Mindfulness meditation has been widely recognised as a simple practice to enhance mental and emotional wellbeing. According to the Mental Health Foundation (UK), "People undertaking mindfulness training have shown increased activity in the area of the brain associated with positive emotion - the pre-frontal cortex - which is generally less active in people who are depressed." As a matter of fact, scores of testable scientific evidence has shown that mindfulness can assist to rewire the human brain and boost equanimity.
Although mindfulness courses are selling very well in the United Kingdom, many people still find it difficult to develop the habit of practising mindfulness on a daily basis, however. Luckily, for people who find it almost impossible to sit still for twenty minutes twice a day in silence, mindful walking can be a helpful alternative practice. According to the NHS, something as simple as regular walking can have huge physical benefits in reducing the risk of chronic illnesses such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, asthma, stroke and some cancers, but the added bonus of enhanced mental health are less well known.
Millions of people walk every day in the United Kingdom, nonetheless this does not necessarily equate to 'mindful walking'. Due to the fast pace in a city, adrenaline and stress often hamper an opportunity to enjoy a mindful walk. Distractions can also come into play in the countryside if we are glued to a mobile phone hence sabotaging any chance of enjoying present-moment-awareness and truly absorbing the beauty of our natural surroundings.
The mind can often be so busy that attempting to be present can become frustrating. It is the internal mental commentary about our lives that often sweeps us away from being present during a walk. However, with regular practise we can slow things down and connect with mindful walking. Enjoying the feel of connecting with grass, sand, or leaves in a forest are my personal preferences, however mindful walking can be enjoyed in a big city too.
For example, when I used to live in London I made a habit of walking on Hampstead Health. This grounded me and provided a sense of privacy. Many cities in the United Kingdom are blessed with wonderful parks and spaces where it is possible to connect with nature.
It is important to point out that while nature has a "unique selling point", walking through a busy high-street can be a tranquil experience if practised with a sense of ease, openness and acceptance. It is the yearning to be somewhere else that amplifies tension and stress while rushing through a busy town or city. However, when we fully accept our situation and go with the flow without attempting to "fix" ourselves, inner peace can be felt - there is no more "fighting reality". I have experienced many peaceful walks in the heart of London by applying several simple mindfulness techniques. It comes down to our intention and willingness to accept our current surroundings. Below are a few suggestions to improve mindful walking:
• If possible, slow down. If you are in a big city, this might be going against the grain, but this automatically calms things down (unless you are intending to power walk, which is an entirely different practice). Naturally, appointments must be kept however setting out a little bit earlier gives you some leverage.
• Listen to external sounds. Rather than silently cursing traffic noise listen carefully to the sounds around you. Be aware of the contrast between the sounds and your mental commentary. Similarly, if you are in nature, notice the sticks crackling on the ground as you walk over them. Pay attention to the birds singing and so on. Tuning into external sounds stops us from being distracted by mental commentary. After a while, this practise can allow us to become deeply grounded into the nowness of life.
• If your mind sweeps you away from the present moment, anchor yourself back by focusing on the tensing and releasing of the muscles in your legs, feet and arms. This technique can also help you to feel at one with the earth. Mindful walking anchors us into the present moment and helps us to appreciate every subtle movement of the body.
• Pay attention to your breathing. Notice how you breathe without any effort on your behalf. Be aware of air flowing through your nostrils and feel your chest rise. Every so often, take several deep breaths.
Christopher Dines is the author of Mindfulness Burnout Prevention: An 8-Week Course for Professionals.