We all know, or at least believe, that mindfulness is a good thing, that it is far superior to its opposite, inattention or carelessness. Likewise with compassion; it’s never out of place for us to project kindness and compassion towards others, though it isn’t always appropriate to express it verbally.
Mindfulness and compassion are not static qualities that we can acquire and cherish, any more than this current breath is ownable. They are noble human qualities that we all have in some measure and that we can cultivate and embody continuously (or nearly so) through persistent practice. The starting point is either knowing or believing this: our practice – our actions, words, and thoughts – can change us and influence those around us.
We can start with a simple sitting practice of 10 or 20 minutes a day. Any method will do if we can perceive for ourselves that we are calmer at the end than we were at the start. Many people find mantra meditation (a silently repeated word or phrase) easiest to start with, or listening to recorded guided meditations. What is not meditation? Reading or listening to music, which can make us feel calmer but serve to distract us from the workings of our mind rather than turn our attention towards them.
It’s very useful to pair sitting practice with at least one “daily life” practice, e.g., brushing our teeth mindfully, a gratitude diary, taking a deep breath before speaking, walking meditation, lifting and placing things gently. If we attend to our daily habits, we may notice one that is able to interrupt our trajectory when we’re acting mindlessly. Whatever works to bring mindfulness to our immediate experience is part of the training.
An essential element of successful bhavana (cultivation) is to mindfully note what is working well and what isn’t. We can choose a daily habit to practice with that is a challenge but not beyond our capabilities. If our sitting practice doesn’t seem to be improving after a month of steady effort, then a different method can be tried. It would be nice if there were a fixed curriculum that would work for all of us, bringing us ever closer to awakening, but alas, all paths need to be customized to some degree. Some of us start out with lots of calm but not much curiosity, and others of us are the reverse. Many of us have a fixed view that forms an obstacle and must be worked through, sometimes by unconventional means. What we all need is persistent attention and faith in the process.