An introduction to Walking Meditation

 

“Don’t walk in front of me… I may not follow. Don’t walk behind me… I may not lead. Walk beside me… just be my friend”  ― Albert Camus

What do you think about when you go for a walk?

What an odd question to ask. But, hang on a moment. What do you really think about when you go for a walk? If you are like me, you decide to go for a walk for the exercise; to walk the dogs (we have two); to be with friends or family on a day out, or perhaps to visit and see something new. You don’t go on a walk to think? Or do you?

I also use walking as a time to reflect on the life events going on around me. Work; the social activities; or even family and friends. But more than that, I also use it as an opportunity to be present.

What is the third approach (after exercise and reflective thinking)?

The walking meditation is one of the key elements of the MBSR – Mindfulness Stress Reduction Programme. Central to it is being present; being aware of the act of walking. You normally don’t think about where you are walking; where you are placing your feet; how you are placing your feet; how it feels to be walking and the affect on your body. This is the basis for the exercise.

So how do you do a Walking Meditation?

  • Find a location. Find a place that allows you to walk back and forth for 10 to 15 paces. A place that is peaceful, where you won’t be disturbed or even observed. A slow, formal walking meditation can look strange to people who are unfamiliar with it!. You can practice walking meditation either indoors or outside. I prefer to be outside, but the choice is entirely yours.
  • Plan your walk. Start walking the steps along the place you’ve chosen, and then pause and breathe for as long as you like. When you’re ready, turn and walk back in the opposite direction, where you can pause and breathe again. Then, when you’re ready, Turn once more and continue with the walk. What is critical is to focus on the component elements of each step you take.
  • The component elements of each step. Walking meditation involves very deliberating thinking about and doing a series of actions that you normally do automatically. Breaking the steps down in your mind may feel awkward, even ridiculous. But you should try to notice at least these four basic components of each step. These are:

    a) the lifting of one foot;
    b) the moving of the foot a bit forward of where you’re standing;
    c) the placing of the foot on the floor, heal first;
    d) the shifting of the weight of the body onto the forward leg as the back heel lifts, while the toes of that foot remain touching the floor or the ground. Then the cycle continues, as you:

   a) lift your back foot totally off the ground;
   b) observe the back foot as it swings forward and lowers;
   c) observe the back foot as it makes contact with the ground, heel first;
  d) feel the weight shift onto that foot as the body moves forward.

  You are focusing on the physical act of walking. Something we have not thought of          since we learned to walk all those years ago.

  • What do you do with your hands and arms? Whatever feels most comfortable and natural to you. It is not an exercise in holding your arms or hands in an unnatural position.
  • Walking speed? You can walk at any speed, but the idea behind a walking meditation is that it is slow and involves taking measured small steps. That is why most people perform the exercise somewhere quiet, as seeing people walking slowly makes people uncomfortable. The most important thing for you is that it feels natural, not exaggerated or stiff.
  • You will find you focus on something. As you walk, try to focus your attention on one or more sensations that you would normally take for granted. Perhaps the weight of your arms. I noticed when I did the exercise that my arms were different weights. Why? I was wearing a heavy man’s watch on my right wrist. I had never noticed this before. Perhaps your breath as you walk; the way your arms move; the sounds around you or looking more closely at sights around you, I noticed individual pebbles  when I did the practice on a path. The glitter and sparkle of each stone.
  • Finally, that damn wandering mind! No matter how much you try to fix your attention on any of these sensations, your mind will wander. Guaranteed.  When you notice your mind wandering, don’t give up of get angry, but simply try again to focus it one of those sensations. You will find that will a little practice, you will be able to be more present when you walk and notice more.

I went for a brief walk today with some colleagues and as I walked along I noticed that there a nail on the path. I picked it up and threw it in a bin. Was I more observant than everyone else? Or was it due to the walking practices?

I leave you with the following quote, from one of my favorite books and films of all times.

 

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’

‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.

