Mindfulness. When you read that word, what images come to mind? Do you think of Buddhist monks serenely meditating in a mountain monastery? A young girl taking in the majesty of an ocean sunset for the first time? Perhaps someone looking implacably serene washing the dishes or making their bed? Or maybe a mother patiently listening to her son as he expresses ideas and opinions vastly different than her own? Whatever imagery the term invokes for you, I’m going to guess you did not think of an NBA player in the fourth quarter sticking to his defensive assignment while keeping the relative positions of the ball, his teammates, and the hoop straight in his head. Likewise, I doubt you thought of a weightlifter deep in her last bench press set working like hell to keep her muscles contracting in the right pattern. Nor a marathoner managing to maintain his pace despite lungs and legs that are absolutely screaming for relief.
Though they seem vastly different, I would argue the last three scenarios are equally clear manifestations of mindfulness as the first four more intuitive ones. It’s natural to associate concepts with the manner and aesthetic of the medium through which they are delivered. Since most people have been exposed to the term mindfulness through a westernized version of eastern contemplative and religious practices rather than the fitness industry, the surface level connotations the term invokes are strongly correlated with classical depictions of peace, serenity, and meditation. To those lacking a deeper understanding of what the fundamental mental state meant to be illustrated with “mindfulness” is, it sounds counterintuitive and probably ridiculous to say that arduous physical activity can be performed mindfully. Through this article series my hope is to demonstrate the truth of that statement while providing practical advice on applying mindfulness to your training and teaching you techniques to help maintain equanimity under duress both inside and outside the gym. I promise if you stick with me through this endeavor, you’ll leave with the tools needed to take your fitness to the next level, become less emotionally fragile, and improve the quality of your relationships.
Before we can talk about the fitness applications or cultivation of mindfulness, we first need to drill down into the term itself and figure out what the heck it’s supposed to mean. The mental exercise at the beginning of this article was meant to demonstrate the need for doing so by pointing out a wide array of circumstances in which the actors are all practicing mindful awareness. After recognizing that people have vastly different interpretations of what mindfulness is, the next logical question to ask is why this is the case. The answer to this question lies in the introduction of mindfulness to the west and its subsequent explosion in popularity. The origin of the term mindfulness can be traced back to the Pali words sati, implying insight, awareness, attention, or alertness, and vipassana, which means insight derived from meditation in traditional Indian Buddhism (1). Similar breathing techniques intended to cultivate this insight are found in Tibetan Buddhism and the Japanese practice of zazen meditation (2).
In America, the origin of the term mindfulness is most commonly attributed to Jon Kabat-Zinn in the late 1970s when he founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School (3). Though he later downplayed the connection between Buddhism and mindfulness, Kabat-Zinn was exposed to Buddhism by a Zen missionary earlier in his life and went on to study at the Providence Zen Center, the Insight Meditation Center, and with famous Buddhist monk and meditation popularizer Thich Nhat Hanh (1). Given these experiences and his later work integrating meditation and mindfulness practices into medical and educational institutions, it seems likely that his denials were fueled by a desire for mindfulness to be accepted in the secular clinical community. Essentially, Kabat-Zinn was attempting to take the synthesized wisdom of the various Buddhist schools and present them in a manner which would be more readily adopted in America.
Public interest in mindfulness and meditation (the most commonly cited way of increasing one’s ability to be mindful) exploded in the 1990s and 2000s with the popularization of books written by authors working in the tradition of either original Eastern conceptions of mindfulness, or following in the footsteps of a more western version like Kabat-Zinn. During this time, mindfulness in the west went from a term imbued with a specific meaning to a small cadre of clinical psychologists and dedicated practitioners, to one with a less nuanced and more generalized meaning to a popular audience. In addition, the drive for sales incentivized each new publication to either tweak the core concept of mindfulness, or claim its application to a specific pursuit would guarantee improvement in that arena. I’m not saying any of these authors were necessarily operating in bad faith; simplification and dilution of concepts is almost always a prerequisite for increasing the scope and accessibility of a movement or idea. However, I do think a key aspect of what it means to be mindful was lost during this transition.
In my estimation the most important thing lost during the popularization of mindfulness, and which is most absent from the general public’s perception of what being mindful means, is that discomfort, pain, and tension are normal states of consciousness. Being mindful means accepting them just as fully as we do comfort, pleasure, and ease. At its absolute core, mindfulness is nothing more than the clear awareness of everything that is arising in consciousness. In someone who is being perfectly mindful, any sensation, sound, sight, emotion, thought, taste, aroma, or other perception is being observed precisely and without the veil of unrecognized thinking. Someone who is being mindful can recognize that their shallow breathing and chest tension is a manifestation of the negative emotion anxiety. From there they can further recognize that the anxiety they are feeling is a result of subconscious thinking. Upon investigation, the thought bubbles up into the conscious realm and reveals itself to be some variation of “this is not enough” or “I am not okay”. Upon having this insight, the physical tension in their body may relax or it may not, it doesn’t matter. In either case, they remain open and non-reactive to whatever makes itself manifest in consciousness in a given moment.
Being non-reactive means allowing the contents of consciousness (sensations, sounds, emotions, etc.) to be present however they appear without the desire for their continuation or cessation. The cultivation of non-reactivity through practices like meditation is what allows practitioners of mindfulness full access to the superpowers of the human mind, and what allows us to finally talk about fitness in an article claiming to be about it. You see, the unpleasantness born of a particular emotion or sensation is not tied directly to the percept itself; rather it is the thinking about the emotion or sensation which causes the feeling of unpleasantness and subsequent unnecessary mental and physical suffering. When one is perceiving reality clearly and not reacting to it, the ability to perceive both the sensation and the thought about the sensation strips the negativity from the experience. The result is the perception of the raw sense data without any associated mental or physical tension, contraction, or resistance.
When applied to fitness, this non-reactive awareness results in an ability to perform an exercise more completely, for longer, and with better form than you would otherwise be able to. When you’re not resisting the discomfort associated with repeated muscle contraction, you’re more able to focus on keeping tension in the parts of your body where it is required while simultaneously taking tension out of places where you don’t need it. For example, while performing a pushup you’re more likely to retain light tension throughout your core and focus on using your pectoral muscles to take you through the range of motion, while simultaneously keeping your upper back and neck relaxed. This increased awareness of body tension and muscle activation allows the proper muscles to fire, reduces wasted energy in muscles that don’t need to be contracting, improves movement patterns, reduces injury risk, and allows for a more thorough and faster rate of progression.
In the next article we’ll explore those claims more thoroughly, but to end this week I’d like to present my definition of mindfulness in the context of physical activity which will serve as our working definition throughout this series: the awareness of all internal and external sensory stimuli present throughout a movement or position. A non-exhaustive list of perceptions included in this definition are limb and body position, relative tension and relaxation of muscles, muscle activation and the timing of that activation, lengthening and compression of various body parts, breath speed, and breath position (chest, throat, or stomach). To achieve maximal benefit, the goal is to maintain this state of awareness during as much of a given workout as possible.
Thanks for hanging in there with me today. We’ll talk more about the states of mindfulness and precise awareness when we discuss ways to cultivate this state of mind later on. I’m looking forward to seeing you here again next week when we turn our attention to the specific benefits mindfulness can have on our training.
2) Wilson, J. 2014. Mindful America: Meditation and the Mutual Transformation of Buddhism and American Culture. Oxford University Press.