Sunday, May 15, 2011

Five Finger Mindfulness

When I first started running I got fitted for a proper pair of running shoes. Every six months or so I return to the store, have a discussion with one of the staff, and without exception depart with another pair of the same shoes. Six years, twelve pairs of shoes. They work for me. In fact, they work so well for me that I've not really thought about my feet at all.

These strange little shoes pictured on my feet have caused me to pay very close attention to my feet. At first I was paying close attention because I was terribly concerned my little toes would get sucked into the belt of the treadmill. As soon as I realized that was a ridiculous thought I went about the business of logging in my time running for the day.

Running, for the most part, is generally an experience of mindfulness for me. After I pass through the first few miles my mind gets (mostly) swept clear of thoughts and gets filled with an ongoing process of noticing what's around me and in me. It's a nice meditation.

These strange toe-slippers (actually called Vibram Five Fingers) changed it up. For the first time in I don't know how long I paid attention to my feet. Who knew how much information our feet provide us about the world around us. It all started with my first step on the treadmill. I could feel the rollers under the belt. As I turned up the speed I became even more fascinated. For example, my left foot strikes the ground in a totally different way than the right. The left has a way of rolling slightly out and with each strike comes a wobble that transmits all the way up my body. When I alter my foot strike my body becomes more stable.

Another thing I noticed was my toes. When my feet strike my toes slightly curl and grip the ground. When my foot comes back up my toes spread open a bit. Each step provides a bit of a stretch. Comforting--and relaxing.

As I got more comfortable and less concerned about breaking my toes I turned the speed up on the treadmill. The faster I went, the more I noticed there was a natural rhythm that ran from my toes up to my head. I could feel different adjustments through my spine depending on if it was the right or or the left foot striking.

A discussion of shoes (or my feet) isn't really my point here. This is a post about mindfulness. Most of you probably don't think about running as mindfulness. Maybe you think of someone sitting in the lotus posture on a meditation cushion or perhaps a room full of yoga students chanting. Our popular culture certainly works hard to promulgate this image of mindfulness = peacefulness.

Mindfulness, however, isn't really any of these things. It's simply paying close attention to whatever is on hand to be experienced. You can be mindful on the subway, in the dentist's chair, or on the corner of a crowded intersection. You can be mindful in the real world--try it out--while it's nice and all to find a peaceful moment on a meditation cushion it's even better to be present with all your senses wherever you might be.

I think sitting on a cushion is a great way to be mindful--it's different from what we usually do so it makes us notice things in a different way. The problem is that we've come to expect a certain experience from cushion sitting: we are supposed to be "mindful" or "peaceful." Rather than noticing we end up trying to do something. That's not meditation. Try to do something new--something that you haven't done before. If you put yourself in a position where you are doing something that you don't have a reference for you can be more mindful. You can be more aware of what your are doing and notice the experience rather than fit the experience into something that you think it should be.

That's mindfulness.

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