Now that summer is in full swing, I’d like to suggest a very different approach to meditation: physical activity. This is a great time of year for people to get outside, even for a few minutes, and combining meditation with moving around can be fun and easy. Please be cautious and adapt any of these ideas to your personal health and circumstances.
The kind of activity that I have in mind doesn’t have to be a big sweaty ordeal; in fact, it doesn’t have to feel like a lot of exertion at all. If you have to constantly push yourself, and as a result you’re feeling uncomfortable and unhappy all the time, you can’t possibly experience it as a form of meditation. It’s true that experienced athletes can work through heavy-duty exercise, but that kind of single-mindedness is not something that most of us are prepared for, and it can be a very inward focus that is pretty isolating.
On the other hand, some people prefer to totally “zone out” during exercise, listening to music and losing their concentration entirely, so that even a half-hour workout seems to go by in just a couple of songs. Although it can be very calming, that lack of awareness isn’t what I have in mind either. Instead, I want to suggest that you try being present in your body and aware of its surroundings while you are in motion. To achieve this, choose something that you can enjoy and that you can do comfortably for ten or fifteen minutes without getting too tired or distracted, like a walk, a gentle swim, or an easy bike ride.
Since you want to pay attention to your environment, choose a place where you can enjoy pleasant surroundings. A loud, smelly highway is not something you want to direct your attention towards, and it may be equally distracting or worrying to be on a densely wooded path where you’re constantly worrying about being eaten alive by mosquitos and running into a rut in the path that will pitch you off your bike to land head-first into a patch of poison ivy.
What you want to try to do is to stay aware of your body – your whole body – and to keep your body and mind relaxed and open to the sensations of your experience. Try checking in with different parts of your body randomly. What are you feeling in your hands? Your knees? Your shoulders? Where are you storing tension? As you get into the rhythm of activity, does that tension change, stiffen, or move to another part of your body?
Focus on the contrasts, the yin and yang of your environment and yourself. Contrast the motion and stillness around you with your own, and stay aware of how your perspective on your surroundings shifts as you move through your activity. As with any other kind of meditation, when your awareness fixates on one thing, relax and return your attention to your breath, or to a focal point such as the rhythm of your movement or the stillness of your center of gravity. Your mind will wander; when it does, bring it back, without recrimination or increased tension, just returning it to your chosen focus.
Stay open to the sensations of your surroundings, but don’t let those sensations overwhelm you. Just as you do with thoughts and feelings that arise during a session of seated meditation, acknowledge each sensation and let it go, so that you continue to be aware of the whole experience. If you enjoy a more moderate level of exertion, don’t let that escalate to the point of distraction; stay present in your body rather than taking your mind away just so you can go a little bit faster or push a little bit harder. The goal here is mindfulness, not mindlessness.
Some kinds of exercise are often taught with a meditative focus, such as qi gong and yoga. If you engage in one of these, whether you’re experienced or a novice, use the same approach of being open to the sensations in your body and your presence in your surroundings. If you have an established practice already, perhaps you could try doing part of your routine in an outdoors setting where you don’t usually get to go; see how the different context affects your practice and your awareness.
In exercises that consciously incorporate the breath, make sure that you’re not ignoring the rest of your body. As you breathe in and stretch a little bit further, notice how your breath and movement interact. Are you starting and stopping movements in time with the breath? Is your movement causing you to breathe, or vice versa? Is your breath steady and smooth, or ragged and irregular? How about your movement?
Even an activity like light weightlifting can be an opportunity for mindfulness. Rather than experiencing each repetition as a chore, or a contest, direct your attention away from concerns or pressure you put on yourself and into your awareness of your muscles and movement. Try using your breath to support your movement, much as you do when breathing into a tight part of the body while stretching, rather than holding your breath. How does the sensation in the muscle change with each repetition? When do you know that it’s enough; when your body tells you so, or when you’ve reached a predetermined number?
Meditation can be a way to be in better touch with your body, as well as your mind and heart. The awareness cultivated in meditation ought to be an awareness of ourselves and our surroundings as we interact with them, not just an isolated inner awareness. Finding mindfulness in motion can be a way to cultivate an interactive awareness of both mind and body.