In a workshop I hosted recently, we were talking about movement as a form of meditation. The beautiful spirit who came to the workshop asked a fabulous question. How you can you possibly just ‘be’ when you are in movement or activity? Is it possible to be in action and just ‘be’ at the same time?
Many of you may have heard the phrase about getting back to the place of human ‘being’ rather than human ‘doing’. In the West, we often translate being into inactivity. That as soon as we begin to take action of any type we must move into ‘doing’. There must always be some purpose or place we are heading with our actions.
Eastern philosophy though provides an alternative. Many Eastern philosophies suggest we can be active, participating in some task or other, and still be in a place of ‘being’ while doing it. The key is how we approach that task or activity.
We can be active and still be in a place of ‘being’. The key is how we approach the activity.
When you consider it from this angle, it is possible to be completely inactive and still be in a ‘doing’ state of mind. Anyone who has sat down to meditate and felt completely crushed by the number of thoughts skipping around in their mind has directly experienced this. Sitting quietly does not mean your state of mind is necessarily quiet. You can still be rehashing a heated conversation from earlier in the day, planning how you’ll get the kids to their myriad of activities that week, or wondering if you remembered to unplug the iron.
In an Eastern mindset, participating in activity isn’t the problem, it’s how we approach the activity that is the issue. In order to wrap our minds around this, it is easier to think about ‘being’ and ‘doing’ in terms of states of mind rather than in terms of physical activity or inactivity.
These two states of mind are real and observable. A study at U of T by Norman Farb, an associate professor and PhD in psychology, looked at how people experience their lives moment-to-moment and found two distinct ways of experiencing the world:
- Narrative circuitry – this is the brain’s default network so it’s active most of your waking moments and doesn’t take much effort to operate. It’s past and future focused so is concerned with planning, strategizing, memory systems, etc. Example: driving home and thinking of your day, what you’ll make for dinner, etc.
- Direct experience circuitry – activated when you’re not thinking about the past, future or self and just experience information coming to you in real time. It takes effort to be in this mode, so often we only enter it when we are triggered by an event that brings heightened emotions like fear, pain or elation. Example: You are out hiking and see the bushes start to rustle unexpectedly. You suddenly become very aware of your surroundings and really notice and take in everything around you.
When we are in states of being, we are engaging our direct experience circuitry, and when we are in our state of ‘doing’ we are in our narrative circuitry. It is interesting to see that ‘doing’ is our brain’s default state. Engaging, or ‘being’, in our direct experience circuity requires effort and practice.
Engaging in our direct circuitry requires effort and practice.
Meditation helps you to be in the direct experience circuitry more frequently, which means you’re focusing more on what is happening right here and now rather than the stories of what did or what could happen. The ultimate goal of meditation is to practice being in our direct circuitry so we can start to make that our default state. Caring it off the cushion and into the rest of our daily life.
We do this by bringing mindfulness to daily activities. It is easiest to practice this with tasks that don’t take a lot of mental activity, like folding the laundry, doing dishes or walking or the physical practice of yoga. Bring all your attention and awareness into the action you’re performing, and let your mind be full of the sensations around you.
Bring all your attention and awareness into the action you’re performing, and let your mind be full of the sensations of the activity.
If you’re folding the laundry, then you might focus on the lovely scent of clean laundry, hear the soft swish of the of the clothing as it folds, feel the different textures meeting your hands. If you’re out walking, you can take in the sounds and smells of nature, the sensation of the air or sun on your skin and the sensation of movement or your breathe. If your mind strays from these sensations, just bring it back as you would if you were sitting on the cushion. In this way you’re in action and meditative at the same time.
In Eastern philosophies, inactivity is not the goal of the ‘being’ state. Rather, the goal is to bring a ‘being’ state of mind to all you do and try to operate from that place as your default mode. Things need to get done, but we can move with grace from one activity to the next and engage in that activity with a calm presence. Regardless of whether the activity is small or large or important or mundane, all are deserving of our attention and mindfulness.
You will know when you’ve entered into a state of ‘being’ even while in activity because there is a certain flow to the experience. My husband loved to mountain bike, which seems like a pretty extreme activity, but he found it to be a meditative experience for him. Hurling down a mountain side makes you very attune to every sensation coming at you. There is no space for other thoughts, because one small moment of inattention can lead to a major crash.
You’ll know when you’ve entered a state of ‘being’ because there is a certain flow to the experience of the activity.
By being in that state though, he found a sense of flow. Letting go of all the thoughts and just being in the present moment, and responding from a place of pure instinct, he became one with the moment and the mountain. There was a flow to the call of nature and his response, and in that space was calm and ease despite the challenge of the activity he was engaging in. He always struggled to experience that state on the cushion, and found it more accessible when he was in movement. I think this is true for many people.
For the next week, try a little experiment. Find moments where you can bring mindfulness to small or mundane tasks. Or when you are out for a run, exercising or doing yoga can you bring mindfulness to this movement? Bring your attention fully into the sensation of being in direct experience with whatever activity you’re doing. Then observe your state, how does bringing these moments of mindfulness to your activities change your thoughts? How does that influence how you experience that activity and your day? Do you enter a state of flow? What feelings does that state bring to you? Is there something about this that’s working? If so, how can you bring it more into your daily life?