Much of our time is spent rushing from place to place, so preoccupied with our next activity that we don’t really notice what we’re doing now. We risk not really experiencing our life as we live it.
Practicing mindfulness can help. Mindfulness helps us tune into what we’re sensing and experiencing in the present moment—it’s the ability to pay more careful attention to our thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations, without judging them as good or bad. Research suggests that it can not only reduce stress but also increase our experience of positive emotions.
One of the basic methods for cultivating mindfulness is a “walking meditation,” which involves focusing closely on the physical experience of walking, paying attention to the specific components of each step. With practice, an everyday action that you do automatically, even mindlessly, can become an opportunity for greater focus and awareness—a habit you can try to bring to other mundane activities as well. Some experts recommend alternating the walking meditation with other forms of meditation to keep your practice varied and determine which form feels best for you.
10 minutes daily for at least a week. Evidence suggests that mindfulness increases the more you practice it.
The steps below are adapted from a guided walking meditation led by mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn. This and other guided meditations can be found in his audiobook, Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life.
a) the lifting of one foot;
b) the moving of the foot a bit forward of where you’re standing;
c) the placing of the foot on the floor, heal first;
d) the shifting of the weight of the body onto the forward leg as the back heel lifts, while the toes of that foot remain touching the floor or the ground.
Then the cycle continues, as you:
a) lift your back foot totally off the ground;
b) observe the back foot as it swings forward and lowers;
c) observe the back foot as it makes contact with the ground, heel first;
d) feel the weight shift onto that foot as the body moves forward.
Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S., & Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits, A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 57(1), 35-43.
A meta-analysis of 20 published studies concluded that the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR), an eight-week training program that includes the walking meditation described above, is effective in improving physical symptoms and psychological well-being among individuals experiencing physical and mental illness (e.g., cancer, heart disease, depression) and among healthy but stressed individuals.
Walking meditation can help increase awareness both of our internal sensations and our external surroundings, tuning us into experiences that we often miss when we rush on autopilot from place to place. Paying closer attention to the process of walking can also increase our sense of appreciation and enjoyment of our physical bodies. By heightening awareness of mental and physical states, walking meditation—like mindfulness in general—can help us gain a greater sense of control over our thoughts, feelings, and actions, allowing us to respond in more constructive ways when we experience negative thoughts or emotions.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School