Where Does Mindfulness Begin?

Do a Google image search for “mindful running” (actually, I did it for you here) and you will be greeted by picture after picture of peaceful, happy folks trotting through beautiful scenery.  They jog up pristine mountain trails, plod through gorgeous redrock canyons, and scurry along sunlit beaches.  Sometimes they are alone, sometimes surrounded by other running models, and sometimes they even have their grinning dogs with them. 

None of this has anything to do with mindfulness.

Sure, these images paint a pretty nice picture of the peace and joy that mindfulness can bring over time to those with the luxury of deepening their practice to such a great extent.  And it can certainly garner click-throughs to websites that may offer something more substantial (maybe it even brought you to Dharma Running!), but there is an unconscious message in these images that I believe can be very damaging to the mindful running movement and to anyone who is interested in running and living more mindfully:  That you need peace and joy to find peace and joy. 

That all makes for nice marketing, but it is far from the truth.  In my experience, and in what I have heard and read from some of the most awakened teachers I know, a mindful life doesn’t require a run through the woods any more than it requires a shaved head, robes, and incense.  Sure, those things can certainly be excellent tools on your path to deeper awareness of yourself and the world, but to believe they are necessities actually misses the point of mindfulness altogether.

The real place where mindfulness is best practiced, the beginning of genuine awareness, is almost always on the edge of discomfort.  As someone who studied and practiced Buddhist meditation in the shadow of the pine-forested Rocky Mountains, I can attest to this first-hand.  It wasn’t until I moved back to Philadelphia after more than a decade away that the rubber hit the road, that I realized mindfulness means nothing if you can’t use it in the real world.  Who really needs mindfulness when you can watch beams of light shine through the aspens, or hear the birds singing joyfully, or feel and smell the fresh breeze that cools your sweaty brow as you zoom down the single-track?  I’ll tell you who – almost nobody!  Mindfulness is practically built in to situations like that!

No, when you really need mindfulness is when you are trying your damnedest to send your kids off to school so you can get in a lousy run before you need to leave for work.  You need mindfulness when it seems like you need to stop at every traffic light, or when you have almost been hit by three sidewalk cyclists in your first quarter mile.  You need mindfulness when it’s 85 and thick with humidity, and your legs do not seem to want to obey your brain.  You need mindfulness when 75 runners just passed you at the start of your race and you are trying not to feel like you’re faltering with each step forward. 

I mean, you don’t really need mindfulness in those moments, but it sure can help you be a better runner.  Just like you don’t need mindfulness when you’re feeling frustrated in the self-checkout line at the grocery store, or when you picked the wrong toll lane, or when you’re trying to get your kids off to school…but mindfulness can certainly give you the tools to handle those situations with more grace and happiness, less rage and frustration.

Mindfulness starts within, no matter what the brochure tells you.  And yes, it is sometimes easier to cultivate mindfulness on the trails or the beach, or from your mountain retreat center.  But most of us do not have that luxury – we want to begin our practice here and now.  We don’t need to put it off until we have the time or the space or the right frame of mind.  Cultivating mindfulness is about developing the right frame of mind, and there is no place or time to begin like here and now.  Take a breath, notice what comes up, and come back to your breath again.  Put one foot in front of the other, watch how the sunlight makes the dirty asphalt glimmer, listen to the beautiful sound of someone’s car alarm, feel the sweat start to pool in uncomfortable places, smell the…well, you get the picture.