loved ones the full attention they deserve.