I recently re-read some of Stephen King’s book On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft. The book is part memoir, part writing manual. One of my favorite parts is when King describes just how important reading is to a writer: “I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in.” King mentions waiting rooms, theater lobbies, checkout lines, and listening to audiobooks while driving. (He has also been spotted reading at Red Sox games.) He says that “the trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows.” Readers are often accustomed to reading many pages at a time. But reading a small amount here and there — a sentence, a paragraph, or a page — adds up. As a life-long reader, I also love bringing a book with me and reading a page or two at any convenient moment. If I am really enjoying a book, I want to spend every waking moment I can reading it, until I’m done.
But as meditators, we have another option available: We can always practice mindfulness. You don’t even need a book handy. You can even do it in situations where reading would be inappropriate, like at a meeting that is going on too long. The best part is that, if you pick the right technique, it won’t take you away from the situation. By listening to the sounds of people talking in a meeting, you might get more out of that meeting than the other attendees. And if you intentionally pay attention to seeing the other cars as you drive you will certainly be a safer driver — even safer than if you were caught up listening to an audiobook!
Unified Mindfulness, the basis of Brightmind’s meditation app, is especially well suited to bringing mindfulness into your daily life. In many meditation systems, you are given one or two techniques, such as following the breath, doing a body scan, or repeating a mantra, that, while effective during formal, seated practice, aren’t always relevant to complex situations, such as an emotionally intense discussion. But those situations are often when we need the benefits of mindfulness the most! So having a wide variety of techniques available is a big advantage.
Unified Mindfulness even has a mindfulness equivalent to what King calls “small sips” and “long swallows.” Long swallows are formal practice, like a daily seated meditation practice period, or a period of walking meditation. Small sips are informal practice in life, especially what Shinzen calls “microhits.” When you practice micro hits, you place all of your attention on the technique, like with formal seated practice, but you limit the period to a small period of time — perhaps thirty seconds, perhaps five or ten minutes. And then you scatter these brief periods throughout your day.
The other strategy you can take is background practice, where you have the intention to maintain a particular technique — like listening to the sounds of people talking during a meeting — but you don’t necessarily put all of your attention on the technique. It’s just running in the background, and, if need be, you can switch all of your attention on something else.
If you have a practice where you take “small sips” and “long swallows” every day, you’ll start to notice that your meditation practice really takes off. It gets easier and easier, and it has more and more of an impact on you, both during and after formal practice periods. I tell my meditation students to notice if any of the techniques they are doing start to happen automatically, without effort. For example, you might wake up from sleeping and notice that you are automatically aware of your body sensations, or take a bus ride and find yourself effortlessly listening to the sounds of the city around you.
This is a big step in your practice. You want to encourage it, savor it, enjoy it, extend it. As we find inner quiet, stillness, peace, and joy when we practice, those positive effects begin to affect the rest of our lives. We start accessing them more and more in more and more places, more and more of the time.
So, the next time you’re waiting in a waiting room, what will you do? Will you reach for your book, or take a moment to practice mindfulness?