meditation · training

More about Mindfulness

mindfulness-StonesMindfulness is a practice people usually associate with meditation.  One of my favourite mindfulness teachers and practioners, Bodhipaksa, has an article in which he defines mindfulness like this: “the gentle effort to be continuously present with experience.”

What’s so reassuring and comforting about this idea, for me, is the “gentle effort.”  It’s not as if we apply no effort at all.  But we don’t go into urgent and tense effort either.  It’s just a gentle, consistent effort to stay aware of what’s happening right now.  Maybe even bringing a sense of acceptance to it, whatever the present moment may bring.

Jon Kabat Zinn, another teacher, adds another element to mindfulness. He says, ““Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; On purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

The added idea of paying attention “on purpose” takes it beyond simple awareness.  As Bodhipaksa explains in his article,

In order to be mindful I have to be purposefully aware of myself, not just vaguely and habitually aware. Knowing that you are eating is not the same as eating mindfully.

Let’s take that example of eating and look at it a bit further. When we are purposefully aware of eating, we are consciously being aware of the process of eating. We’re deliberately noticing the sensations and our responses to those sensations. We’re noticing the mind wandering, and when it does wander we purposefully bring our attention back.

When we’re eating unmindfully we may in theory be aware of what we’re doing, but we’re probably thinking about a hundred and one other things at the same time, and we may also be watching TV, talking, or reading — or even all three! So a very small part of our awareness is absorbed with eating, and we may be only barely aware of the physical sensations and even less aware of our thoughts and emotions.

Because we’re only dimly aware of our thoughts, they wander in an unrestricted way. There’s no conscious attempt to bring our attention back to our eating. There’s no purposefulness.

It’s not just “on purpose,” it’s also non-judgmental. So if we purposefully (and with gentle effort) focus in a non-judgmental way on our present moment experience, we are practicing mindfulness.

I’ve blogged before about the way activities like swimming and running feel meditative to me. See my post Om…fitness practice as meditation. I’m not unique in this respect. Lots of people talk about their activities in this way.

We can experience lots of benefits by taking mindfulness into our sport practice.  I have three approaches to running. The first way is to try to be as mindless as possible. I play music, daydream, and try to forget what I’m doing in the hope that the time will pass as quickly as possible. The second way is a variation on this same theme — running with people.  As we run and chat, it quite literally takes my mind off of what we’re actually doing.  The third way is mindfully. When I do this, I pay attention to my footfalls, their sound and feel, the position of my foot as a it strikes the ground, my posture and alignment and how that feels, the air on my cheeks, the sound of my breath, the colour of the sky.

In this state I become hyper aware and present.  It’s by far the most profound of the three approaches, but not always easy for me to sustain. It’s not that any of these is necessarily more enjoyable than any other. It really depends on my mood. But sometimes, the mindful run is exactly what I need.

Swimming is another thing that in my world anyway lends itself to this mindfulness. Our coach nudges us in a mindful direction when we do drills that focus on one tiny part of the stroke. She’ll tell us to pay attention for 50m to the roll of our shoulders or our hips, or ask us to count our strokes, or to focus on the natural alignment of our head in the water.

If you think that mindfulness is just a neat practice, think again. It has a positive impact on our attitude and even on our brain structure.  On attitude, this post on running mindfully says:

This “secondary elaborative processing” that psychologists refer to is the negative self-talk and classic downward spiral that I often see in ultramarathon events when pain and/or fatigue and nausea start to take a strong hold, or a runner is falling behind the goals they’d set. We’ve had a lot of social conditioning to “tough it out” and to “steel” ourselves in these settings. The mindfulness approach, however, is counter-intuitive to this conditioning – it encourages acceptance and surrender.

Total Immersion Swimming founder Terry McLaughlin, in his article “Mindful Swimming Transforms the Brain,” reports on a study at Mass General Hospital. It

documents  that 8 weeks practice of mindfulness meditation produces lasting changes in brain structure.

Participants spent about 30 minutes a day practicing mindfulness exercises, and had their brains studied before-and after by MRI.

Researchers found increased ‘grey-matter’ density in the hippocampus, a center of learning and memory, and in areas associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. Participants reported reductions in anxiety and stress.

The significance of this study is that — like others before — it documents that changes produced by meditation are deep and lasting, not transitory. I.E. Mindfulness practice changes brain traits, not just brain states.

Lessons for swimmers:

1) Focal Points, Stroke Counts and Tempo Trainer beeps are, in fact, mantras — the essential tools of meditation.

2) Moving Meditation, by merging thought and action, is even more powerful at effecting lasting change in brain structure. This is because (i) aerobic activity increases the supply of oxygen and glycogen, which fuels muscle and brain cells; (ii) physical activity increases secretion of a protein that is the building block of ‘grey matter’; and (iii) as I posted on Dec 3 while passive meditation creates  Theta state brainwaves(4-7 cycles/second), moving meditation puts the brain in the “superlearning” Alpha state (8-12 cycles/second).

