Cultivating Mindfulness Beyond Meditation: How 8 Skills Empower Us in Everyday Life

Even as meditators, we often struggle to be mindful in our day-to-day lives. Author and researcher Shalini Bahl shares what she’s discovered about our ability to return to mindfulness when it matters most.

Adobe Stock | Mary Long

We’ve all been there—a moment of high stress calls for mindfulness, but meditation alone doesn’t seem to cut it. While formal meditation practice is an incredibly valuable practice, everyday mindfulness demands a broader set of skills.

Taking my own journey into everyday mindfulness, and being lead researcher on studies examining the relationship between mindful mindsets and skills, inspired me to develop an eight-skill framework. The mindfulness mindset helps us discern and overcome the challenges to returning to our inherent clarity and intentions when it matters most.

From Mindfulness Teacher to City Council: My Wake-up Call

Picture this: I’m standing onstage at my first-ever political debate. Heart pounding, self-doubt floods my mind, and I desperately grasp for the familiar comfort of my meditation practice. While the breath offers some calm, a nagging worry lingers. I feel disconnected from the audience and, even worse, from myself.

This isn’t a hypothetical situation. Standing before 100 Amherst residents waiting to hear from me and five other candidates for the first town council, this is exactly how I felt. This pivotal moment forced me to confront a crucial truth: mindfulness is not just about those quiet, solitary moments of meditation. While meditation is a valuable practice, it alone is not enough to be truly mindful in the real world.

While meditation is a valuable practice, it alone is not enough to be truly mindful in the real world.

No doubt, I had experienced profound benefits from mindfulness. It had made me realize how disconnected I had been from my inner world. Mindfulness practices helped me regain clarity and confidence, especially while meditating or being in nature. In fact, mindfulness research and teaching was my full-time career. Yet, I struggled with being mindful in crucial moments, whether in the middle of difficult conversations, making complex decisions, or starting new habits.

This struggle became more apparent when I entered the world of politics as an elected city councilor. I discovered that my meditation self could handle anything, but my politician self was easily hijacked by self-doubt and fear. When I got hijacked, I’d make myself small and invisible—a defense mechanism I’d mastered, which neither felt good nor led to fulfilling outcomes.

As someone who’d been studying mindfulness personally and professionally, I found myself wanting something more—a reliable path to return to mindfulness in the midst of everyday life. It turned out many of my clients were seeking the same thing. So began my journey to answer the question—how can we practice mindfulness for real-world impact?

Key Insights for Mindfulness in Everyday Life

Over the next five years, I devoted thousands of hours to reading, studying, and meditating on the original mindfulness discourse and examined ancient texts through the lens of science and their relevance in the modern world.

With practice (and play), we can replace our default habits with mindfulness skills that empower us to live and lead with clarity that will benefit us and others.

During this time, two insights profoundly shifted my practice of mindfulness as a seeker, mother, daughter, wife, politician, researcher, and mindfulness teacher. (These insights later became the bedrock of my book, Return to Mindfulness.) First, we have an incredible capacity within ourselves to move through the world with clarity and grace, but we let our default habits and biases get in the way, especially when we’re triggered. And second, with practice (and play), we can replace our default habits with mindfulness skills that empower us to live and lead with clarity that will benefit us and others.

The promise of Return is simple: We can strengthen skills to return to what many great writers and teachers have called our field of inner knowing, regardless of our circumstances.

Eight Mindfulness Skills to Disrupt Eight Default Habits

We’ve all evolved with default modes prioritizing survival and efficiency, often at the expense of fulfillment and sustainable impact. Through the following shifts in our mindset, we can develop a reliable and effortless approach to seeing clearly and aligning our actions with our intentions: 

  1. Bring awareness when we find ourselves automatically reacting
  2. Seek to understand with compassion when we’re feeling judgy
  3. Seek new information with curiosity when stuck in our echo chambers
  4. Tap into mindful energy to take actions aligned with our goals, even when it’s uncomfortable to change old ways of thinking and acting
  5. Choose appreciative joy over negativity
  6. Let go of attachments to achieve inner calm
  7. Focus on what is important when we feel distracted and overwhelmed
  8. Respond in a balanced way with equanimity instead of biased impulsivity.

The Path to Return to Mindfulness: Return, Listen, Begin

How do we apply these skills? In my book, I outline a three-step process:

Return: First, we return to the present moment by anchoring our attention to the breath, body sensations, or any other object that helps us stabilize our awareness. Doing this allows us to step out of autopilot mode and reconnect with our direct experience.

Listen: Next, we listen within and to others in order to understand the situation at hand and align with our intentions. By cultivating skills such as compassion and curiosity, we gain insight into the causes and conditions underlying our experiences, as well as the needs and perspectives of others involved.

Begin: Finally, we begin our actions and interactions with intentionality, aligning our choices with our values and insights gained from listening within. By continually applying this framework with the eight mindfulness skills, we develop the capacity to respond to life’s ups and downs with clarity, resilience, and purposefulness.

At each step on this path to return to our inner clarity, we may encounter different default habits getting in the way. When we notice this happening, we can engage the mindfulness skills essential to disrupt the default habits and invite a mindset that empowers us to see things as they are with minimum interference from past conditioning and our evolutionary instincts.

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From Self-Doubt to Authenticity

Back to that debate stage—returning to my breath alone was just a bandage. Throughout the debate, I was able to keep my composure while responding to the varied questions from both the moderator and residents. Yet, I felt off. Even though I cared about the issues being discussed, my responses felt empty and superficial. Post-debate, a few attendees came to congratulate me on my performance. But I—and my campaign manager—knew that I wasn’t myself.

The real shift came the next day, during meditation, when I listened deeply. Compassionately embracing my self-doubt, I observed my inner dialog underlying my anxiety with an open mind. I noticed a pattern of comparing myself to more experienced candidates, which was creating an impossible goal—to be like them. This time, instead of following the unconscious pattern of comparison, I shifted my attention to my intentions for running and how my unique strengths could contribute to bridging the divisiveness in my town. This shift in perspective allowed me to reconnect with my intention and show up authentically in future debates.

In the debates that followed, I remembered to return, listen, and begin with clarity. Over time, the eight skills helped me break down the barriers of comparison and self-doubt, replacing them with authenticity and confidence. “One thousand times better,” was the feedback from my campaign manager!

Your Invitation: Practices for Daily Mindfulness

In a world overflowing with distractions, mindfulness matters more than ever. The eight essential skills offer a path to return to that place in us that recognizes our interconnectedness and embraces opportunities to lead a fulfilling life. By understanding our habits and developing these skills, we regain agency to make choices that are not only good for us but also for our loved ones and teams, while contributing to the creation of a better, brighter world.

Here’s where you start:

  • Assess: Take the free mindfulness assessment to identify your areas of strength and growth.
  • Practice: Dedicate yourself to daily mindfulness practices that strengthen the skills you need to cultivate.
  • Integrate: Use daily reminders to continue practicing and reinforcing these skills throughout the day. Card decks, whether in physical or digital format, offer one easy tool, or you can create your own reminders on sticky notes.

True mindfulness is a journey. Embrace the process, be playful, and connect deeply with the mystery and beauty of this one precious life. The transformative potential of mindfulness goes beyond individual fulfillment to promoting peace and progress for all beings.

Adapted from Return to Mindfulness: Disrupting Default Habits for Personal Fulfillment, Effective Leadership, and Global Impact by Shalini Bahl, Ph.D. (2024). BrainTrust Ink.