‘I don’t much care where -‘ said Alice.

‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.

‘- so long as I get SOMEWHERE,’ Alice added as an explanation.

‘Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, ‘if you only walk long enough.”

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

An introduction to Sitting Meditation

 

“There are times when we stop, we sit still. We listen and breezes from a whole other world begin to whisper.” ― James Carroll

We all like simple, don’t we?

One of simplest and at the same time; most effective mindfulness practices is the Sitting Meditation. If you followed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, the practice is introduced in week four.  

So what is Sitting Meditation?

The Mindfulness approach to the sitting meditation is not sitting in the traditional lotus position, fingers and thumbs circled, gently going “ho oom Mmmmm” for hours at a time. Rather, it is a gentle, easy approach to sitting and focusing on something simple, like the breadth. The practice can take a few minutes or even up to an hour. It all depends on you.

What do you do before you start? If you have questions then the notes below will help. There are four key elements you need to consider:

  1.  A Place that is quiet and calm is key.

Find a good spot where you live, ideally where there isn’t too much clutter or distractions. It needs to be somewhere where you can find some peace and quiet. Not in front of the TV, or in the middle of the kitchen. Perhaps a spare room. I use our spare room as it is quiet and few people go into it.

  1. Next, is Posture and hands.

With Mindfulness, there is no right way or wrong way to practice. It is what is comfortable for you. Some people choose to sit on the floor. Some choose a chair. Me? I happen to sit on the edge of the spare room bed. Whatever, posture you feel comfortable in. If you suffer from back pain, what position is the easiest for you? You might want to sit on lots of cushions or very few. What you do need is a stable, solid seat, not perching or hanging over an edge.

Notice what your legs are doing. If sitting on cushions on the floor, cross your legs comfortably in front of you. If on a chair, it’s good if the bottoms of your feet are touching the floor and your legs a slightly apart. That is the posture I use. I like to sit without shoes on so I can feel the soles of my feet in contact with the carpet.

You need to make sure that you are sitting relatively straight, and do not stiffen your upper body. We all have a slight natural curvature of the spine. Let it be there. Your head and shoulders can comfortably rest on top of your vertebrae.

People ask, what do you do with your hands? I gently rest my hands on my legs. Not grasping the fingers together, but letting them rest – open and loose.

You can close your eyes or drop your gaze. If you choose to drop your gaze, drop your chin a little and let your gaze fall gently downward. You may let your eyelids almost close. You can simply let what appears before your eyes be there without focusing on it. It helps in my case as I wear glasses all the time. So I take them off and it helps.

  1. Next, is Time. Build the practice into your day.

At the outset, it helps to set an amount of time you’re going to “practice” for. Otherwise, you may never create the time to fit the practice in. If you’re just beginning, it can help to choose a short time, such as five or ten minutes. Eventually,  you can build up to twice as long, then maybe up to 45 minutes or an hour. I use a timer on my phone. Many people do a session in the morning and in the evening, or one or the other. I tend to practice early in the morning as this is the time I have build into my daily schedule to practice.  If you feel your life is busy and you have little time, doing some is better than doing none. When you get a little space and time, you can do a bit more.

        4. Finally, Attitude, Commitment, and Kindness.

Like anything in life, mindfulness meditation takes commitment and practice. It is well known that little and often is better than intermittent. So be prepared to practice at least four days a week or more. I tend to practice formal mindfulness sessions five days per week and walking meditations at the weekend.  When you begin the practice you will notice that you can “concentrate” on your breathing for a few moments and then all of a sudden a string of thoughts will flash across your mind. Your instinctive reaction is to berate yourself for not being able to “do the practice”. This is where the kindness to yourself comes to the fore. No matter how many years you have practiced and no matter the intensity, you can not ultimately control all the thoughts you have. It is like trying to hold water in your hand. No matter how hard you try, you will not succeed. Instead, don’t bother judging yourself or obsessing over the fact you are having the thoughts or the contents of the thoughts. Come back to the focus that the sitting meditation is centered on. Your body and your breath. You will go away. You come back. Time after time. Like the waves on the edge of the sea.

