John Suler's Teaching Clinical Psychology
A Mindful Walk
In my course States of Consciousness, I introduce the students to "mindfulness" meditation (often called Vipassana). Some excellent books have been written about this style of meditation, including Henepola Gunaratana's "Mindfulness in Plain English" and Charles Tart's "Living the Mindful Life." After a few weeks of practicing this sitting meditation, I suggest to the class that we try a different approach to mindfulness. I suggest that we take a 15 minute walk around campus - the whole time remaining as mindful as possible (on our campus, we're fortunate enough to have a lake to walk around). In a nutshell, this mindful walk involves the following ingredients:
- While walking, focus your awareness on your breathing. Use this focus on the breath as an anchor or "home base."
- From that home base, allow your mindful awareness to notice any sights, sounds, or physical sensations that may come up. Focus your awareness for a moment on that sight, sound, or sensation, then return your awareness to your breathing.
- If persistent thoughts (the "monkey mind") distract you from your mindful awareness, simply notice them, and return your awareness to your breathing.
Once we return to the classroom, I ask the students to write down what they experienced during the mindful walk. Then, in small groups and/or a whole class discussion, we discuss the following questions:
- What thoughts, memories, or associations came up during the walk? What persistent (monkey mind) thoughts?
- What sounds did you notice during the walk? (I sometimes make a list on the board of all the sounds the students noticed - the list often is quite amazing).
- What sights did you notice during the walk?
- What physical sensations did you notice? (e.g., changes in the wind, the texture of the ground beneath one's feet and railings on one's hands, the various kinesthetic sensations associated with walking)
- What smells did you notice?
- What internal feelings came up during the walk?
- What did you notice about the group of us during the walk? (who was positioned where, who was out ahead and who was behind, what subgroups were there, etc.)
One fun exercise is to ask the students - either working individually or in small groups - to come up with questions about the walk to "test" the mindfulness of other students. For example, "Where were we when the wind changed direction?, What phase was the moon?, What was the color of the car that drove past us?" After exploring the questions listed above and the "test" questions, students may be able to determine their particular style of mindfulness. Some people are very tuned to sights, some to sounds, some to kinesthetic and tactile sensations. Some are very sensitive to the social dynamics of what the group was doing during the walk. Some get very caught up in the internal world of thoughts, feelings, memories, and monkey mind.
It might be fun and helpful to tell the students some classic eastern stories about awareness and mindfulness. For instance, on the Zen Stories to Tell Your Neighbors web site, see "Full Awareness," "Tea or Iron," and "Self Control."
Many contemporary books that discuss meditation offer wonderfully philosphical and poetic ideas behind this state of mind, but not a whole lot of specific how-to suggestions. If you want to help students develop mindfulness to an extent where it can truly change their lives, this is the book to recommend. Kabat-Zinn offers a wide variety of useful ideas about cultivating a meditation practice, as well as integrating mindfulness into everyday living.
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