Recently, someone spoke to me of walking in the park during her lunch hour, being passed by the runners and racers who occupy Prince’s Island Park on weekdays over the noon hour. Her initial thought was that she needed to up her exercise game, rev up her pace to keep up. The feeling was a kind of sadness that she wasn’t perhaps fit enough, that she was out of the mainstream, and that she should somehow be striving harder. Reflection on this, though, led her to realize that her natural pace, not just walking but in life, is slow, and to question why her pace should be judged by anyone, let alone herself.
As I contemplated her story, thinking about my own sojourns in the same park, sometimes on foot, sometimes on my slow cruiser bike. Yes, I too am going at a slow pace, and while I may not be burning as many calories, building as much muscle or training for a race, I do gain something others may not. I can absorb the experience of the park with all of my senses – its’ smells, sounds, sights, the feel the air, warmth or coolness, even the taste of the air. I can share a smile with another stroller, laugh with a child, and contemplate the amazing stories which arise from the diversity of human, animal and plant life which inhabit this space. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of participating in a walk in the tradition of “forest bathing”, which I’m told originates in Japan (although fair to say, probably many cultures have some form of the same experience). Basically, it was a guided walking meditation, feeling the variations of the ground, its’ texture beneath one’s feet, focusing in turn on each of the senses. As we each individually focused on these experiences, the only instruction was to allow our thoughts to go unanswered, to accept that thoughts will enter our minds, but needn’t be chased or analyzed, and that those thoughts can leave as easily as they come. The walk was immensely relaxing. I felt happy not about anything in particular, just calm, well and centered.
These days we hear a lot about mindfulness. I bring it into my work, teaching and trying to model its’ benefits. There are courses, workshops and books galore to develop the practice. Online resources can be accessed without much effort. We are told of the myriad benefits it brings to physical and mental health. But so many people tell me they’ve tried it and couldn’t do it, their minds are too busy and their bodies too fidgety. I think, though, that we are treating it often as a task, a skill to be learned, a challenge to be attained. So we try too hard, analyze our process and judge our progress. We think it is something that would be nice to do, but believe we don’t have time, what with endless to do lists and tasks to accomplish first. Sometimes we even think of it as something of a luxury or indulgence, practiced by people who don’t work that hard, don’t have so many stresses, or even who are maybe just kind of lazy. So in the end, we may just give up on the idea.
I will argue that mindfulness is probably the singular thing that anyone can do, which requires nothing but a moment in which you just choose to be, not do, when you just breathe, when a thought which distracts you doesn’t have to be answered right now. It can be experienced in any setting, but none in particular. For some it might be while walking, others while eating or drinking, still others in a hug or cuddle with someone you love, or doodling with pencil, pen or paint, or during a mundane household chore, or in the moments after you wake or just before you sleep. Perhaps it occurs in a creative activity, listening to or making music, seeing or making art, or maybe petting an animal. The key is simply to be in that moment and the reward is to have been in that moment completely. And, the hardest part of being mindful is to accept that you may very well be bombarded by thoughts, random or repetitive. Those who study mindfulness call it “monkey brain” and we all have it. Fair enough, don’t judge it, just don’t chase thoughts or try to shut them down. Let thoughts come, acknowledge them and let them pass. If they are important thoughts, they’ll come back at another time when you’re geared up to manage them. You may feel anxious when you seek to be mindful. That’s pretty normal too, just know that your brain isn’t accustomed to being calm, so it can overreact when you are trying to change the pattern. That too will pass.
Coming back to my original thoughts about this post, there’s room in all our lives for some changes of pace. Slow has its’ place, but in busy, productive, stressed lives we often ignore slow in favour of pushing to the next goalpost. I think we often have the notion that slow pace and relaxation will be easy once everything else is taken care of . For many of us though, we won’t get there or we won’t know how to slow down when we do.