Mindfulness and the Mover
First, this: mindfulness is not meditation. There, I said it. The two words have become synonymous in popular (and academic) discourse on the topic. But the two are not the same thing. Mindfulness practice is part of meditation, but meditation is a far broader subject. Do not conflate the two. Here I am commenting on mindfulness, not on meditation as a broader subject. More specifically, I am commenting on mindfulness within the context of physical movement practices.
Interest and scientific inquiry into mindfulness has steadily gained momentum over the last two or three decades. The focus of research has been primarily on the benefits of mindfulness in terms of stress-reduction and relaxation. Subsequently, the medical, allied health and wellness professions have seized this data to promote mindfulness as a means to improve health. This has fostered the popular understanding of mindfulness as a means to improve mental and physical health through relaxation and stress reduction.
Well, it is and it isn’t. It is not so much that the scientific view is wrong, but that it is incomplete. Relaxation may be a side-effect of mindfulness, but it is not the primary reason for practice. Keep this in mind: Science has been studying mindfulness seriously for about thirty or so years. Buddhist schools have been studying meditation for two and a half thousand years. Yogic schools have been around for at least twice as long as Buddhism. In none of the traditional schools is mindfulness primarily a tool for relaxation. Science is not the expert voice on this topic. Sorry not sorry.
Mindfulness is not an exercise in relaxation (as many who have wrestled with it can attest!), it is an exercise in awareness. You are not trying to bring about any particular state or emotion, or to visualise anything. If you are trying to clear your head of all thinking, good luck with that. Mindfulness is the beginning of training the mind to focus - to be present and aware. Mindfulness is observation, and simply observation. You observe and whatever arises, let it arise and notice it. There is a gargantuan difference between actively trying to achieve a certain state of being - like you would do in a relaxation exercise - and just observing your current state of being without reacting.
The first time a meditation teacher told me to “just sit there and observe your breath”, I scoffed, “Well hell, doesn’t that just sound like an epic helping of boring and pointless!” If mindfulness isn’t about helping me relax, or about achieving some Nirvana (the state of being, not the band, 90’s people) or something, what’s the point exactly?
In our day to day existence, our experience is permeated by a constant stream of unexamined thoughts and emotions. Our bodies carry tension that we are scarcely aware of. We experience a myriad of sensory stimuli that barely registers. More significantly, our reactions to these stimuli barely registers. These reactions create the habits and patterns of our lives. Our beliefs, behaviours, attitudes, assumptions, fears etc. are a direct result of these automatic reactive patterns. Therefore, the dominant driving influence on our behaviour remains largely unconscious and unexamined.
We could spend a long time discussion the myriad implications of this, but what does it have to do with movement?
Mindfulness demands that we observe. We bring attention to our thought stream and emotions, and we also bring attention to the physical sensations of the body. This is important from the perspective of a movement practitioner.
The body does not have a narrative. The language of the body is purely physical: pain, fatigue, heat etc. The narrative - the talking bit - is the domain of the thinking mind (this includes emotion, even though it is really closer to physical than cognitive in nature). So there is the physical aspect, the sensation that you feel, and then there is the mental/emotional narrative about those sensations: your perception of them.
These are two different things altogether. This distinction between the actual sensation and perception of the sensation is important.
Let’s break that down in a different way:
There are two things going on here: the EXPERIENCE and the PERCEPTION of that experience.
When there is a sensation of something like pain in the body, it is closely followed by an emotional reaction, and then a thought reaction. How we react will determine what we do, and how we feel, and in turn how our body responds. How we react is largely dependent on our perception of the sensation. Our response is like a dial through which we can turn up or down the perceived level of threat to our system, and either up- or down-regulate our response. We may not be able to avoid the experience of pain, but we can determine how we react to pain, by consciously examining our perception of that pain.
There is a growing and compelling body of work on the importance of perception and context in the experience of pain. I will write on it at some point, but for now perhaps just consider the experience of the person who is being whipped at the downtown BDSM venue (you know who you are). I dare say it is not the same as the experience of the person being beaten in a prison somewhere. The stimulus is the same (kind of!), the difference is context, and perception. But I digress once more...
Viktor Frankl (the author of Man’s Search for Meaning), puts it like this:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
And that is the point of mindfulness for the mover: to begin to bring awareness to the space between stimulus and response. To develop skilful means by which to navigate the experience of being in a body. To begin to create a relationship with sensations like pain and fatigue - sensations that are unavoidable in life. This extends well beyond movement, of course, but since this is movement blog, we will focus on the physical element.
So when we move, and we feel pain, the pain is in reality, just pain. There is a subconscious physical reaction to that pain, undoubtedly - specifically alterations in motor control strategies and such. In addition the are psycho-emotional reactions which are a dominant feature in the pain landscape, particularly in cases of chronic pain. Now the pain is not just pain, the pain is a stimulus for a cascade of emotional and psychological responses. These responses profoundly influence the physical response to pain and, in time, create associations, patterns and habits that define our relationship to our physicality. The conscious examination of these patterns and habits is essential if we are to break free of them.