Mindfulness is much talked about these days. We are encouraged to be mindful in our day-to-day life to ease our stress, anxiety, and even depression. The concept is regularly used to describe typical human activities such as mindful parenting, mindful eating, and mindful exercise.
But what exactly does it mean to be mindful? How do we do it and how does it help? What’s the connection between mindfulness and meditation? And what does any of it have to do with movement?
In the simplest of terms mindfulness means to be present in the current moment and open and aware of what is happening right here, right now. The goal is to not be distracted by thoughts in our head. To be mindful means we are not thinking about what we did yesterday or what we have to do tomorrow. We are not ruminating on past regrets or worrying about future events. We are not analyzing, arguing, lamenting, regretting. Our mind may be trying to take us to those places but we stay focused on the present moment.
Mindfulness can be as simple as focusing on our breath while waiting at a red light rather than stressing out that we may be late. It can mean paying attention to the smell, touch and taste of the food we are putting in our mouth, chewing and swallowing, rather than scarfing down lunch while scrolling through Facebook. It can mean listening to the tone of the voice and the words expressed by our child or partner or colleague without judgment and responding to what is being presented in the moment rather than reacting to a past hurt or future doubt.
Being mindful is not nearly as easy as it sounds! It takes practice. Meditation is the formal practice of developing mindfulness. Meditation can take on many forms and can come from many traditions, both secular and spiritual. It can be done anywhere at any time, sitting, standing, laying down, walking, even knitting or drawing.
Cognitive function – our ability to think, reason, plan and strategize - is held in high esteem in our society but it is only one part of who we are. Our mind’s job is to think thoughts. But thoughts are not facts. Often our heads and thoughts are separated from our bodies. Unless we are in pain, hungry, engaged in physical activity or having sex, we typically think very little of our bodies except to criticize them. Through meditation we learn to bring our focus to our breath and to the sensations in our body without judgment.
Our bodies carry a lot of wisdom. If we listen to them they will tell us much: when to sleep and when to wake, when we are hungry and when we are thirsty. Our bodies will tell us when to stay and when to go, when to hunker down and when to run. They will even tell us when to procreate.
Mindful movement is a means of bringing the practice of mindfulness to movement. Pilates is a mindful movement as are other movement modalities such as yoga and Tai Chi. We focus on the breath not just to provide a holistic exchange of oxygen and encourage muscular release, but to connect our attention to the movements our bodies are engaged in and the sensations they create. Imagine a baby completely engrossed in her body. She is conscious of nothing but her foot as she reaches her hands towards it and bites her toes. Imagine her delight as the reach of her foot causes her to roll over. She is developing an awareness of the innate wisdom of movement. Rolling over is not something she is taught, she instinctively knows how to do it when she is ready. The movement pattern is created through mindful practice over and over until it is grooved into her brain.
Practicing mindful movement will make us more connected to the innate ability of our physicality. Practicing meditation will make us more mindful and present in your body. The combination of meditation and mindful movement can be a powerful vehicle to help us move away from the noisy, uncomfortable, stuck patterns in our heads and our bodies and toward peace, ease and freedom.