The changing of the seasons from summer to autumn is a favourite time of year for many. The turning leaves and the activity of wildlife can be a feast for the eyes if we get the opportunity to go outside. It may also signal the onset of SAD for many, from the darker mornings and evenings and less time to appreciate the daylight.
One way to improve mood and cultivate mindfulness, which can help through the darker months, is to practice mindful walking. Taking the time to tune into our bodies and our environment can bring a new appreciation for the colder months and can lift the mood enormously.
Mindful walking doesn’t mean taking a hike through the countryside however. It can be practised anywhere; in nature, during the commute or even indoors.
So what is it?
Mindful walking can take many forms but largely falls into one of two categories (or a mixture of both): body awareness and environment awareness. To practice body awareness, we can move with the breath, observing the natural breathing pattern or tuning the breath into each step taken. With environmental awareness, we move steadily but turn our attention to our sensory experience of the environment. What we can see, hear, smell, feel etc. The important thing to remember, mindful walking is not about travelling from A to B, it’s not about getting somewhere. It’s about fully experiencing the present moment through the action of walking.
How to do it
- Start walking at a slow and steady pace. Try to match your steps to your breathing but keep the breathing pattern natural rather than extending the breaths.
- You can hold your hands and arms where they are comfortable – at your sides, behind your back, wherever you like
- Get used to this pace as you walk around your garden, around your house or along the street – wherever you choose
- Start to bring your awareness to the feeling of your feet touching the ground. The contact points at various moments of each step. Notice how your arms move. Notice the sway of your hips and your balance as your step from one foot to another. Notice how you hold your head and shift your gaze as you walk.
- If you get distracted, gently bring your attention back to the awareness of your body in motion
- Try mindful walking for 10 minutes and as you finish, pause for a few moments and set an intention to take mindfulness into the other activities of your day.
- Start off following the first three steps as for body awareness above
- When you are walking with the breath at a comfortable pace, start to shift your awareness to what you can see. Raise your eye level to take in your surroundings fully. Notice the shapes, colours and textures of the things in your environment. Really take in the details.
- Next move to what you can hear; the breeze, trees rustling, birdsong, vehicles, people talking, machinery – whatever it is, really pay attention to the sounds in the moment
- Move on to what you can smell and feel. Use your senses fully to anchor yourself in the present moment.
- If you get distracted or carried away by thought, just bring yourself back to the sensations of the moment as you steadily continue to walk.
- As you finish, set yourself a mindful intention for the day.
As you become more experienced at mindful walking, you can try increasing the pace (if you want to) so that you can move mindfully wherever you are going. Otherwise, you can keep mindful walking as a formal practice that you make time for each day.
Letting go of the past will be an issue for most people at some point in their lives. We can all remember hurtful things that were said to us decades ago, or bad experiences that we (knowingly or unconsciously) allow to affect our future experiences. I think we would all agree that being able to let go of the past would provide us with more space in our minds and more peace in our lives.
So how do we do it? It comes back to basic mindfulness principles of being in the present moment, using an anchor to keep us there and staying intentionally and without judgment.
Something that should help us gain some perspective on letting go is that the past has already been and gone; it has been let go of already. What our mind is holding onto is attachment to an event, thought, experience or occurrence from the past. It’s that attachment that stays with us and effects our mind over and over again. When we go into the ruminative state, we run the past (or an imagined future) over and over in our minds. Neither the past nor the future exist; it’s just our thoughts that disturb the mind.
If we repeatedly bring ourselves back to the present moment, our mind will start to learn not to dwell in the past and slowly we will let go of attachment or harmful/negative thought patterns that seem to have power over us. One of the best anchors that we can use in our practice of letting go is the breath. It’s always with us and accessible at any time. Bringing awareness to the breath frees the mind from the past and brings it immediately into the present moment. A simple breathing meditation can be used any time, any place and can provide immediate relief from unhelpful thoughts based on the past. By being in the present moment, we are forced to let go immediately of our attachment to the past. The process won’t be easy and it will take time to be free from attachment to the past for longer than a few moments, but practising bringing ourselves back to the present moment will train the mind to let go.
