After a six month enforced lay off, I went for a run yesterday. Now I’m no Mo Farah; I had only been running for a couple or months before having to stop, so slightly dispirited I went back to week one of the BBC couch to 5k app. Once more I was listening to Michael Johnson telling me not to run too fast (!) as I plodded around the park. It was disappointing to have no choice but to start over again. When I run I usually avoid eye contact with the properly dressed, skinnier, more lithe and faster joggers. My old sweatshirt, generic trainers and paunch feel like no match for the spring in every one of their steps.
But nevertheless I set off, albeit apprehensively. Yet almost immediately my body remembered what it felt like to run and nearly as quickly how this time it felt okay with what was happening. “You’ve got this Philip. You’ve done this before and survived.” This was not a foreign country to my muscles and joints; it was recognised ground. The exercise I had done earlier in the year was still there somewhere in me. I am not saying I flew around the park, nor that I did not ache in strange and multiple places for the next 24 hours. But I knew what was going on and I was in a better place physically to try to get healthier and fitter than six months ago.
I’ve been teaching and guiding mindfulness to adults for a few years now, so when I walk around town I meet people who have been on a course with me. And now seemingly I have developed a local area superpower. That is I have the ability to make people look sheepish and apologise as soon as they meet me. “Hello. I am sorry but I haven’t been practicing mindfulness much recently” they mumble to their shoes. And there is a similarity to me avoiding the gaze of proper runners to people looking at their shoes when they see me. The idea that we aren’t doing as well as we should, that we failing to reach a standard that other people are easily realising and surpassing even is present in so many of us.
So an irregular runner believes they are less than other exercisers. Someone who used to practice mindfulness thinks about sitting on their cushion but doesn’t because they believe they are no good at it anyways. Someone who is practicing mindfulness notices their mind has wondered and immediately believes they have got it wrong and that, not only is this a bad session, but that they are a bad practitioner and not good at being mindful. Now I would say that each person here needs to be encouraged to ignore that eroding inner critic and take their next step, but of course that is much, much easier typed than done.
The name couch to 5k is a great one. It clearly describes where you probably are and where you would like to get to. Progress is entirely measurable in both minutes and kilometres run. But equally someone who started their running a week before you would remain in front of you throughout the 9 weeks. In this way mindfulness is very different. There isn’t a goal to reach sometime in the future. You just do mindfulness. You may imagine that everyone else practicing in the room with you is perfectly resting in attention on the breath; that you are the only one getting distracted by thoughts of what might be for tea and the holey socks of the person in front of you, but the reality is that we are all imperfect pretty well all the time. Which is why mindfulness is not about stopping the mind from wandering, but instead to simply notice when it does. This means when you see your mind is not on your breath or your chosen anchor spot, that moment right there is being mindful, is realisation.That is what it is all about, so simply notice “my mind is involved in a thought about planning tea.” And then gently, without any rush, let the thought go. Don’t force it away. You can be aware that it is still there or that this thought is also passing like all mental events do. And then when it has passed, simply return to the anchor spot and be mindful of that. Every time you come back, you come back with more experience, with more wisdom. A mind returning to awareness, like a body to exercise, recognises what is going on a little bit better every time it does. Good habits are being formed.
So be aware of that inner critic. It isn’t doing you any favours. Don’t let it stop doing what you want or what is good for you all just because of a totally misplaced sense of inferiority. Additionally, it is mindfulness the self judgement is about then kindly and gently notice that is what your mind is paying attention to. Well done you are aware of your thoughts and feelings. They will pass.