I read a blog post recently that suggested we broaden our perspective on meditation. The author reassured people- if they don’t want to sit in silence to meditate, not to worry. There are many other activities that you can do to meditate. Activities like running, bubble baths, walking, yoga, painting, cycling, listening to music, and pretty much any other activity that you could think of were on the list.
As a meditation teacher who’s been teaching and practicing meditation for years, I’d like to share my experience and reflections about this.
I think it’s important because I don’t want people who are engaging in these activities to assume that they’re getting the benefits of meditation and mindfulness if they’re not.
It’s helpful to have a deeper understanding of what is considered a meditation and mindfulness practice.
Are running, walking, yoga and other repetitive activities considered meditation?
The short answer is, that it depends.
I’ve been a runner for many years. For most of those years, I’d put on my running shoes, grab my iPhone, pop in my earbuds, and then head out. I’d only leave the earbuds at home if I had a friend to run with me. Then for the majority of my run, I would focus on what I was listening to or chatting with my friend. Music or my friend served to distract me from the boredom and discomfort of the run. The only time I would notice my breath was when I was gasping for air on a hill. When I ran I needed my mind to be distracted in order to not feel the discomfort.
Engaging in an activity where you create the conditions for your mind to tune out rather than tune in is not considered meditation or mindfulness.
That also goes for yoga. When I ask my new clients about their meditation experience, I often hear “a little bit through yoga.”
The majority of these people tell me that they have no idea what to do with their minds whether it’s during yoga, running, walking, or folding the laundry.
The key to whether the activity we are engaging in helps us build our mindfulness muscle is not what we do but how we do it.
It’s truly not about the running or the activity at all; it’s about the awareness that we bring (or don’t bring) to what we’re doing. For example, when we make the conscious choice to engage in an activity and then be fully present with our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surroundings we are practicing mindfulness.
Bringing mindfulness to activities also involves the relationship we have with our thoughts, feelings, and body.
When we’re mindful, we’re not trying to distract ourselves from the discomfort or negative thoughts about how challenging something is; instead, we bring awareness and curiosity to our experiences in a kind and compassionate way.
Mindfulness enables us to build our capacity to be with experiences and sensations that we might naturally tend to distract, suppress, or numb.
I also want to point out that there is no debate about the physical benefits of running, yoga, music, bubble baths, etc. There is ample research to support this. However, engaging in these activities in and of themselves doesn’t necessarily equate to being more mindful or enhancing our ability to concentrate or deal with our feelings.
I’ve heard so many runners say that they end up injuring themselves because the only way they could feel calm inside was by pushing themselves to total exhaustion. The key point here is that the majority of people don’t know how to calm themselves from the inside out. We don’t know how to deal with our feelings, discomfort, or repetitive habitual thoughts.
What do we do instead?
We make a conscious choice about how we going to engage in an activity.
Of course, we can still tune in to music and listen to podcasts when we’re running or walking. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking we’re meditating.
Meditating and practicing mindfulness in our everyday life shifts how we do everything. It changes how we react in traffic when we’re cut off. And we may respond differently to our child’s temper tantrum in the grocery store.
In summary, we are practicing mindfulness when we bring a certain type of awareness to an activity. The challenge for most of us is that we need to first learn how to do that.
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