I hope these simple elements help make your practice a success. If you have experiences and comments on the sitting practice, do let me know.

The photo is one I took this morning, imagining myself sitting under the tree doing a sitting practice.

I leave you with the following quote:

“I’m simply saying that there is a way to be sane. I’m saying that you can get rid of all this insanity created by the past in you. Just by being a simple witness of your thought processes.

It is simply sitting silently, witnessing the thoughts, passing before you. Just witnessing, not interfering not even judging, because the moment you judge you have lost the pure witness. The moment you say “this is good, this is bad,” you have already jumped onto the thought process.

It takes a little time to create a gap between the witness and the mind. Once the gap is there, you are in for a great surprise, that you are not the mind, that you are the witness, a watcher.

And this process of watching is the very alchemy of real religion. Because as you become more and more deeply rooted in witnessing, thoughts start disappearing. You are, but the mind is utterly empty.

That’s the moment of enlightenment. That is the moment that you become for the first time an unconditioned, sane, really free human being.”

Osho

Mindfulness guidance

“Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.” ― Rumi

It would appear that Mindfulness is getting more and more popular. This week, I have had numerous discussions and inquiries regarding it. People have asked me why I practice it; what the benefits of practice are; where did Mindfulness come from, etc.

There were two discussions that I’d like to share with you.

The first discussion was with a colleague whose partner had been referred to take up Mindfulness by their GP (General Practitioner). I did not ask the background as this is not appropriate. Rather I explained the two general streams of mindfulness practice. MBCT – Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and MBSR – Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a mindfulness-based program designed to assist people with pain, high levels of stress and life issues that were initially difficult to treat in a hospital setting. Developed at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in the 1970’s by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, MBSR uses a combination of mindfulness meditation, body awareness, and yoga to help people become more mindful.

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is the practice that I follow.

One of the concerns that my colleague had was was Mindfulness a religious based practice? While MBSR has its roots in spiritual teachings, the program itself is secular. THis put their concerns at rest and we finished off the discussion with me sharing a number of articles and away for their partner to find out more.

The other stream is Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). MBCT is a psychological therapy designed to aid in preventing the relapse of depression, specifically in individuals with major depressive disorder. Ruby Wax (the comedian and TV presenter) is a major proponent of MBCT due to her history of depression and is a qualified therapist. MBCT uses traditional cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) methods and adds in newer psychological strategies such as mindfulness and mindfulness meditation.

The second discussion was with a friend’s connection who is looking to develop a sports coaching business. He had heard of Mindfulness but wanted to know more. I explained the history and the difference between MBSR and MBCT. I pointed out that MBSR was the stream he needed to follow to help his athletes focus and be better competitors.

The example I gave was as follows:-

“Imagine that you are a golf player or a rifle shooter. You have to calm yourself before you take that shot. You have to become rested. Focused. In the present moment. All of these attributes are part of Mindfulness.”

As the definition of Mindfulness states:

 

Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally,” Jon Kabat-Zinn

 

Before you discount Mindfulness in the world of sport, I’d suggest you read the following article from the Daily Telegraph on the 7 things that Leicester City Football club used to help them win the Championship recently.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/work/leicester-city-premier-league-win-7-things-underdogs-leicester-c/

If you would like to know more about Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). How to start practicing. If you have started and come to a halt. Or any other queries, do get in touch.

I leave you with the following quote:

“This being human is a guest house. Every morning is a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor…Welcome and entertain them all. Treat each guest honorably. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.” Rumi

How your brain is affected by stress

“Whatever may be the tensions and the stresses of a particular day, there is always lurking close at hand the trailing beauty of forgotten joy or unremembered peace.”  Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart

 
I like to understand the theory and the science behind how we think, act and how our brains work. One of the biggest changes I have made over the past two years has been to take up Mindfulness and practice this as often as possible. I have read a number of articles on the benefits of Mindfulness and one of the biggest benefits is helping to reduce stress.

