If you’re put off by the phrase “mindfulness meditation,” you likely shy away from anything mindful. That’s a shame, because research shows that the practice of mindful meditation and mindfulness in everyday activities is both powerful and effective, especially when trying to overcome stress.
One of the easiest ways to get involved with mindfulness is to begin mindful walking. To gain some insight into how meditation can work to help manage stress, I spoke with David Lynch, Namaste Culture Limited, who practices in the United Kingdom.
Lynch modestly says he’s no expert in mindfulness, but he is “a practitioner, a facilitator of learning, a coach, who has combined several professional qualifications (teaching, counseling, management) and 30 years’ experience to create an experiential model of learning that adapts to the learner’s needs and vulnerabilities. They learn, I learn… and I love my work.”
How to be more present.
To start, I asked Lynch if he has a simple statement he uses to help people be more present — even if they are resistant.
“Meditation can seem like a daunting prospect, especially if you’re already feeling anxious or low in mood,” Lynch says. “When addressing an audience who have little experience of it, I tend to talk more in terms of a practice that helps you still your mind, in the way that a run or yoga might do. I use terms like an invitation to experiment with a new approach to managing stress. I make reference to the findings of neuroscience and the many proven benefits of developing a regular practice.
What is a mindful walk?
While it may seem like a complex topic, according to Lynch, a mindful walk is like any other walk — but with a twist. Mindful walking involves an extra focus on all the senses, exploring both internal and external landscapes, and their interconnectedness. “It’s walking more slowly than usual, less concerned with the final goal, more engaged with the sensations of the body, and savoring the impact of the external world on the inner experience.”
Letting go of all the “noise” in your head.
With so much going on around you, it may seem tough to rid yourself of all the noise in your head. While it doesn’t take that much time, it can, however, feel like a long time “if you’ve come straight from a busy office environment, where you’ve been very goal-focused. Walking outdoors in nature helps you to switch off, to disengage from fast thinking and problem-solving.”
Mindful walking indoors.
Suppose there aren’t any gardens near your work or school or elsewhere to walk. There is another way to achieve the same effect. Lynch recommends walking indoors.
“In some ways, it can be easier to walk indoors, either in a circle or in straight lines, where the invitation is to focus very much on your body’s internal experience, without the distraction of nature’s beauty,” he says.
But there is a caveat. “I think you have to be clear in your motivation to walk purposefully in a room, to be yourself on track, but once you get going, the rhythm of your body and the simplicity of the task soon stills your mind. Even 10 minutes on your lunch break can make a difference.”
Specific benefits of mindful garden walks.
Despite the value of mindful walking indoors, Lynch agrees that nothing compares with the breadth and richness of mindful garden walks. This is especially true if you want to effectively combat stress.
“My experience is that the combined regenerative effects of walking in nature’s beauty, breathing fresh air and practicing mindfulness, results in an immediate uplift in mood and outlook. It’s as if these combined forces offer a fresh perspective on whatever your mind is grappling with.”
Perhaps the best news is that the length of time involved in a therapeutic mindful walk is actually quite brief, a little over a half hour. Lynch recounts a recent session this past summer.
“I was inviting office workers to a 40-minute experience, enough time to get back to the office during a lunch break. This included 10 minutes of instruction, 20 minutes walking and 10 minutes debrief and discussion.
How mindful walking helps relieve stress.
Newcomers to mindful walking typically wonder how it works to relieve stress. They also want to know if you need to intentionally shut your mind off from stressful emotions, thoughts, etc., or do you go through a process of letting go?
Lynch offers clear advice on the way mindful walking helps reduce stress.
“Mindful walking helps relieve stress because the invitation is to connect with the felt experience of stress in the body and mind, the opposite off switching off from it, or suppressing the unwelcome and sometimes painful sensations of stress.”
He adds that walking works on at least two levels to relieve stress:
- The mind is focusing on the moment by moment experience of the walking movement, the placing of the foot, the shifting weight from leg to leg, and not on the source of what’s inducing the stress response. Just keeping balanced and upright is enough to focus the mind.
- The invitation is to acknowledge and connect with the sensations, emotions and thoughts, no matter how unpleasant and unwelcome, e.g. I can feel my heart racing, I feel nausea in the pit of my stomach, I notice my racing obsessing thoughts.
“The additional benefit of walking in nature is that our mind’s attention falls on the sound of the rustling leaves, on the beauty of the light falling on the path, and gains a broader perspective on our experience. Suddenly, we note that we are part of something bigger and [better] than our stress response.”
Ask a friend to join you.
Is it better to walk alone or with others? Lynch is quick to advocate whatever works best at the time.
“It’s probably easier to practice together when you first start, as it helps motivate you,” he says. “However, once learned, mindful walking can be done anywhere and enjoyably by yourself; walking to work through busy streets, walking to your next business meeting. You just choose to do it with your attention on your felt experience, slow down and enjoy the sensations of walking.”
Making mindful walking a healthy habit
Since adopting a new habit involves repetition, I asked Lynch how long it takes for mindful walking to take. He advocates eight weeks, which is the length of his program, because that’s what researchers/experts recommend to establish a sustainable meditation practice, to embed a change in our daily routine, and to commit to a lifestyle shift in how we manage demands, responsibilities and stress.
“Of course, it is not enough to learn mindfulness practices for eight weeks and then to expect the change to happen, without maintaining a daily practice, or at least regular practice,” Lynch says. “We’re talking lifestyle change. That said, I have trainees who have said that although they no longer meditate on a regular basis, they have learned the tools to address stress differently when it arises, and therefore benefit from the skills development, no matter what.”