Do I need to meditate to be mindful?

While some of us might have more of an aptitude for learning skills like these, they still have to be practiced.

Nikita Buida/Dollar Photo Club

This is one of the most common questions I’m asked by people wondering if mindfulness is for them. There’s often a subtext behind the inquiry: most mindfulness courses ask participants to practice for up to 45 minutes a day, the suggestion being that this will be a vital part of the learning process. Forty-five minutes a day seems a lot of work for most people, especially in a culture where sitting still and “doing nothing” for any time at all is unusual. If mindfulness just means paying attention, why can’t I do that without having to meditate? Can’t I just decide to notice things a bit more?

Well, ask yourself this—Can you just decide to be good at tennis? Or speak French? Or play the piano? While some of us might have more of an aptitude for learning skills like these, they still have to be practiced. We have to put some effort in. Evidence from the clinical and neuroscientific studies of mindfulness suggests that paying attention is an art to be cultivated in just the same way—we can develop our capacity for awareness through training. It’s also what meditators down the ages have reported.

The more we do something, the more we’re likely to continue to do it, and to do it well—this is how habits form, and skills are acquired. So it makes sense that the more we practice meditation—the art of paying attention—the more mindful we will find ourselves.

Perhaps one of the disadvantages of the gradual shift away from the use of the word meditation and towards the word mindfulness is that meditation conveys more of a sense of this being a practice, and not just a given attribute. “Deciding to be mindful” is something that comes from the head, a thought, whereas “practicing meditation” brings more of a sense of embodiment with it. If we want our mindfulness to be something we are, more than just a thought of something we’d like to be, it seems we need to cultivate it through meditation.

There’s one caveat to this—the science doesn’t yet tell us clearly how important meditation practice is to mindfulness. Lots of studies suggest that engaging in periods of meditation shifts our brain, body and experience in seemingly beneficial ways. What’s less clear is the effect of meditation practice over a period of time on those changes—is it this or something else that leads to the benefits seen?

Tradition, logic, and some strong scientific indicators say the meditation practice is key, but we still can’t be quite sure. Indeed, one review of the impact of practicing meditation during a mindfulness course found much less of a link between practice time and results than received wisdom might have predicted. While there is plenty of evidence suggesting a causal link, it’s early days in the research literature, and it would be good to see some studies which compared the effect of mindfulness courses with (and without) a home practice component. For now, the jury’s out on just how important formal meditation is to cultivating mindfulness.

Today, as I meditated at lunchtime in the churchyard outside our house, I wondered at the magnificent storm clouds billowing low across the hills on the horizon, felt waves of cascading energy flow through my body as the busyness of my morning—and my mind—subsided into moments of inner quiet, letting go into a grace of appreciation at having the senses to experience such a scene. I felt content, tired, a bit wet (raindrops on the grass below) and far more present than when I’d sat down to practice. Whatever the effect of meditation on my general mindfulness and well-being, experiences like that—the sense of opening into a vivid and vibrant aliveness—feel precious enough to be worth a lot by themselves. Anything else I’ll take as a bonus.