As I have often mentioned on this blog, one of the most powerful approaches to handling stress and anxiety is to develop your capacity for mindfulness. When we experience difficult thoughts and feelings, our default tendency is to try to either wallow in them, or to try to push them away, avoid them. Mindfulness is a method for learning to do something else: By merely noticing our distress, without judgment or reaction, we can often get rid of the additional layers of suffering and misery that we unwittingly self-generate.
Studies have shown that mindfulness practice confers benefits even if you practice as few as 12 minutes a day. That said, most of us don’t practice consistently enough to derive real benefit, if at all. It’s like trying to be a writer: As someone once said, the hardest thing about writing is keeping your ass in the chair. Same with meditation. Doing it is not hard, but getting yourself to do it, that’s hard. So it’s important to have many different ways to work it into your life.
Exercise is a terrific way to practice mindfulness. You’re typically doing something in a simplified environment (not multitasking), you’re paying attention to your body, and you’re experiencing physical distress and discomfort. It can be rapturous, but it’s typically just annoying and hard (And I'm saying this as someone who loves to exercise).
Most people choose to “cope” with exercise through distraction. Gyms have walls of TV’s and loud music, and most people are plugged into their phones. This is one way to get through it. But it can be beneficial to instead make a deliberate choice to unplug, and to focus your attention on what you are actually doing, as boring or uncomfortable as it may be.
Next time you’re doing some kind of endurance exercise (running, cycling, elliptical machine), try this: Set a 5-minute timer on your phone. Turn off your music, podcast, or whatever. Direct your attention to your body, to the physical, kinesthetic feeling of what you’re doing. For running, you may want to focus on the feeling of your footsteps on the ground. For cycling, it may be the feeling of exertion in your downstroke leg.
When your attention wanders, as it inevitably will, just bring it back to your chosen focal point. You may notice a tendency to want to turn the music back on. You may notice that you are tempted to ease up and exert yourself less. You may notice minor aches or pains that you hadn’t before.
If you stick with it, however, you may notice yourself falling into a meditative rhythm, in which your attention more easily stays on the physical movements. You more quickly notice when you are pulled off task. You begin to notice pleasant aspects of the activity that you’d missed: The wind in your hair, the slackening of muscular tension, the freedom of movement. And if you’re doing any activity that requires technical precision (which is really any athletic activity, if you’re trying to do it well and avoid injury), you’ll find that you’re less prone to drift into poor posture or shoddy technique.
Try doing this “5 minutes of silence” each time you exercise, and see how it carries over into the rest of your life. If this sounds simple, that’s because it is. Ain’t nothin to do it but to do it.