I've been a runner all my life. I learned to run at 9 months, and to walk a bit later. That made life stressful for my parents (a running toddler is a nightmare), but it set me on a wonderful path I’ve never strayed from.
I noticed some years ago that I’d feel a sense of elation at that the start of my runs, but that within about 10 minutes, the joy would start to fade. Whatever worries or tension I’d felt before the run would slowly return, and my enthusiasm would gradually dip. I’d keep on running, but it was more effortful and less of a pleasure. The pattern was consistent. When I took a closer look, I realized something: during those precious first ten minutes, I’d be noticing the bounce in my step, the trees around me, the smell and feel of the fresh air. I’d be wholly in the “now," in the moment and experience of my running. But after about 10 minutes, my mind would leave the present and return to wherever it had been before the run—to whatever worries or concerns I’d been preoccupied with before lacing up my shoes. And that’s precisely when my energy would drop and my anxiety would return.
And so I made an effort to notice when my mind was shifting during a run, and to bring it back to the present each time it wandered away. I'd refocus on my breath, or the feel of my feet landing and lifting, or the sights and smells and sounds around me. The impact was dramatic: my anxiety would dissipate, my sense of pleasure would return, and I’d suddenly see the trees and flowers or interesting buildings I was running past. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was experiencing the power of running mindfully. This was long before I discovered the world of meditation and the concept of mindfulness. It was just something that worked wonders for my runs.
The power of doing everyday activities mindfully is what I want to write about today. But first, a quick detour into the world of meditation.
There is a fast-growing scientific literature on the psychological and physical benefits of a regular meditation practice (Goyal et al., 2014; Grossman et al., 2004). Although recent meta-analyses suggest caution in uncritically accepting the findings of this literature for a variety of reasons (lack of control groups in some studies, small effect sizes in others, and researcher bias), the data do collectively point to the benefits of a regular meditation practice of some sort. In fact, the evidence suggests that meditation and other mindfulness practices may be as effective in reducing depression and anxiety as psychiatric medication and roughly comparable to various psychotherapies. To be clear, meditation is not a panacea (despite often being marketed as such), but it can be a powerful way to slow down and quiet the mind, step back from distressing and recurrent thoughts, and learn to sit with powerful emotions as they rise and fall, gradually losing their power. And given the lack of side effects and the cost-effectiveness of meditation compared with psychiatric and psychological treatments, meditation presents a compelling alternative to professional mental health care for people unable or unwilling to access such care.
That's good news for people who work in low-income settings where mental health professionals are scarce. For organizations that work with refugees and other war-affected communities, the effectiveness and affordability of mindfulness techniques are especially promising. A recent study in Sri Lanka found that a simple meditation practice was as effective as trauma-focused therapy in reducing symptoms of PTSD among children. Similar results were found in a study using meditation for PTSD among Congolese refugees. And in the NGO where I work, War Child Holland, we’re now incorporating simple meditative techniques into our work with parents affected by war and displacement, and assessing their impact on stress, mood, and parenting. Preliminary results are promising, with parents reporting reduced stress levels and a shift from away from harsh parenting to more empathic, supportive practices.
Mindfulness is more than meditation
The terms "meditation" and "mindfulness" are often used interchangeably, but they are actually different concepts: Meditation is a practice in which we set aside time on a regular basis to cultivate a state of mindfulness: a state of mind in which we disengage from our thoughts, notice them without getting pulled into them, notice other sensations or feelings or sounds in the environment, all with a gentle curiosity and openness. It’s a state of being wholly present. In some types of meditation, we use the breath as an anchor, a home port to which we gently return each time we notice we’re caught up in a train of thought, or gotten pulled into powerful feelings. Of course, we may wish to observe our thoughts for a moment, or to stay with our feelings, particularly if we’ve been avoiding them, and experience them for a time, then return to the breath and the calmer waters it affords.
Meditation can be wonderful, but it’s also time set apart from the rest of life. And whatever equanimity we find in our meditation practice may quickly dissipate as the demands of our daily lives, or our usual anxiety-producing thought processes, kick in again after the meditation bell sounds and our session comes to an end. The state of mindfulness we entered may dissipate like the benefits of a good massage. It’s remarkable how quickly the transformation can occur, from a calm and focused state to once again feeling anxious or worried or stressed or distracted.
And so the real challenge is this: How can we integrate that state of mindfulness into our everyday routine, into the tasks of everyday life, and not limit our mindfulness to our set-aside periods of formal meditation? How can we develop informal mindfulness practices that extend the benefits of meditation, or that offer benefits on their own, even without a meditation practice? If meditation is about training the mind, then how can we apply that training in the rest of our lives?
Happily, life offers us endless opportunities.
You get the picture. These are all examples of “informal” mindfulness practices. Think of mindfulness as being wholly present in this moment. If that’s our goal, we can practice it throughout the day, in whatever we’re doing, from washing clothes, to cooking, to making love, to going for a run. It's nothing we need to put time aside for; it's simply bringing a fresh approach to activities we already do. And if we are truly in the present moment, then we are not in the future—worrying about bad things that might happen; nor are we in the past, ruminating about things we wish we had or hadn’t done, or wondering what someone meant by something they said, or didn’t say.
Meditation is a wonderful way to cultivate mindfulness. And the rest of life is an endless opportunity to work at being mindful in the real world of our everyday activities. No time to meditate? No problem. Try being mindful in one or two of your daily activities. You might be surprised at just how rewarding it can be.
Time for a run now. I’ll try not to get lost in thought…
Grossman, P., Niemann. L., Schmidt, S., & Wallach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 57, 35-43.
Goyal, M. et al. (2014). Meditation programs for psychological stress and wellbeing. Comparative Effectiveness Reviews, No. 124. Rockville, MD: Agency for Health care Review and Quality