by Mary Farrell, MS, CHWC
I used to think that I was born to be a runner. In high school, I discovered that I had no hand-eye coordination for sports involving a ball, and my attempts at learning cartwheels to try out for cheerleading would have landed me in the “YouTube Hall of Shame.” I also discovered that gangly long legs are good for running, so I started doing that.
I was hooked. I couldn’t run fast, but it seemed that I could run forever. I loved feeling that I could outlast anyone, and grew competitive. I ran so many races that I ran out of places to put the t-shirts. I loved the euphoria, the clarity and sense of accomplishment that I felt when I ran. I kept running in college and grad school, as it was my only time of solitude and quiet. I brought my running shoes wherever I traveled and used to discover the back roads of towns, villages and cities. Being a runner was part of who I was.
Then one day, it wasn’t. A serious injury gradually got more serious until I could ignore it no more. Still, I dutifully went to the gym to get my three miles in on the treadmill. I was in excruciating pain-grimacing, hobbling and dragging my right foot. After I was asked three times by separate people if I needed to go to the hospital, I realized that it was time to stop. It is amazing how out of tune we can be with our bodies.
Two spinal surgeries later, I realized that I would never run again. Seven spinal surgeries later, I realize that it is really okay.
So, I discovered walking. I used to run the same route that I now walk with a cane, and I swear that it isn’t the same. I am seeing things I didn’t see before―the glorious way the autumn sunlight shines on the water and the bridges, the rhythm of the timeless waterfall, the laughter of children as they run after baby ducklings in the Spring, and the smiles and “hellos” as I greet others on my route.
I know now that I am experiencing what coaches call “Mindfulness.” Mindfulness is the non-judgmental awareness of what is happening in the present moment.
People generally walk around on automatic pilot. More often than not, we are not really where we are. When we are eating, we are reading, working or worrying about past or future events instead of tasting each bite of food. When we work out, we are thinking about all that we have to do that day instead of being in tune with our body and what it is doing.
We are also experiencing constant “noise”—the endless tapes that can play in our mind. These can be financial concerns, worry about a job or relationship, or critical self-talk that says that we will never really be smart, slender, attractive or successful enough. Taken altogether we have quite a cacophony going on in the background, don’t we? It is almost too much to imagine peace, calm and purpose.
Mindfulness is a way to break free from being on autopilot and to push back the noise. By waking up to the experience of what’s going on around us, while it’s actually happening, we have the opportunity to make different decisions and to go in different directions. By paying attention to our thoughts, feelings, behaviors and relationships—without judgment or condemnation—we increase both our freedom and control over life.
Being forced to slow down has allowed me to practice mindfulness in my own life as well as encourage it in my clients. From the unmitigated joy of my puppy’s “welcome home dance,” to the tapestry of languages, fragrances and tastes of the farmer’s market, to the embrace of my partner that takes my breath away—I know that I am never going back to the frenetic lifestyle that I experienced before I was injured.
What are those things in your life that ignite your senses? Is it the cadence and reassuring tone of a loved one’s voice? Is it the laughter and play of a beloved grandchild? Is it the swelling of your heart as you watch your child on the playing field? Is it the quiet satisfaction you feel as you leave work or volunteering, knowing the impact that you have on others?
In addition to those examples, coaches have found that practicing mindfulness is crucial to making positive health and wellness changes. Because mindfulness happens in the moment, I would encourage the following exercise:
Before you begin a meal, ask yourself:
- Where am I?
- What is my body position?
- What is going on around me?
- Am I really hungry?
- What does the food look, smell, feel and taste like?
- What do I really want to eat?
Practicing mindfulness, even for a few minutes a day, is an important part of improving your health. You have nothing to lose but your distractions.