Tree-walking: My X-treme Mindfulness Experience
Updated: Feb 15, 2019
I recently heard an interview with Jon Kabat-Zinn titled, "Mindfulness 101." Kabat-Zinn is the creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction technique and the interview was with Oprah for her podcast, Super Souls Conversations, in September 2018. In the interview, Kabat-Zinn quoted Eckhart Tolle:
"Stress is caused by being here but wanting to be there."
This wanting to be somewhere else, some way else, is a pattern we can all recognise. Here, I'll share a recent instance where I experienced that stress, and chose to use it as a mindfulness practice, staying completely and totally in the moment.
For a friend's birthday, a group of us went Tree Walking. Maybe you've seen or visited something like this. It is an obstacle course built in the trees with platforms, cargo nets, ropes, logs and zip lines all dangling from the trunks and limbs. We wore harnesses that stayed attached to the safety guide wires throughout the course, so there was never a time when I was in any danger of falling to the ground. And because I stuck to the beginner and intermediate routes, I was only about halfway up the tress, whereas other routes and obstacles were far above me. Maybe I should have mentioned...
I have a HUGE fear of heights.
To be clear - I wasn't afraid of falling or of being injured; I am just afraid of being up high. I trusted my gear, my guide, and my friends around me, but I still got short of breath, some tunnel vision, and my limbs wanted to freeze. After the first two minutes, I was seriously stressed. I definitely wanted to be anywhere else! But rather than turn and go back or climb down, I decided to see this as an opportunity for some extreme mindfulness practice.
First, I found my breath. It was shallow and quick, but it was there. Thankfully.
Next, I embraced all of the physical sensations of the stress. I listened to my heart pounding. I felt my sweaty hands and shaking limbs. I felt my tight muscles and throat, and the empty, hollow feeling in my stomach. I sensed my heavy legs.
Then, I found a mantra: "One foot, one hand, other foot, other hand," as I climbed and stepped my way slow and steady through the next obstacle. Then the next obstacle. Then the next...
Kabat-Zinn provides this definition:
Mindfulness is the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, in a non-judgemental way.
While Tree Walking, I was present in each moment of the route, paying attention, on purpose, and in a (surprisingly!) non-judgemental way. I didn't berate myself for feeling fear or even try to NOT feel the fear. I found that I was able to harness the energy of the fear, rather than being overwhelmed by it and I was able to embrace the here rather than wishing to be there. It was quite and empowering experience and one that I keep going back to.
But we don't need to face our biggest fears in order to practice mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes an exercise we can do every day in a possibly unlikely place: the shower.
The Shower Experiment
How often, he asks, are we taking a shower, but thinking about the day ahead, the day behind, or something going on somewhere else? Even at times when we aren't stressed, we are often there instead of here. How about experimenting tomorrow with being fully aware of being here, in the shower: feel the temperature of the water on your skin, listen to the tempo of the water drops hit the floor or the sound of water running through the pipes, notice your breath, smell the shampoo and soap, and find other ways to pay attention, on purpose, in the moment, non-judgementally.
For more exercises and information on mindfulness and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training, we suggest one of Kabat-Zinn's books. Mindfulness for Beginners is his newest book (amazon link here.) We plan to include a review of his classic, Wherever You Go, There You Are, in a future blog post (amazon link here.)
What experiences have you had where being in the moment completely was your only option? Do you engage in activities where you are just BEING and not DOING or THINKING? Parkour? Climbing? Slack-lining? What else?