“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”
–Thích Nhất Hạnh
When I was 12 years old I joined the local youth track team and I started running; not to become an athlete, or to cross the finish line, or reach a goal… I just ran. I ran, and I ran, and I ran… almost every day for the next five years. I didn’t have the competitive focus or the relentless drive necessary to become exceptional; I was average, but I loved to run without exception.
Even then, I realized that my love of the sport was derived from something greater than the physical act of running, but it was only many years later in looking back on my tenure as a Golden Spike that I truly comprehended what motivated me to lace up my Adidas Antelopes day after day, year after year. When I ran I couldn’t think, or at least I didn’t. Academic pressure, social stresses, the whirlwind of living in household with four younger siblings and two young parents, insecurities, worries: it all fell away, piece by piece, with every stride.
I focused on the feeling of air filling my lungs, on the rhythm of my steps contacting earth, on the loops around the track, around the lake, around the neighborhood. I watched for rough patches in the woods, puddles in the dirt, for twigs or rocks obstructing my path, for inclines that would need a burst of energy, or descents that required steady balance and a shorter gate. I didn’t project, I didn’t reflect, I didn’t worry. I wasn’t wrong, scared or unworthy.
Unbeknownst to be, I had stumbled across the seventh practice of the Noble Eightfold Path taught by the Buddha more than 2,500 earlier: Right Mindfulness. Mindfulness is the complete (both mind and body) awareness of the present moment. To be fully present requires the awareness of our thoughts, our feelings, our bodies and our surroundings, without the distortion of judgment. When we are mindful we are not caught in thoughts of the past or the future. We are not judging ourselves or our worthiness. We recognize our thoughts for what they are: thoughts. We see our feelings for what they are: feelings. That is not to minimize our thoughts or feelings or the significance they may hold, rather we acknowledge that thoughts and feelings are not the reality of who we are or of the present moment: they come and they go, and they change, as everything changes. Through mindfulness we learn to accept our thoughts and feelings, to accept ourselves and to accept those we love.
When I was 18 I stopped running, much as I had started, without much thought. During difficult times I often had a fantasy that I was running, running anywhere or nowhere. I imagined I could run and never stop and that with every step I would be further and further from the pain or discomfort I was facing. But in the fog of unpleasant thoughts and feelings I failed to recognize the true peace that running had given me in my youth. It had not allowed me to escape my thoughts and feelings or flee a particular situation, it had given me the ability to stop!; to be truly present; to be aware of my body, or my breath, of the world around me: to be Mindful.
You don’t have to become a Buddhist to grow in your ability to be mindful, to pay attention, to accept, to be aware. These principles are available to us no matter our beliefs – they are not religious constructs and they are inherently human ones.
Psychologists and neuroscientists are using the technology of the 21st century to substantiate the profound impact of the ancient practice mindfulness. fMRI technology has been used to show structural changes in the brain of participants in an eight week mindfulness based stress reduction program. Mindfulness practices have been shown to help people reduce anxiety, cope with chronic pain, reduce stress, regulate their emotions, and increase their capacity for empathy and compassion and neuroscientists are continuing to map how mindfulness training can change the brain.
You don’t have to become a Buddhist or meditate for hours on end or join a track team to practice Mindfulness. There are an infinite number of ways to incorporate Mindfulness into your life and in doing so reap the benefits of this ancient practice (rubber stamped by science).
We don’t need to run away – we can be still – breathing, noticing, accepting, and truly living every moment with compassion for ourselves and others.