Mindfulness practices have been recognized as effective strategies in the treatment of the effects of stress, anxiety, and depression since the 1970s. Pioneered by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at The University of Massachusetts, mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques are now employed by clinicians across the world in the treatment of mental health, alcohol, and substance use disorders.
The popularization of mindfulness practices in the Western world is due in large part to the teachings of the Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk from Vietnam, who first brought his special brand of Buddhism – which later became known as mindfulness – to the U.S. when he visited Princeton University in 1960.
In his 2008 book “Mindful Movements: Ten Exercises for Well-Being”, Hanh describes mindfulness as “…our ability to be aware of what is going on both inside us and around us. It is the continuous awareness of our bodies, emotions, and thoughts.” He then distills mindfulness into seven core elements, which he calls miracles.
In the case of mindfulness, though, the word miracle is used in a slightly different way than we’re used to. Rather than an event that has no rational explanation and is therefore considered of divine cause or origin, the miracles of mindfulness are the tangible, practical results of practicing mindfulness in daily life. We’re not talking about religious miracles, here. We’re talking about the daily benefits of mindfulness.
The Seven Miracles of Mindfulness
- Presence. To be present and able to touch deeply the miracles of life, like the blue sky, a flower, the smile of a child.
- Help others be present. To make the other – the sky, a flower, a child – present also.
- Attention. To nourish the object of your mindfulness with full awareness and attention.
- Service. To use what we learn from mindfulness to help others.
- Contemplation. To look deeply into the nature of our self, others, and the nature of the universe.
- Understanding. When we are mindful of the present moment, the circumstances of our lives become clear. This understanding allows us to heal ourselves and awakens our desire to help others.
- Transformation. By practicing mindfulness, we allow the healing and refreshing aspects of life to change us from the inside out.
A close reading of these miracles reveals the potential benefits a practice of mindfulness can bring to anyone in the process of recovering from addiction or learning to manage the symptoms of a mental illness.
In both cases, a person in recovery needs to be present, aware, pay attention, examine themselves deeply, and above all, transform old, disruptive habits into new habits that are healthy and productive. For the purposes of this article, we’ll introduce a mindfulness activity that focuses on the first three miracles of mindfulness: being present, recognizing the other, and paying full attention.
Recovery Activity: How to Take a Mindful Walk
The goal of mindful walking is the same as any type of meditation: to quiet the mind, to focus on the breath, and fully appreciate the present moment. However, for many people, especially those recovering from addiction or managing the symptoms of a mental health disorder, this is extremely difficult. The mind is filled with thoughts, worries, preoccupations, and anxieties. Turning all that off is difficult.
In fact, it’s one of the primary challenges of recovery: managing all that inner talk. To perform his mindful walking practice, Hanh makes a proposal that may sound challenging: walk without purpose or direction, simply placing one foot in front of another, with no thought aside from the present step.
You might be asking yourself:
No purpose? No direction? Zero thoughts? Empty mind? How can that be?
This may seem impossible, but it’s not. It is most definitely possible – for anyone. Even for people who’ve tried seated meditation and managed to sit still for all of three seconds.
All it takes is a little bit of help, like this introductory mindful walking exercise, designed for people with no experience in meditation or mindfulness practice.
Intro to Mindful Walking
- Set aside 20 minutes for a walk. Where you walk doesn’t matter. You can walk around your neighborhood, go to a park, or go to a commercial district if you want to be around people. City, country, suburbs – anywhere will do, but your walk needs to be outside. It doesn’t count as a mindful walk if you’re on a treadmill or on an indoor walking track.
- For the first five minutes, just walk. Bring your attention into your body. Feel your feet on the ground, the muscles of your legs – tune in to all your physical sensations. Is the air cool or warm? Are your clothes comfortable or constricting? Are your shoes too loose, too tight, or just right? Place a hand on your lower back. Notice how when your right foot hits the ground, the muscles along the left side of your spine activate, and vice-versa. Did you know that the muscles of your back work in this manner of dynamic, balanced opposition in relation to your steps? Now you do.
- For the next five minutes, shift your attention to the world around you. Keep your gaze at eye-level. Don’t look up or down: keep your eyes at your own eye level. For most of us, this will be somewhere between five and six feet off the ground. Pay close attention to everything you see. During this five minutes, try to notice five things you’ve never seen before. This is possible even if you’re in your own neighborhood, walking by houses or buildings you see every day. Notice something about the trees and bushes in your neighbor’s yards. Is anything blooming? Notice more: the color of someone’s front door, or whether they have shutters on their exterior windows. If you’re in the city, pay attention to store fronts, street signs, anything. What you focus on is not important. Keep your attention outside of yourself, and notice five things you’ve never noticed before – that’s the goal.
- For the next five minutes, keep your gaze higher than eye-level and repeat the process with your gaze directed up. Try to notice five things you’ve never seen before in places you don’t typically look. Don’t worry, you won’t trip or fall. Your feet will know where to go. Look up at second-story windows, rooftops, treetops, people’s gutters in need of repair, transformer boxes on telephone poles – there’s a lot going on over our heads that we forget about. And again, it does not matter what you notice, it just matters that you notice five things you’ve never noticed before.
- Now, for the final five minutes of your walk, bring your attention back to your body, just as you did in the first five minutes. How does it feel? Bring your attention back to your steps. Feel your feet. Bring your hand back to your lower back and feel your muscles. Does anything feel different? Anything feel the same? Just observe your body without judgment. Let everything be right where it is.
As you return home – or wherever you started – notice your mind and the state of your thoughts.
Have they changed?
This exercise is designed to get you out of your mind and allow you to take a brief vacation from your preoccupations by focusing explicitly on the world around you. In other words, this exercise helps you cultivate the first three miracles of mindfulness: the ability to exist in present moment, the ability to see things other than yourself, and the ability to consciously focus your thoughts and attention.
Walking for Recovery
Though the idea of mindful walking may be daunting at first – empty mind, no purpose or direction, no thought but the next step – it’s really a concept intimately familiar to anyone in recovery. Slow down, pay attention, look inside, validate your experience and emotions, and find out what’s really going on deep down inside. The same thing happens when we take a mindful walk. We slow down and pay attention. We look deep inside, and we also look outside ourselves to see the world around us – as it is, rather than as we wish it to be.
But there’s one more similarity between mindful walking and the process of recovery.
Did you notice what it is?
As soon as you read this, you’ll have that “Aha!” moment:
Just like we take recovery one day at a time,
we take our mindful walks one step at a time.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.