If the breath doesn’t work for you, or your thoughts prove a stronger anchor than observing the breath, you can try a sense based mindfulness practice; using what you hear, see, smell, feel etc in the environment at that moment to keep you in the present.
Using mindfulness to break down attachment stems from Buddhist teachings and practices that have worked for providing mental calm and clarity for many hundreds of years. The Buddhist tradition that I follow very much focuses on making Buddhist teachings practical and accessible for the modern world. Applying traditional mindfulness techniques in practical ways means the application of this ancient knowledge is relevant to helping us solve our modern problems.
Try something old; to find something new.
Mountains are often admired from afar for the qualities that they appear to have. Some of these qualities we find beneficial and seek in life: stability, longevity, calm, unwavering and balanced. When we spend some time really contemplating the image of a mountain, we see that it is constant and reliable through the seasons; it is a home for plants and animals; it provides shelter and protection; it abides in tranquility through the centuries.
While it’s often the case that we try not to actively ‘think’ in passive meditation, we can use the visualisation of a mountain in active meditation to assist us in contemplating and finding inner peace. If we spend time on the visualisation we can imagine ourselves taking on the qualities of the mountain.
The Mountain Meditation can be used as a regular practice or as an escape from the rigours of daily life as and when required. I use the Mountain Meditation often as a precursor to sitting with mindfulness of breathing; it acts as a relaxation technique and brings focus before working on expanding awareness.
How to do it…
- Sitting in a comfortable position on a cushion or chair, have the back straight but not tense and the hands resting in the lap.
- Bring the gaze down towards the floor and gently close the eyes.
- Spend a few minutes on breathing meditation/mindfulness of breathing
- Picture in your imagination a mountain – it could be a snowy mountain of the Alps or Himalayas, it could be a forested mountain bathed in sunshine
- Try to bring your image of a mountain into clear focus
- Observe its shape, lofty peak, solid based, gentle or sharply sloping sides, its surface (rocky, smooth, dusty, forested, snowy etc)
- Notice it’s enormous size and how solid and unmoving it is from afar and up close
- Try to bring the qualities of the mountain into your own body – your head becomes the lofty peak, sitting in your chair you are rooted at the base. Your arms become the slopes of the mountain. Feel the sense of uplift from the base of your body projecting through the crown of your head.
- The mountain experiences the force of the seasons – sun, rain, snow, gales. Through it all, it sits unchanging, experiencing all that comes its way
- The mountain never resists, complains or judges – it accepts everything, just being itself
- We can imagine embodying the same unwavering stillness and calmness.
- We can experience the fullness of life and its changes through the seconds, hours, years
- We will experience the changing nature of our minds, our body, the outside world. We will have periods of shade and of light. We can maintain the peace of the mountain throughout.
- Sit in stillness for a while.
- Gently open your eyes and mindfully arise from meditation after around 20 minutes.
Mindfulness is a practice of widening our awareness and insight so that we can live in the present moment without judgment. The ability to watch our minds and the busyness within as an observer rather than through grasping onto thoughts, allows us to experience a greater freedom and peace of mind. The skills of mindfulness can be used in daily life to reduce stress and anxiety, be more productive and develop better relationships at work and at home and lead to a greater sense of physical and mental wellbeing.
The following mindfulness courses are now available in Stafford:
Introduction to Mindfulness—single session course (£25)
Available on the following dates from 6 pm—8 pm:
Tuesday 6th February
Tuesday 13th February
Eight Session Mindfulness Practitioner Course (Introductory offer price £130)
Course starts on Tuesday 27th February and runs weekly with one home practice week at week 5. Each session runs from 6 pm—7.30 pm.
