Looking out the large round window in my bedroom, I stand barefooted in my cotton night-shirt and take the pulse of the new day. A cascade of cooper-colored oak leaves drift down from the tall trees in our backyard woods. I notice the soft, morning light illuminating the green lichen on my favorite Grandfather Tree. I send gratitude to this Standing One who shelters our home and our family so magnificently. I sigh softly as another dozen leaves release their hold and spiral down to the ground, covering the path that leads down to the stream. Standing transfixed, I focus completely, my mind free of thoughts for nearly 10 minutes. This is the form my mindfulness-meditation practice takes most days now. Happily indulging in a few minutes of letting my mind and thoughts rest while I soak in the sensual pleasure of the moment.

I also enjoy a traditional, seated-meditation most mornings. This practice looks like 20 – 40 minutes on the floor, cross-legged on a cushion. I sit before a candle burning on the altar next to a photograph of my Master Teacher, Meher Baba. Shells, rocks, feathers, my mesa, and a small medicine bag anointed with frankincense oil, complete the offerings.

But I also love breaking the rules. Playing more than practicing, I jump into the present moment. Gifting myself the pleasure of being completely, sensually-absorbed in what is right before me: the silky-softness of my dog Sprite’s little mane under my fingers, the heat of my green tea radiating through the white porcelain cup cradled next to my heart before that first, perfect sip, pausing my steps as I stretch to hear the barely audible sound of the train whistle outside the house, the vibrant, deep crisp green of the kale under our sharpest knife as I prepare a vegan stew for dinner.

Now that I’m an experienced meditator I allow myself the indulgence of breaking the rules often. Sometimes I even forgo my seated morning meditation, allowing spontaneous, sensual mindfulness moments throughout my day to serve as that day’s “practice.”

But to be an effective rule breaker you need to know the rules well. It’s a bit like being an accomplished painter. After you train, study with good teachers, and practice your ass off, you branch off and create a style all your own. You improvise and experiment. But thinking you’re going to just go from doodling to painting masterpieces is pretty naïve. Of course, that’s part of the journey for most of us as well, I know it was for me.

I wasn’t always able to effectively slip into a meditative state by being playful with my practice. When I first started meditating 11 years ago, I needed to first learn, and then follow, some basic rules. I had had a few months of false starts and had pretty much decided to give up the idea of being a prolific meditator. I thought that if I couldn’t sit for 30 minutes I wouldn’t receive any real benefit. I thought I wasn’t “doing it right” because my thoughts never ceased… not even for 5 minutes (of course now I understand that even 1 minute of “silent mind” is a huge deal!).  It was my brother David, a Buddhist who can easily sit for an hour or more, who set me straight. He told me that I didn’t have to sit for 30 minutes… or even 15. He said that as a first step if I could sit in meditation, keep my eyes closed and not stand up… for even three minutes… then I could count that as a successful meditation. It didn’t matter at all what my mind did. Even three minutes of interrupting my chronic fight or flight stress mode, and my constant monkey-mind with my endless to-do lists, was hugely beneficial to my body, mind, and spirit.

“A three-minute meditation?!,” I thought, “Well sure, I can do that.” And so I did. And it felt good, really good in fact. So I bumped it up to 10, then 20 minutes. Then I added a walking meditation outside in the afternoon. For those first three years I had to use a timer to “make sure” I was getting all my time in. I also studied with multiple teachers and explored many types of meditation and mindfulness practices. Once I was able to successfully sink down below my thoughts on a regular basis, and trust I would show up for my practice, I started to chill out about the details and no longer used a timer. I called it “freedom within discipline.” My only steadfast rule was that I would continue to show up for myself and my practice.

On most days now I deeply enjoy my practice and feel peaceful and relaxed afterward. When I’m going about my day and notice a pleasurable, tactile sensation, a sound, or something of beauty, I take it as an invitation to pause my thoughts and to spend a few mindfully-sensual moments fully “being” with the experience. It’s made my life a continuous wow-fest.

I used to think that I didn’t have time for mindfulness or meditation. Now I understand that the art of sensual mindfulness can easily happen in just a few breaths. It gives me the opportunity to remember that I have all the time I need to feel truly, gratefully alive.

All photos above by Cheryl Schirillo Johnson. Photo below by Mariela Perez.