“It’s not really about sitting in the full lotus, like pretending you’re a statue in a British museum, it’s about living your life as if it really mattered, moment by moment by moment by moment.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn, Founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program
I happened to run into an old friend recently. As old friends do, we happily exchanged news about our families, mutual acquaintances, and jobs. Naturally, since I had spent so much time coaching recently, I mentioned that, and there must have been something in the way I talked about the season that had just concluded that prompted my friend to ask a question that caught me off guard. “Do you,” she asked, “practice mindfulness?”
I’m sure I’ve heard that word “mindfulness” a thousand times, certainly enough to get a vague impression of what it meant. But I’d never really thought about it as something that I did or didn’t practice. I had the impression that mindfulness was a kind of disciplined paying attention to the stream of thoughts passing through one’s head, as if from a distance and without judgement. A half hour of Googling later, I knew a little bit more, and it seemed I hadn’t been too far off with my initial guess.
Anyway, the answer I gave was “no,” I don’t practice mindfulness. But over the next few days, I kept thinking about it. Slogging through a long run on Sunday, I thought about it. Circling a track on Monday I thought about it. Sweating on a treadmill (shhhh!) on Tuesday evening after work, I thought about it. Ought I to be more attentive to being attentive? Ought I to really practice mindfulness, whatever I called it?
Let me describe that Monday run. I had driven in to Concord to hold post-season wrap-up meetings with a couple of athletes, and by the time we were through, it was quite dark outside. Concord is a lovely town, but it has few roads that are safe to run on after dark. It wouldn’t have ruined anything to skip the run entirely and head home. I was pretty tired, after all, and I had a long run in my legs from the day before. or I could have run on one of the treadmills, but that would have required interacting with anyone who happened to be in the fitness center, and I was feeling in need of some “me” time, so I banished thoughts of skipping the run or running indoors, and pulled on several layers of warm winter gear and headed out into the night.
I knew that, no matter how dark it seemed, the track in Concord Center would be a fine place to run. It was less than half a mile from school, and once my eyes adjusted to the night, I’d be able to see the lane lines. It was a safe bet that there wouldn’t be another soul out there at that time of night. It would be perfect. And indeed, it was, other than the freezing cold, but I thanked that cold for keeping everyone else in their warm homes, leaving the track to me.
As always, the first few laps seemed to take forever, and I doubted whether I’d stick it out to get a decent run in. I felt slow and gimpy, like I had forgotten how to run. One lap, then two. Agonizing. But then I felt a vibration on my wrist, and I remembered I was wearing a GPS watch that was alerting me that I had finished my first mile. It struck me as funny that I was wearing a GPS watch on a track, but it suggested a game. I would do my best to FORGET that I was wearing that watch. I wanted to be surprised when it vibrated at the next mile. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to forget something that’s about to happen, but it’s an interesting mental exercise. I tried to think of everything else — the lives of the people living in the houses whose black silhouettes stood out against the only slightly less black sky, my own tragic life full of hopes and disappointments and sliding into who knows what state of disrepair, the 100 coldest days of winter starting on December 1st and how it was only a matter of time before my fingers and toes starting cracking, opening up wounds from which I would bleed into my gloves and socks — and then I was surprised to feel my watch vibrate again. Two miles.
I started thinking about things I should have said that day, truths I should have spoken, feelings I should have admitted. It was so quiet out there on the track, with not another human being anywhere nearby, so I started verbalizing my thoughts out loud, first in a whisper and then a little louder. “It was selfish of me to skip that conference call,” I said to myself or to nobody. “I’m not as smart as people think I am,” I confessed to the night. Now, if this were a humorous piece, I would get laughs by describing how someone overheard me and made some funny comment. But no cheap laughs here; there was no one to overhear, or to react, so I just kept on talking to myself. Another vibration. Three miles. Had it really been four laps?
Running was easier now. I was slowly emptying my mind of all the dreck from the day, and my body was finally warming to its task. I continued to circle the track, feeling empty but content. The word mindfulness popped into my head. Immediately, the word mindlessness followed it. And I wondered whether the state that we induce by all this running is one that demands so much of our physical beings that we don’t have room for the constant, unhelpful news ticker that invades our every waking moment. How is it, I wondered, that my most serene moments were in the middle of crushing workouts, or bitterly cold runs in lonely places? Surely this was some escapist fantasy, running away from one’s problems and all that… but maybe it was just the way I — we in the running tribe — had figured out how to filter out and empty all that was non-essential and distracting.
I have all the respect in the world for practitioners of mindfulness. I also think that there’s a practice of mindLESSness that accomplishes some good things, too. Or maybe it would be more truthful to say that if you follow either mindfulness or mindlessness far enough, you will eventually arrive at the other, which suggests to me that the question is not one of fullness or emptiness, but of what we mean by mind in the first place. Surely, mind is more than just me processing every single thing that happens in my own personal soap opera, but somehow taking part in the much bigger dance that we’re all dancing all the time. Surely my individual mind is only a very small outpost in this thrilling cosmos.
I would really have to be out of my mind to imagine anything else.