Continuity of Mindfulness on Retreat

One of the great blessings of retreat practice is that we make space to set aside our usual worldly activities. On retreat our main work is to cultivate mindfulness and to practice meditation. We can engage with practice throughout the day, not only in formal sitting and walking periods, but also in the “in between times”: during meals, in our work meditations and sangha service, in having a cup of tea, while brushing our teeth, getting dressed, or even going to the toilet. All day long we have the luxury to explore: “How can I be mindful of this?”

Cultivating mindfulness in all our activities supports a steadiness of mind, which creates the conditions for concentration to develop. Not cultivating mindfulness during the “in between times” on retreat is akin to putting a kettle on and off the stove; it takes much longer for the water to boil. With a steadiness of connection to each present experience, the mind is less likely to react to sights, sounds, smells, sensations, thoughts, or emotions, and instead can become interested in the experience itself.

Understanding the value of continuity of mindfulness, we have to make some effort to support it. This effort needs the quality of gentle persistence to cultivate a moment-to-moment attention. The idea of practicing mindfulness all day can feel overwhelming, and it’s possible to wear ourselves out through over-efforting or gearing up to try to stay present for long stretches at a time.

Effort that supports continuity of mindfulness has a light touch; just enough effort to be present for this moment. It doesn’t take much effort to experience half a breath, to feel the contact points of your hands, to notice a sight, a sound, or a sensation. We make just enough effort to connect with a moment of experience. And then we do it again, and again, and again. Supportive effort lies in connecting over and over again, rather than trying to hold our attention on experience.

This kind of effort is analogous to riding a child’s kick scooter. To start you need to put your foot down and push lightly against the ground; just a gentle tap. You probably have to make several light taps to get the scooter going, but as momentum starts to build, you learn what it feels like for the momentum to carry you. You learn to recognize when you can ride for a while without tapping. Then, as the scooter starts to get a little wobbly, you make a few taps again to stabilize the momentum.

The effort towards continuity of mindfulness is like that. We gently connect to experience: What is here now? And now? And now? This light touch of effort supports a momentum of mindfulness and we become familiar with the experience of this momentum. We begin to recognize when we can back off of a conscious effort to stay present, and allow the momentum of established mindfulness to simply receive experience: to know a breath, a sight, a sound, an emotion, a sensation. We also begin to recognize when the mindfulness gets “wobbly,” and can gently re-engage with the effort to actively connect with experience. This kind of gentle, persistent effort allows continuity of mindfulness to develop very naturally, without leading to exhaustion.

As mindfulness becomes more continuous, we begin naturally to investigate and be interested in experience, and start to more deeply understand the relationships between different aspects of experience. For example, while cleaning a toilet, we might see the arising of a thought, see an emotion connected to that thought, and see how both impact the body. We naturally begin to understand that there is a cause and effect relationship between mind and body, and that there is a difference between a thought, an emotion and the body. In fact, as mindfulness becomes more continuous, deep understanding and insight can happen at any time, not just in the formal sitting and walking practice.

Because the retreat schedule emphasizes formal sitting and walking practice, we might believe they are the most important of the retreat and that it is less important to be attentive throughout the day. Yet we miss a valuable opportunity that retreats offer if we don’t explore the gentle persistent cultivation of continuous mindfulness.