So, let’s start with understanding what stress is?

Stress is caused by two things. Firstly, it is linked to whether you think situations around you are worthy of anxiety. And the second is to how your body reacts to your thought processes. This instinctive stress response to unexpected events is known as ‘fight or flight’.

“Fight or Flight” responses are the base animal like tendencies you see in nature. The zebra sees a lion in the bush. Their instinctive reaction is to flee. A gorilla sees another gorilla and his first reaction is to fight. We have exactly the same base responses to situations. These are hard-wired reactions to perceived threats to our survival.

Stress happens when we feel that we can’t cope with anxiety and this creates unmanaged pressure. We experience it almost any time we come across something unexpected or something that frustrates our goals. When the threat is small, our response is small and we often do not notice it among the many other distractions of a stressful situation. Many day-to-day situations can set it off – a change of home, a difficult boss at work, relationship issues, divorce, demanding children, traffic jams, being late for an event, etc. Almost anything can create a stressful situation.

The more often we are exposed to these types of stresses, the more overactive our fight or flight response becomes until we find ourselves operating at fever pitch level. Constantly prepared for battle, perceiving potential threats everywhere. That is why people who are over stressed not only show physiological symptoms such as high blood pressure, rapid heart rate or shallow fast breath; they can seem overly sensitive or aggressive. Today many of us don’t take enough physical exercise to ‘burn off’ the effects of our response and we’re left with stress build up. We learn to control our reactions, but this does not counteract the stress response.

With a stress response, the body influences the brain and the brain influences the body.

So if we experience a danger for the first time then that’s going to make us feel stressed and we will both remember the stressful situation, the trigger and we will remember the response. There have been numerous studies where people who are frightened of something; or who have experienced a stressful situation in the past; are exposed to the experience and their responses are measured. Even without the actual object being present, it is possible to elicit the response with just a picture or even the name of the object.

Think for a moment if you are frightened of something – a spider, a snake, swimming, anything. Now see how you feel when you imagine it. That is remembered stress response.

Since this is something you have “learned” through experience, it is also something you can learn to manage, deal with and hopefully reduce.

If you were to speed up your breathing on your own, you’d probably start to feel a bit more aroused and on edge. And, equally, if you calm the breathing down, you’re kind of forcing your body into a more relaxed state and you will then experience probably fewer negative thoughts as a result. When we’re stressed, our brains almost come up with negative thoughts to try and explain why we’re stressed. However, if you can just calm those thoughts and reactions down, then that’s going to have a beneficial effect on your levels of stress and mental state as well.

Your brain reflects the way that you think throughout your life. You shape it by your thoughts and your behaviors. If you play the piano for eight hours a day, then the parts of the brain responsible for helping you to play the piano will get larger. If you’re thinking stressful thoughts for the whole day then those parts of the brain are going to get larger and other parts of the brain will deteriorate. So the task is to change the way you think about situations and use techniques to help “quieten” down those stressful thoughts.

One program that was founded in the USA by Doctor Jon Kabat-Zinn, is the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program. Started in the mid-1970’s, over 40,000 people have completed the eight-week program and there are MBSR programs running in over 30 countries. As the name says, it is Mindfulness – Based – Stress – Reduction.

Like any medicine, or program, or event a physical activity, MBSR, takes time. It is not an instant wonder answer. That is why it takes at least eight weeks for the program to be completed and for you to notice the effects. For me, I noticed the changes after about week four. For others, it can be quicker of slower. However, you can see the benefits in both your own mind; how you deal with life’s situations and finally, the mind begins to quieten. Those rushing thoughts begin to slow down.

