A question that often comes up when teaching mindfulness to beginners is 'Do I really need to meditate, or can I just be mindful all the time instead?'
Before answering this, it's worth saying that some teachers use these terms interchangeably, so to be clear I'll say how I'm using them. When I refer to 'meditation' I mean a formal practice in which we set aside a period of time to sit, stand, lie down or walk in a specific way, engaging with a particular meditation technique such as following the breath or paying attention to bodily sensations. I'm using 'mindfulness' to mean 'the awareness which arises when paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally', which is how mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn defines it in his book Full Catastrophe Living.
One of the motivations for practising meditation is to develop the skill of mindfulness, which we can then begin to integrate into our daily lives. So the question is essentially asking if we can skip the first step and go straight to being mindful in daily life, without the need to meditate at all. Sometimes the question is phrased a bit differently, like 'Can I meditate during my walk to work?', and sometimes it's phrased more as a statement, like 'I don't need to meditate because I walk my dogs mindfully.'
So, how about it? Do you actually need to meditate or is off-cushion mindfulness enough by itself?
Personally, I'm a big fan of starting with meditation and then gradually bringing mindfulness into daily life. That's how I teach, and that's the approach that seems to work best for most people - even the ones who are convinced they 'can't meditate'!
Practising mindfulness in daily life is extremely valuable, and at some point becomes vital if you want to bring the skills you're developing on the cushion into the hurly-burly of daily life, which is where they'll be the most useful. However, in the modern world with its oh-so-many distractions, so much to do and so many things on our minds, paying attention to the present moment without wandering off in thought doesn't come naturally to most people, and it's typically much more difficult to remain mindful while moving through your daily activities because there's usually so much to think about, or at least that's how it seems.
So, even if you find meditation difficult initially, you'll probably find it much easier to use meditation to develop a solid foundation in mindfulness, in the same way that it's easier to learn a language if you start with some simple phrases and exercises rather than jumping straight into fluent conversation with a native speaker.
Indeed, many people find that after they've been meditating for a few weeks, they seem to find it harder to stay in the present moment without wandering off into distraction. Believe it or not, this is actually a good sign! A big part of the process of meditation is becoming more aware of what's going on in our minds, and the often surprising discovery of how unaware we were beforehand. After some practice we start to notice just how often the mind does wander. Again, this is much harder to see if you jump straight into mindfulness in daily life without ever sitting quietly in meditation. Unfortunately, this can sometimes lead people to believe that they're mindfulness experts simply because they're largely unaware of how often they're distracted!
In the interests of balance, it's worth saying that some people do develop great mindfulness without ever meditating. Elite athletes, skilled artisans and so on often describe their state of mind when engaged in their particular activity of expertise in a way that sounds remarkably like a high level of mindfulness. And if that approach really does work for you, that's great, and please don't let me stop you. But do consider whether this really is true, or whether it's just possible that your mindfulness would benefit from a formal meditation practice as well.
The progression that I recommend is for people to start off with a mindfulness-based meditation practice that they find appealing - some people like the body scan, some people like breath counting or following, some people like open awareness (guided meditations for all of these are available on the Audio page) - and spend a couple of weeks practising that to start to get a feel for what it means to be mindful.
Once you've built up some foundation in mindfulness through meditation, you can start to introduce it into daily life. It's usually best to start with one or two specific activities in your daily routine - for example, brushing your teeth, or washing the dishes (or loading the dishwasher!) - and try to do just those activities as mindfully as possible each day, until it becomes a habit, then add some more activities, and so on. Trying to go straight to 'being mindful' all day long is usually a recipe for frustration. Start small, build up, and keep going - over time you'll find mindfulness coming more often and more naturally, and the benefits becoming increasingly integrated into your daily life.
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.