3) Every time you push off a wall, do so with a targeted thought or intention — a task that will require your full attention. (Once more, the reason I plan every practice and set to produce Arduous Experience and Cognitive Difficulty.)

Simple exertion — no matter how long or hard — may be good for physical fitness but neglects brain fitness.

Mindful Swimming optimizes both brain and body.

Mindfulness in our fitness activities doesn’t need to be an all or nothing thing. It can be something that we practice sometimes, as a way of switching things up.  For some, it can really have a positive impact on their approach to sport and even to life.

To read more about mindfulness, fitness, and health, here are some suggestions:

Running Mindfully

Mindful Swimming Transforms the Brain

Mindful Swimming

Mental Skill of Mindful Training

Yoga, Meditation, and Mindfulness: “Trends” that could change everything

The Principles of Mindful Eating

10 thoughts on “More about Mindfulness

  1. Great post. Obviously lots of good things about mindfulness. I wondered what you’d make of the one criticism I’ve heard, that being too mindful disrupts habit formation. See Live Science,

    Obviously there are times when it makes sense to automate, rather than choose mindfully–getting up to go exercise in the morning might be one them. But even eating. I sometimes mindlessly eat some veggies that I don’t much like but I want to eat for nutritional reasons. And when my underweight dancer child was getting advice on how to keep weight on, mindless eating was a big thing. Just get up an eat breakfast. Don’t think, “Am I hungry? What do I feel like eating?” “Eat in front of the TV.”

    It’s also true for people with eating disorders that too much thinking about food leads to not great choices.

    This also got me thinking about the implicit bias studies. There’s another area where mindfulness hurts rather than helps. Better to set yourself up for good, automatic choices. Make the right choice easy!

    Anyway, fascinating stuff.

    1. I think there is a difference between mindfulness and obsession. And if the only choices are not eating or eating mindlessly, then of course, eat mindlessly (as in Gavin’s case). But if the choices are eat more than you need and use food as a form of escape or eat mindfully, then mindfulness has a point. I’m not sure it’s in conflict with good habit formation to be mindful in the way that is being recommended–that is, purposely attending to the experience of the present moment. For one thing, it can’t be sustained all the time. And for another, it’s quite different from the sort of mindfulness you’re talking about that exacerbates implicit bias. That’s much more “effortful” and focused on a particular outcome (that ironically is not achieved when you become so fixated on it). It would be interesting to explore the differences. But for sure I agree that it’s not always the way to go — that’s why I have three, not one, modes of running!

  2. I’ve been doing a lot of treadmill training lately and to keep myself entertained, I’ve been playing around with mindfulness mediation to see its effects on my heart rate. I discovered quite by accident a while ago that when I meditate during exercise (or as close to meditation as I can get while exercising), my heart rate drops by as much as 10 bpm — after just a few minutes — even though my pace remains the same. So I started to experiment with mental state vs. heart rate on the treadmill. I’ll ruminate about a problem for a few minutes: heart rate goes up. Then I’ll meditate: heart rate goes down. Have others had similar experiences? Probably exercise physiologists are familiar with this… Anyway, over long distances it is easy to see how mindfulness might translate into better times and/or endurance. The mindful heart would be doing a lot less work to achieve the same end.

    1. That’s really interesting. I’m going to try heartrate training and mindfulness on my runs this summer. Thanks for the tip!

  3. Automatic mindless mode can definitely work to get you through long gruelling endurance training. But strong focused thought is absolutely essential in weight training. Actual meditation, though, used in exercise? Nothing I really ever thought about before, likely because I’ve never practiced meditation. I know that I go into a certain mode sometimes which I suppose most certainly has quasi-spiritual aspects to it, at times, but it is a focused thing and involves controlled aggression. I doubt it qualifies as mediatation, although I really wouldn’t know. Most people I know who do practice meditation have taken it up because they really needed it, for one or another reason. For naturally comatose men like myself, we haven’t really ever seen the need. Some people are just natural experts at handling stress. The joke I usually make to those who can be more easily stressed out, or perhaps more given to debilitating anxiety or other unfortunate side effects of stress, when they ask about it, is: “It’s not that we’re masters of any form of stress-reduction, or any discipline of any sort; the truth is simpler, and it’s that we don’t generally give a sh*t.” 🙂 But if actual meditation could actually be used to increase performance levels – hey, that might be a reason to learn something about it!

  4. Thanks for providing the link to ” mindful swimming”. That was an excellent article, and perfectly summed up how I feel when I swim. Mindfulness is important to me when racing the long events (800 m and 1500 m) since you have to focus on your breathing and stroke efficiency. It’s beautiful when it feels effortless and all you can hear is the sound of your own deep breathing.

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