Do I Have to Sit Still in Meditation to Benefit from Mindfulness?
I regularly get asked this question by new clients at Hope, and my answer is, “yes, absolutely”. There are certainly some good reasons for why we might want to develop a regular sitting practice (see below), and I encourage clients to at least give it a try, but it is also possible to develop mindfulness using more active approaches such as exercise.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness (sati) means knowing what our mind is doing. Most of our suffering arises because we are just being carried along by the contents of our mind. Our attention gets repeatedly hijacked by cravings, negative thoughts, and fantasies about the future. This happens because we don’t recognize that our attention is being hijacked – i.e. we don’t know what our mind is doing.
It is only when we start to deliberately direct our attention that we begin to realize how thoughts are constantly trying to win our attention. This is why the most common complaint people have when they try meditation is that they keep on getting distracted. For example, we intend to focus on the breath, but we keep having thoughts about going shopping. If we were really in charge of our thoughts, how could this happen?
The Goal of Mindfulness
The goal of mindfulness is to develop insights that can lead to a permanent shift in how we relate to our life. One important insight is that we are not choosing our thoughts – we are just experiencing them. Most of our thoughts are just memories, ideas, and stories that are being triggered by outside events or body states (e.g. if your mood is low, it can trigger lots of negative thinking). There are other more deliberate thoughts (e.g. your partner asks you ‘what you want to eat?), but these are being triggered by some issue that the brain needs to resolve.
The reason our thoughts have such a powerful influence of our life is that we have the sense that we are creating them. This causes us to identify with our thoughts. Once we clearly see how the thoughts just arise in our consciousness because they have been somehow triggered, we no longer take them so seriously. This means those old patterns of thinking lose their power to continue destroying our life.
How Does Mindful Exercise Work?
Any practice where we are deliberately directing our attention provides an opportunity to benefit from mindfulness.
Sitting meditation uses an anchor (sometimes more than one) which we intend to keep our focus on. This could be the breath, a visualization, a sound, or general body sensations. With mindful exercise, we put our attention on the physical sensations involved with movement. The exercise is our anchor.
As we try to anchor our attention on movement, we find ourselves repeatedly getting lost in thinking. We see for ourselves how thoughts hijack our attention rather than us choosing those thoughts. The goal is not to stop to thinking, but as you see the true nature of your thoughts (i.e. not your deliberate creation), you start to be less enthralled by them– this makes it easier to remain grounded and focused on what’s happening right now.
Is Exercise a Valid Way of Practicing Mindfulness Meditation?
I first became aware of mindfulness in the early 1980s when I took up Kung-Fu. Martial Arts introduced a whole generation of us to the Eastern approaches for dealing with the monkey mind. We were taught to put our full attention on the physical sensations involved in our kicks and punches as this would make us more effective martial artists.
Legend has it that Shaolin Kung-Fu was created by a Buddhist monk called Bodhidharma (he is also credited for introducing Chan Buddhism to China). Many of the monks in the temple were getting sick from sitting in meditation all day, so Bodhidharma created sets of movements that would allow them to exercise and meditate at the same time. These movements eventually blossomed into Shaolin Kung Fu.
My guess is the person most responsible for promoting mindfulness in the West was the Kung-Fu legend Bruce Lee. So, not only is exercise a valid way to practice mindfulness, but it is one of the most popular ways of doing it.
Luang Por Teean and His Moving Meditation
Luang Por Teean was a Thai monk who had a big influence on my own practice. He taught a type of hand moving meditation called Mahasati, and this is the first technique that we teach new clients at Hope – it is also the way we begin every mindfulness class.
I was taught Mahasati by a student of Luang Por Teean (Phra Sombat) in 2004. Like many other things in my life that turned out to be good for me, my initial response was to dismiss it. I wanted to do the ‘real’ meditation where you sit in complete stillness. Even though my experience of martial arts had shown me how movement and mindfulness was a great match, I was still skeptical about calling it ‘meditation’. Luckily I kept at it long enough to see how effective this approach can be.
Mahasati can be a great option for people who are new to meditation or have trouble sitting still. It is commonly taught to children here in Thailand in school (my son learned it in school when he was five).
What Type of Exercise is Good for Mindfulness Meditation
We can be mindful of any movement, but there are certain exercises that are ideal for this such as:
Martial Arts (particularly marital arts where you practice kata/forms)
Practicing The Hope Mindfulness Program Through Exercise
It is possible to apply each of the four levels of the Hope Mindfulness program to exercise:
Level 1 – Getting Grounded- We achieve this by bringing our attention to the physical sensations involved in movement. Every time we notice ourselves getting lost in thinking, we gently return our attention to movement.
Level 2 – Grounded with Friendliness – Not only do we focus on physical sensations but we do so with an attitude of friendliness towards these sensations.
Level 3 – Encountering Stillness – As we continue to practice, we find it easier to remain grounded with a friendly attitude to whatever is arising. We not see sensations as objects we are observing from a position of stillness.
Level 4 – Open Awareness – The insight we gain from doing the practice changes our relationship to life. We are not longer a prisoner of habitual thinking patterns and craving.
The Benefits of a Sitting Practice
We have already established that mindful exercise is a valid path, but there are still benefits of also having a sitting practice. In our Kung-Fu classes that I attended as a kid, we always finished with 20 minutes of sitting meditation. The famous Tibetan Lung Gum Pa runners have marathon running as their spiritual path, but they meditate sitting alone in a cave for three years before they start running. Some of the benefits of a sitting practice include;
We can achieve a deep level of stillness that is harder to obtain to obtain through exercise.
Sitting makes it possible to limit our attention to just one specific object of concentration (e.g. the sensation of the breath at the tip of the nostril). This is useful if we want to experience deep states of bliss (jhana states).
Sitting meditation can provide deep states of relaxation for body and mind (e.g. advanced meditators can replace sleep with a couple of hours of meditation).
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