If you want to listen to a couple of really great podcasts on stress and the brain, I’d recommend the following:

https://hbr.org/2013/12/reduce-stress-with-mindfulness/

Harvard Business School – Reduce Stress with Mindfulness

http://www.mindful.org/what-stress-does-to-your-brain/?utm_source=Mindful+Newsletter&utm_campaign=5314fba02b-MF_Weekly_Feb_9_20161_9_2016&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_6d03e8c02c-5314fba02b-21359661

Mindful Magazine – What stress does to your brain?

 

I leave you with the following quote:

“The reason many people in our society are miserable, sick, and highly stressed is because of an unhealthy attachment to things they have no control over.”

Steve Maraboli, Unapologetically You: Reflections on Life and the Human Experience

The latest insights on Mindfulness from Professor Mark Williams

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” ― Dalai Lama XIV, The Art of Happiness

As one of the foremost authorities on mindfulness and the UK’s leading professor on the development of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy [or MBCT as it is known], when I come across a talk or update from Professor Mark Williams, I always take the time to listen and find out what are the latest developments in the field of Mindfulness in the therapy and treatment arena.

Professor Mark Williams is Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology and Honorary Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and was Director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre until his retirement in 2013. Professor Williams, along with colleagues John Teasdale and Zindel Segal, developed Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy for prevention of relapse and recurrence in major depression. However, I came across him through the book that he wrote, “Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world”, that was published in 2011. The core of the book is the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, that Mark developed. Anyway, back to the latest research updates.

Many of the latest research centres on the benefits of mindfulness, for both general well-being as well as for those that are suffering from mental health issues, such as depression.

  • Amount of time to practice. Shorter mindfulness practices are just as beneficial as longer practices. In fact, practicing for 10 minutes in the morning, as well as the evening, is just as good as setting aside one session of 20 to 30 minutes. So you do not have to put aside such a large part of your day.
  • Frequency versus Duration. It has been found that practicing for 10 minutes per day for 5 days or more per week is better than practicing for one hour once per week
  • Ruminating. We ruminate or spend time inward thinking about things, events, situations and worrying about 47% of the time that we are awake. Mindfulness helps to reduce the levels of stress, helping to flatten out the highs and the lows during the day
  • Age of depression. This shocked me. Depressions starts young. As young as 13 to 15 years of age.
  • 75% of people who have ever been depressed  start before they are 25 years old
  • On average a person with depression has at least 4 months of a year with what is called functional impairment, meaning they are unable to do even the most basic of life’s activities.

Major depression is the No.1 psychological disorder in the western world. It is growing in all age groups, in virtually every community, and the growth is seen most in the young, especially teens.  At the rate of increase, it will be the 2nd most disabling condition in the world by 2020, behind heart disease.

The good news? Practicing Mindfulness therapy programmes such as Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy [MBCT] reduces depression by 50%, yes, it halves the rates of depression and is as effective as antidepressants. About 20% of the population are classified as depressed, that is 1 in 5 of us has a depressive issue. But hang on. What about those of us who are not depressed? The other 4 people? Well, for the majority, we all suffer from stress and anxiety and this is where the practice of stepping back from the current situation, appreciating what you have and being able to move on comes into its own. This is what Professor Williams talks about in the his book. I see no reason why any of us should have to lead lives that are so stressful and full of anxiety. Having practiced mindfulness techniques for the past two years,c I can feel, see and experience the benefits and the more relaxed and unstressed approach to work, life, relationships and general existence. Am I perfect? No, not at all. I still have stressed out days at work – one day this week was particularly terrible, but my ability to bounce back to a more rational mindset, I put down to mindfulness.

As always, I leave you with a quote:

“Whatever may be the tensions and the stresses of a particular day, there is always lurking close at hand the trailing beauty of forgotten joy or unremembered peace.”

Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart

The interview was held at the Mindfulness Summit. Please find enclosed a link if you would like to listen to the interview:

Day 1 – An interview with Mark Williams: An Introduction to Mindfulness along with two short mindfulness practices.