Courses are held in a town centre location with nearby parking. Course materials will be provided.
For more information, visit the Mindfulness tab
If you’ve seen Eat Pray Love you know one of the benefits of silent retreat is a fabulously smooth and relaxed throat from giving it a rest. But, do the benefits go deeper?
We’ve all heard the stories of monks and nuns spending years in silence to achieve higher spiritual realisations, but unless you live in the mountains of Tibet, this isn’t really an option in our busy modern lives. One way to try the silent treatment is to go on a short retreat led by an experienced teacher who, periodically, can offer guidance on meditation and how to make silence your friend.
What Silent Retreat Looks Like
When I went on retreat earlier this year, I really had no idea what to expect from the period of silence. It sounds so simple…so simple that I thought it would almost certainly be a waste of time. I was wrong. We started the day on our meditation cushions with some mindfulness of breathing (a simple breathing meditation that usually starts off a period of meditation) and brief guidance from the teacher. We were then instructed that we should try to maintain mindfulness through breathing, sensory experience, body scan and mindful movement for the morning session of approximately 2 hours. There would be a short break, but no talking throughout.
Although I’ve been meditating and practicing mindfulness for over 6 years, this was by far the longest I have spent in meditation. I was daunted, but remembering my mindful practices of non-attachment, I just went for it! I can honestly say that by not having any expectations before the day, it actually helped me to just sit and see what happened. I experienced some mind wandering (obviously) but also achieved the longest period of peace and inner calm than I have ever previously achieved. This was done through listening to the environment – really letting the sounds of ‘now’ into awareness. I don’t mind admitting that I have struggled to have peace of mind for any great length of time over the years, but the benefits of any peace of mind are liberating to say the least. It was interesting to note on silent retreat that even when we were permitted to speak, nobody took up the offer. I also confess that there was a border collie in residence at the retreat and I may have forgotten myself and said hello to him…but I think he kept my secret.
The afternoon continued for another lengthy period of silence; around another 2 hours. Luckily the weather was good enough for mindful walking outside. It was interesting to note that people definitely preferred to stay in their own company drifting off to various corners of the retreat centre and garden, making no eye contact; as though when one kind of social interaction was off limits, all kinds were off limits. It was increasingly difficult to find lengthy periods of peace of mind throughout the day, but when concentrating for such long periods, attention does wander. I tried not to give myself a hard time over this. All participants reported different experiences: some really enjoyed it, others struggled. Spending time alone and in silence is a massive challenge for some personality types. Another reason why it’s so important to let go of judgment and move towards kindness.
What to ‘expect’ from yourself
Silent retreat isn’t easy. It’s a test for experienced meditators and can easily lead to frustration. It’s important to have a solid meditation practice before attempting silent retreat to get the most out of it. There isn’t much time for instruction, no guided meditation and no questioning so you need a full quota of practices to try out through the day/s.
You will find you become tired. It will definitely test your patience. You will have positive and negative thoughts and of course general busy-ness in the mind. That’s all ok! Try to welcome everything and push nothing away. We can place an expectation on ourselves on silent retreat that there will be some kind of breakthrough in our practice. This expectation is something that should be released as soon as possible. Holding onto expectation fuels attachment which definitely gets in the way of awareness. It should be approached the same way as any mindful meditation; without attachment to thought, without agenda and without the need for an outcome. I’d had this retreat booked for about 6 months in advance (people clearly queue up to not talk to each other) so it helped that I had no plans other than to be at the retreat. I had nothing to do but be there – how often does that happen in modern life!?
Above all else, remember to be compassionate and kind towards yourself…it’s the key to progress. I think this retreat advanced my practice by giving me a good length of time to practice in isolation. Without the distractions of everyday life and the pressing demands on my time I could really let myself be at ease with meditation. Silent retreat really does feel like a journey (cliché I know) but it’s true! All emotions are experienced. It’s definitely something I’d recommend and it’s certainly something I will be doing again.