Get physical to stay mindful

The importance of physicality and coming back to our bodies, in a world where most of our lives can be measured and monitored by smart phone apps.

It’s January. Perhaps like many people, you’ve started the year with a resolution to exercise more. There are many good reasons to do this: the health benefits, looking good, and more importantly, feeling good. But much of the time, New Year’s exercise resolutions are quickly forgotten in our busy lives. The packed gym of early January returns to normal by the end of January.

Perhaps one of the reasons exercise resolutions so often fail is because of the focus on the end result. Everyone knows that through exercise you can loose weight, build strength, and look better, but also that none of this happens overnight. Exercise is seen as a chore, and after repeating this chore hundreds of times, you will finally see results. With this attitude, it’s no wonder people quit.

Instead, it’s necessary to focus on the process, and enjoy it. When you notice how exercise can make you feel better on a daily basis, you’re far more likely to keep it up.

Physical activity not only helps you feel good, it makes you more aware of your body. Being fully aware of the body, you will naturally want to exercise. It’s a virtuous cycle.

But in the modern world, particularly for those working in front of a screen, it can be hard to remain fully aware of the body when much of our time and attention is spent in our devices.

Digital devices and the body

Digital devices have a tendency to take our awareness aware from our bodies. Everything we do with an app is conceptualised and measured. Apps keep us constantly interacting – and so we forget our bodies. Sometimes our usage of apps can lead to feelings in the body, but most of us aren’t aware of that. For example, when your phone battery is low, you body might feel tense (next time that happens, try to be aware of it!)

Meditation and mindfulness have taken off over the past few years. I believe that’s because we need these practices more than ever. Downtime and boredom used to be a natural part of our lives, but no longer. Since we always carry our phones, they can keep us stimulated when we are on public transport or in the waiting room. But this leads to our minds being busier than ever. We can’t sustain this constant thought activity: we are human beings, not human doings.

When we are interacting with our devices, we feel we are in control because we are taking action. When you first start to interact with a device, there is a significant element of being in control. It’s also very overwhelming. We can’t do new things like this all the time: it’s too exhausting. Over time, we get used to the device and our usage becomes habitual. It takes far less effort because we are following habitual routines. But we are no longer in control much of the time: just following these routines, mostly unconsciously. Have you ever found yourself on Facebook or Twitter when you were supposed to be doing something else?

Meditation and mindfulness shift our focus away from habitual routines and thinking (which can become a habitual routine too). We practice simple activities with our absolute attention. We are focused on the present moment. This calms the mind. During these practices, we become more aware and so gain more control of our thoughts and actions.

The body is the key

The popular image of meditation is sitting cross-legged with the eyes closed, doing nothing. But if you try to do nothing you will find it impossible. On the outside, you may appear to be doing nothing. But inside, you’ll find yourself thinking. You may discover a storm of thoughts in your mind.

Almost all meditation techniques use the body in some form. You may focus on your breathing: awareness of every in-breath and out-breath. You may perform a body scan: becoming aware of each part of your body one after the other. You may focus on one of the senses: aware of the sounds coming into your ears, or the smell and taste of your tea.

With all of these techniques you concentrate on your body or senses, thereby grounding yourself and allowing the mind to calm.

Mindfulness brings the attitude of meditation into our daily lives. When we drink our tea, when we clean the house, when cook, when we brush our teeth. Rather than doing these habitually, barely aware of what we are doing whilst we think about other things, we can instead focus fully on them.

I have found mindfulness can be easy for these simple activities (after some practice). And it makes a huge difference to my quality of life.

Digital mindfulness

When it comes to using my laptop, phone, or tablet, I have found mindfulness much more challenging. The mind is engaged, but the body is not (much). As I’m typing this, I’ve become aware of my hands and fingers, but often I’m not at all. After over 25 years of using a keyboard, typing is an automatic response: I think of words and my hands do the work. As I write this I am using a minimalist word processor (FocusWriter) so my mind is less engaged by distractions. Awareness of the body becomes feasible. But most of the time, it is far harder to stay aware of the body whilst using a device.

Unlocking my phone, I see a grid of fun, colourful icons, inviting me to tap on them. Browsing the web (even with an ad-blocker) I encounter pop-ups and clickbait. When I open my email, I see marketing emails, despite regularly unsubscribing. My body is easily forgotten as I enter this busy virtual environment.

Is physical awareness possible around technology?

The short answer is yes. As I discovered, I can hold my body in awareness whilst typing. It is also clearly possible to change digital habits to reduce usage and have more time for the physical world, yet still retain the advantages of modern tech.

The long answer is it’s hard, I don’t have all the answers, and I certainly couldn’t cover them in one blog post.

In 2019, whatever your exercise goals, try to develop greater awareness of your body, and notice the effect this has on your mood. You may also notice, like I do, that awareness of the body is more difficult when using digital devices.

Here on over the coming months, we will be exploring the conflict between body awareness and technology and offering further tips to develop mindfulness of the body in the digital age.

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