Our movements in daily life tend to be directed or carried out for some pragmatic purpose. We may jog to bolster our fitness, for example, or scrub in order to clean. When walking, we’re usually trying to get from one place to another.
More often than not, each of these actions or "tasks" are performed without much attention to the experience of the movement or to the quality of experience—the sensations, feelings and emotions that come up in the process of moving. All variety of exercises can be engaged in with such awareness, and the result can be a dramatic shift in our enjoyment of the activity.
Try standing in one place, with relaxed shoulders and eyes. Now allow your arms to swing slowly back and forth, and as you do so let a slight bounce come into your knees. Arm swings can lead to whole body swings, and whole-body swings can lead into whole-body jumps.
Carrying these exercises out slowly and deliberately, with full attention to the feelings evoked in the moment and without anticipation of what comes next, makes the activities more satisfying, more harmonious and revitalizing.
The mindfulness aspect of movement can be facilitated and reinforced through the interplay of attention, breathing and gravity. We begin by attending to the breath, the bodily sensations and external environment without judgment or analysis.
Grounding the Body-Mind
The breath serves as a powerful tool for focusing our attention inward. Simply by watching the breath’s in-and-out flow, we become more centered and relaxed. Simultaneously, as we sense the body’s weight, we can let gravity take over. We can deliberately sink our center of gravity down into our feet.
This experience is also known as “grounding”. This downward focusing of the body-mind seems to help us feel more firmly planted or rooted in the physical plane. Two ancient forms of moving meditation—Tai Chi and Qigong—can help with this grounding principle and will foster physical and mental well-being in the process. With regular practice of these movement disciplines, postural alignment, flexibility and resilience all tend to improve.
Whenever I’m traveling overseas, I practice Tai Chi on a daily basis as a way to feel more grounded or connected to the place I’m in. I find that the practice has a calming, focusing effect, instilling feelings of peace and safety wherever I go. When I traveled to China a few years back to speak at a scientific conference, I practiced Tai Chi every morning in a nearby park, much to the amusement of my Chinese counterparts. The practice always left me feeling very clear and positive upon my arrival at the conference, and far more relaxed and focused when my time came to step up to the podium.
Sensing How the Body Wants to Move
As our somatic vocabulary and range of motion broaden, we begin to transform habitual movement patterns that may have reflected certain attitudes and personality traits. Over time, we may find it easier to attend more fully to the movement experience. In this way, the activity becomes a meditation in action. By evoking a mindful experience, these movement disciplines provide the perfect antidote to an overly cerebral and fragmented orientation in life.
In every instance of directed movement, the activity is geared by some notion or preconception of how we should move. But to get in touch with how the whole body—not just the head or brain—wants to move, we need to adopt an attitude of surrender and receptivity toward our body’s subtler signals. We need to be able to “listen” to the body in a highly sensitive, intuitive way. We need to tune in to what we are feeling or experiencing within. In short, we need to practice mindfulness in motion.
Though the concept seems foreign initially, we already emote from this unconscious realm whenever we raise up our arms in frustration, cringe in disgust, shrink back in fear or leap for joy. In these instances, we are simply communicating how we feel through our bodies.
** Be sure to read Part 2, “Movement for Pleasure and Personal Well-Being”
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© 2017, Mark Nathaniel Mead