As the intensity of the rain decreased, I pulled on a rain hat and a Gortex jacket, slipped my car keys and wallet into a plastic bag, and tucked them along with a collapsible umbrella into a small daypack. I was ready for the worst. I found it underfoot instead of overhead.
Early fall rains left sidewalks slippery and littered with leaves. I knew I’d need to tread carefully. In recent weeks, I’ve been intrigued by a form of mindfulness that invites active, vigilant, sensory awareness. It’s not unlike the Sensory Scan exercise I’ve been teaching for years (Healing Walks, p 129) but this summer I learned that sensory awareness is a mindfulness technique validated by Harvard research.
After she read a July Spirited Life blog about my hiking fall in Arizona, a friend suggested that I might enjoy an online interview with Ellen Langer, a Harvard University research psychologist who defines mindfulness not as meditation but rather as active involvement with the world. Langer presents mindfulness as a process of constantly looking for what is new, what is changing in the world around us. The outcome she says, is intellectual vitality and agility.
All I really wanted was improved footing when I turned my focus to the leaves on sidewalk ahead of me. Quickly, I discovered that the leaves offered a solution as well as a risk. I mentally noted the colors I saw, the different shapes, and condition of the leaves. Some whole, some torn, some folded in half. Some solitary. Others in piles. When my thoughts tugged at trying to name the trees, or pulled me into the memory of a favorite dogwood, I pushed temptation aside and returned to simply observing. I noticed a wet and crumpled Albertson’s receipt, a discarded Starbucks cup. I caught a name in a sidewalk graffiti that harkened to thoughts of a friend. Through it all, I fought fiercely to stride past the thinking--No judgments, no reminiscences, no philosophical ponderings. Just noticing. Just awareness.
The process, Ellen Langer says, is very different from “Paying Attention.” Paying attention captures a moment, freezes time, she explains. It asks us to stop the action of life. Awareness of change is something different she insists. It does different things to our brains and to our spirits.
“In study after study, we find that teaching people this form of mindfulness results increased happiness, personal, interpersonal, and professional effectiveness; memory and attention improved, self-esteem increases, and we find an increase in longevity,” she writes in her website blog.
Active, awareness mindfulness is not better than meditation; it is an alternative form of mental training. It gives us another option, another method of focusing the mind and achieving benefits of meditation. It’s also fun! Even on a rainy day, it made my walk simulating and invigorating—not to mention keeping me focused and stable on a slippery path. But don't wait for rain! It's a great focusing tool in any weather.
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