Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Running Mindfully

The idea of meditation has always been something I have tended to reject for several reasons. First and foremost, I don't think stress is necessarily a bad thing, so why try to eliminate it? I have this mental image of a Buddha shaped guy lying on the sofa watching TV, completely unstressed by life. I don't even believe that the pursuit of "happiness" is something that we should be subscribing to - is not my Buddha figure happy, at least in this moment? To be satisfied, maybe I could except that as a reasonable goal. I can appreciate the importance of here and now, but is it really so important to stop and smell the flowers? Shouldn't we have more pressing concerns? The fact that meditation is often part of a mystical or religious package has also made it much harder for me to embrace. But my main misconception of meditation was that it was a question of emptying the mind. As the term mindfulness indicates, it is quite the opposite: it is about focusing the mind, not emptying it.

I can accept meditation as a form of mental training, however, but a mental training for what? My understanding of Mindfulness is that it is the art of focusing on the space between the various stimuli that we receive, and our reaction to those stimuli, allowing us to consciously choose how to react. After all, we can only take decisions here and now as it is the only point in space-time in which we are actually living. This idea is not new: Zen Buddhists have practiced meditation for thousands of years. In the field of psychotherapy, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy shares a lot of the same ideas with Mindfulness. And in sports, the holy grail of being "in the zone" or in a state of "flow" is
"the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does."
Compare this to the definition of Mindfulness according to the creator of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme, Jon Kabat-Zinn:
Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally"
So it is not about avoiding stress, but by being conscious we can decide whether stress is the right response or not. The alternative to being conscious is being on automatic pilot, where we are under the illusion that we are taking decisions but really we are just going with the flow, as opposed to being in a state of flow. A metaphor which I find quite helpful is to think of our consciousness as the sky across which clouds (our thoughts) are drifting. As thoughts occur to us, we make note without engaging with them and return to concentrating on what we have decided to focus on.
Caligraphy by Nonin Chawaney
In my case, the key is the word "non-judgementally". I understand that the point of not attaching any judgement - be it positive or negative - is to avoid the typical vicious circle of a thought leading to an emotion, which then leads to another thought and, before you realize it, you have forgotten what you were trying to focus on. In fact, the judgement often arises in the form of a self-criticism of how bad you are at concentrating. I can still remember a maths exam I did when I was about 13 years old, in which I started to worry about how much time I had left to finish the questions: "the time is ticking and I am sitting here just thinking about how the time is ticking and meanwhile...". One interesting and perhaps slightly counter-intuitive consequence is that, if we are too goal orientated when practicing Mindfulness, we will inevitably fall into the judgement trap.

A certain amount of sales pitch is necessary to convince anyone to make the effort of incorporating a new routine into their lives, especially if this involves paying for a book or a course along the way. But the most prominent webpage I have found on the subject of running with Mindfulness promises all kinds of benefits and, unfortunately, speaks to that goal orientated part of our brain.

I'm certainly no expert on Mindfulness having just done a two day course at work last week. We went through the concepts and practiced some of the classic Mindfulness meditations in a group. I have started to (formally) meditate just 5 minutes every morning, with the intention of extending this to 15-20 minutes over time. The act of running without tripping over is now sufficiently automatic that it shouldn't be too difficult to combine with meditation. So far I have only tried this on the treadmill but the kinds of (informal) meditation that seem natural while running are
- Breathing. Without modifying or forcing the rhythm, try to breathe with the abdomen as opposed to the chest and, if possible, through the nose (I find that I have to breathe through my mouth above a certain pace). Think about how the abdomen rises and falls, the air going in and out of the nose / mouth and the number of steps take during each inhalation / exhalation.
- Sounds. Tune into all the sounds you hear without thinking about any one of them or what is causing them in particular. Try to distinguish as many different sounds as possible.
- Being. Similar to the above, but concentrating on all the senses: hearing, seeing, smelling, feeling and - why not - tasting. 
- Body scan. As you run slowly work your way through every part of your body, paying attention to the sensations of movement, tension, discomfort or even pain. Try not to classify these sensations as good or bad, just make note of them without avoiding unpleasant ones or, equally, clinging to pleasant ones.
Thoughts. This time thoughts are invited but, as usual, it is important not to engage with any of them. Instead, the idea is to classify them as thoughts about the future (worries, plans, etc.), thoughts about the past (memories) and thoughts about the present.
When I think back to the two Marathons I have run in New York, unsurprisingly, I can remember a lot more about the one that went "well" and very little about the one that went "badly". I don't believe that this is because I have wanted to wipe the less good experience from my memory: I actually think that it was less good because I wasn't as present during it. I remember trying to be present but somehow failing. Perhaps I just need to practice more by not just training the body, but the mind as well.

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