A few days ago, I exchanged tweets with an online friend during the course of which I mentioned I was going for a “mindful walk”. To my surprise, I received a number of tweets asking what I meant by that. Those requests are the inspiration behind this post.
For much of our life, we don’t pay much attention to the present. We’re typically ruminating on the past, about which we can do nothing since it has already happened, or we’re thinking about the future, which is uncertain until it happens. But the here and now often goes by without our notice. The practice of mindfulness, which is essentially secular Buddhist meditation, asks us to set aside these typical modes of thinking and instead pay attention to the present moment, the Now.
But it is about more than just being present in the Now. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines “mindfulness” as:
“…paying attention in a particular way;
in the present moment, and
So, not only are we in the present moment, but we are there deliberately, and non-judgmentally, paying attention to something – breathing, washing the dishes, eating or walking.
Consider the act of washing dishes. For many of us it’s a chore we just want to rush through as quickly as possible. We’re probably thinking about other things that need to be done, what meals to prepare tomorrow, but not really paying any attention to the act of washing the dishes. Approach this mindfully, though, and dish washing becomes a meditative exercise. You experience the warmth of the water, the feel of the suds on your skin, the appearance of bubbles and the sensation of cleanliness. For that moment, all that matters are the dishes and all of your worries are set aside. Consider how restful having those worries set aside can be.
That same restfulness can be accomplished while mindfully walking. There are many descriptions of mindful walking, but here’s how I practice it:
I begin by standing upright. My back is straight but not rigid. My legs are slightly apart.
I direct my attention to the soles of my feet, getting a sense of the weight upon them. I keep my posture upright, but relaxed. As I feel my feet, I try to feel my socks wrapped around them and the sensation of my sneakers. I allow my attention to wander up from the soles of my feet to the top of each foot, to my ankles, calves and shins, knees (which are slightly bent) and thighs. I direct my attention to my lower back and then I direct my attention up my spine to my neck and shoulders.
Each action is one of purposeful awareness. All the time I am listening to my muscles: are they telling me about tensions that I was unaware of? Are there aches, or are they relaxed and limber?
I now take a few moments to focus on my breathing, just feeling the in breath and the out breath, experiencing the rise of my chest and abdomen with each in breath and the fall in each with each out breath. I do not change my breathing. It maintains its natural rhythm. All I am doing is mindfully directing my awareness to it.
I drop my gaze slightly to reduce distractions and then start to walk.
I take my first step. I pay attention to the play of leg muscles as my leg swings forward; to the movement of my jeans against my leg and the lightness in my foot as weight is no longer bearing down on it. I feel the heel of my sneakers hit the ground, then my foot within my sneakers do the same. I sense the slight rocking as the rest of my sole hits the ground and then my toes. I’m aware of the movement of my calf and my thigh as the impact of hitting the ground is absorbed.
And as my body flows through that action, I feel my other foot, heel lifting, toes curling until it to lifts from the ground, and swings forward allowing the cycle to repeat, step after step.
With each step, I also pay attention to my breathing, noticing how it is synchronized with the movement of my legs. I will feel the movement of my arms and shoulders, relaxed yet synchronized, just like my breath.
Inevitably, my attention will wander and notice sounds or smells or colours around me. I allow this, taking note of where my mind took me and then, gently, and without judging where my mind was, I return my attention to my breath and to my steps and continue my walk deliberately choosing to be in this moment.
I admit that I am very new to this practice, but I find it wonderfully relaxing as I no longer find myself fighting with my thoughts. I am simply enjoying a walk, nothing more, nothing less and it is, in its simplicity, wonderfully freeing. Try it yourself and discover how a simple walk can help ease your mind.