An easy misunderstanding to fall into with mindfulness practice is to see it as purely psychological in nature. Its emphasis on embodied awareness offers a strong clue that it’s as much an education in body as it is in mind. In this regard, mindfulness is an uncomfortable fit with mental health paradigms that are only interested in what happens from the neck up.
Participants on secular mindfulness courses, for example, quickly discover that ‘practice’ involves spending lots of quality time with a universe of physical sensations that normally get overlooked or screened out. Inspired by their two months of training, many go on to change their lives in ways reflected in what they do with their bodies, and how they treat them.
Walking the Walk
There is, in fact, little about mindfulness that you cannot outwardly learn from a dog or a cat. Animals are perceptive, receptive, attentive and modest. They are naturally self-contained. Unconcerned with past and future, they dwell effortlessly in awareness, retaining a knowledge that humans easily forget, something the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau put so neatly: “Thus our earthly joys are almost without exception the creatures of a moment” (Reveries of The Solitary Walker, 1776 – 78).
Fortunately, humans are not entirely divorced from the natural wisdom of animals. Since the time of Hippocrates (460 – 370 BC), the so-called ‘father of modern medicine’, the psychological benefits of fresh air and exercise have been well understood. What we put into our bodies affect our minds. Even just a few minutes a day of aerobic exercise changes how the body regulates stress hormones. On some level we know that when we trade time outdoors for time peering into a screen we are taking risks with our emotional wellbeing.
Spending quality time with your body is an act of kindness. Contact with nature and activities devoted to moving the body are vital to human welfare. Unlike animals, humans are prone to overlooking such simple truths. For us, sustaining healthy behaviours requires wise attention and effort. These mental qualities of wise attention and effort lay the foundations for a mindful life, which is carved from a judicious consideration of cause and effect.
Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes
I have found the simple act of running around parks and fields to be a memorable education in body as well as mind. When I am alive to the moment, I am as connected to what’s happening inside me as to what’s going on around me. My body moves as a seamless whole, an incredible machine of interrelating parts in communication with each other and their environment.
If I can fully relax into this and the thinking mind lets go, tensions I didn’t know existed often spontaneously come into awareness and then release themselves: joints stop clicking, muscles unclench, limbs free up, feet land more softly and gracefully on the ground. In these moments, my animal nature come to the fore. It is bursting with life.
Knees and Toes
At other times, when the mind is preoccupied with its stories or resistant to physical exertion, there is a lingering sense of disconnection. Like those dissatisfying mental health paradigms, I become the one who is interested only in what is happening from the neck up. A hardness invariably creeps into the running experience. Things start to grate. Body parts feel out of sync with each other. The feet meet the ground with a thump. The smash of thoughts inside my skull feels just as unyielding.
With mindfulness, I can pick up on this, hold it in mind, and a sensitive response becomes possible again. There is a newfound receptivity to whatever is showing up; there is less struggle and grabbiness. If I invite or encourage attention into my lower legs, ankles, toes and soles of my feet, often I’ll rediscover the simple joy of taking just one step. New relationships open up within the body and there is a brightness of contact with the grass, the air, light and shade. The world comes alive. The body swings back into rhythm. I am a humble, happy animal again.