Meditating Smart: Beyond Transcendental

If you’ve always been too impatient for meditation, a newly popular form of the centering art might be right for you. But if you’re the type who just can’t sit still, why bother? “Meditation can enrich your daily life by helping you experience a deeper sense of composure, integrity and clarity as you go through […]

meditation-smartIf you’ve always been too impatient for meditation, a newly popular form of the centering art might be right for you. But if you’re the type who just can’t sit still, why bother? “Meditation can enrich your daily life by helping you experience a deeper sense of composure, integrity and clarity as you go through your busy day,” explains John Douillard, a former professional triathlete and author of Body, Mind, and Sport (Crown Trade Paperbacks, 1994). It may also improve your athletic performance. “Perception, reaction and movement are complex interactions between the body and mind,” Douillard says. “Meditation encourages concentration on the present moment, which frees the mind and body from interference and allows them to communicate and to work together at full capacity.”

Beyond TM

One type of meditation more sports psychologists are recommending is a practice derived from Zen Buddhism called mindfulness meditation. Some experts, such as Jack Curtis, Ph.D., in The Mindset for Winning (Coulee Press, 1991), refer to it as “the present-moment technique.”

What mindfulness is not is the more widely known practice of Transcendental Meditation (TM), which is often promoted as a method of treating stress-related illnesses, such as heart disease and high blood pressure. The distinction is important because TM tends to be off-putting for active, busy people, many of whom have a hard time with its standard prescription: Twice a day for 20 minutes, retire to a secluded environment, cease ordinary thought and focus instead on a single word or image (your “mantra”). “TM can quickly become a burden, one more chore to do each day,” says Ruth Lerner, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist specializing in sports psychology and holistic health in Los Angeles. “And TM is hard. I tried TM for years, but I never really succeeded in achieving a blissful, thought-free, unselfconscious state. In fact, a lot of the time, I just felt nervous about the fact that I was somehow `failing’ to meditate.”

Anywhere, Anytime

One aspect mindfulness shares with TM is its aim to create a state of relaxed awareness–an alert but composed state not unlike what you feel when you are performing a sport effortlessly and well.

But unlike TM, mindfulness doesn’t require you to concentrate the mind by fixing your attention on one word or image. Instead, you focus your attention on what you are experiencing from moment to moment.

Let’s say you take your new puppy out in the backyard. A mindfulness meditation would be to observe her clumsy movements, to feel the sunshine on your skin, to notice the sensation of grass underfoot–and not to worry about when you are going to find time to mow the lawn. “You don’t think about what you are going to do next or what you have done in the past. You just try to observe what is occurring in your mind, your body and your environment this very moment,” explains Robert Stahl, Ph.D., director of awareness and relaxation training at the Stress Reduction Clinic of El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, California.

In essence, mindfulness meditation is about learning to live more in the present moment. “But I think it’s important to note that this doesn’t mean you should neglect responsibility or let all cares be cast to the wind,” Stahl says. “Mindfulness is not about neglecting commitments; it’s about encouraging a nonjudgmental, full awareness of whatever you are doing or experiencing.”

Because mindfulness is about “seizing moments,” it can be practiced anywhere, anytime. You can be washing the dishes or inline skating and still be engaged in a meaningful “mindful” meditation. “The idea is to incorporate mindfulness into the fabric of your daily life. It shouldn’t be a separate activity, but a mindset you induce to help you get more out of what you are already doing,” explains C. Alexander Simpkins, Ph.D., and Annellen M. Simpkins, Ph.D., authors of Principles of Meditation: Eastern Wisdom for the Western Mind (Charles E. Tuttle, Co., 1996).

Although research that proves mindfulness has a positive impact on sports performance is scant, a growing number of experts believe that brief mindfulness meditations during training sessions can help prevent injuries. “When you practice mindfulness, you are in touch with any signs of strain or pain,” Stahl notes. “It stands to reason that you are less likely to get injured if you are really paying attention when you exercise.”

Mindfulness can also ensure that you perform up to potential. By encouraging you to stay in the here and now, it may help you stay steady on the balance beam or thwack the volleyball back across the net, says Ruth Stricker, founder of The Marsh: A Center for Balance and Fitness in Minnesota. “It frees you to give of your full potential because it helps you cast off excessive worries about past failures and future success.”

Giving It a Try

It’s simple to get started in mindfulness. Begin with one breath, suggests Jon Kabat-Zinn in Wherever You Go, There You Are (Hyperion, 1994). “Just tune in to the feeling of it…the feeling of breath leaving your body. That’s all. Just feeling the breath. Breathing and knowing that you are breathing.” Concentrating on your breath should keep you in the present. It snaps you away from restless, wandering thoughts and puts you right smack in the here and now.

Another simple mindfulness exercise: Stop trying to take your mind off your workout (for example, by listening to a Walkman as you run or cycling on a Virtual Reality machine). Instead, start paying attention to how your feet hit the ground, how your arms swing, how your neck and shoulder muscles feel, what kind of breaths you are taking. “Fill your mind only with your action in the moment, nothing else,” the Simpkinses advise. “You may only be able to sustain this for 30 seconds, but even that brief span can help you clear your mind and put you in touch with whether you are overdoing it or holding back.”

So if you don’t see yourself as the meditative type, try getting mindful instead. The payback for brief intervals of mindfulness can be a feeling of renewal and calm and, in athletics, a sense of being more “in the groove.”

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