Mindfulness begins with the body and the sensation of aliveness


A year of living mindfully: 7There is something about the cold that makes the world seem quieter. I hear the swish of the wind outside my bedroom window. In the distance there is a faint rumbling of an early-morning plane.

I am aware of the effort it takes to lift this body from the comfort of my duvet. I catch myself about to moan, but I think of those who would give anything to be able to swing their legs over the edge of their bed, and who can’t.

Standing silently in the darkness, I feel the cold. They got it right this time. It’s probably our coldest day of the year so far. I reach for an old sweater and feel the softness of cotton against my arms.

Gripping the smooth stair rail I ease my way downstairs. I once was an early-morning jogger but I have morphed into someone far less graceful. A lingering injury to my Achilles has put paid to my favourite way to exercise.

Act of love

Mindfulness begins with the body; with reinhabiting this earthly vessel that we can so easily take for granted. The practice of mindfulness invites us to drop into the body over and over again and notice how it supports and sustains us. To be present to our body in this way is not so much an act of will as an act of love. We are present to discomfort, to movement, to whatever may be unfolding inside us. And in that moment we feel the physical sensation of our aliveness.

A fitter man would glide down the stairs with barely any sense of the remarkable architecture of those muscles and limbs that got him there.

My pain raises my awareness of the sensations I feel and keeps my mind in the immediate vicinity of my body, which is the present moment.

My shame about my body tells me that something in my relationship with it needs to be looked at. There was a time when I was happy with how I looked, confident in how I could move so athletically and comforted by my physical strength. Those days have passed. I admire those who work at maintaining fitness and energy in their lives. We joke about men in lycra, gym bunnies, and people of all shapes and sizes taking to the street in jogging shoes.

For the most part I suspect they are working at taking care of their bodies and feeling more at home with themselves. It remains to be seen whether the new awareness with which I am trying to live this year can translate into taking better care of my body.

Here and now

Back on the staircase, I return to my body in the here and now. I notice with a degree of surprise that while my legs may hurt, they work. I find it helps to be open to the sensations of movement without a lot of comment, without trying to relive a moment of past inspiration, without trying to measure myself on some scale of self-improvement.

When we bring awareness to our body in motion, we realise that whatever we are currently doing is something we have never done before. The most ordinary activity – washing a cup, pouring cereal in a bowl, drinking a cup of tea – takes on a magical, one-of-a-kind, never-to-be-repeated quality.

I reach the end of the staircase, walk to my study, and feel the movement of my wrist as I open the door. Laying out my mat I prepare for morning practice. I bring my two palms together – a gesture in the Zen tradition that signifies bringing the mind and body together in the present moment – and bow. And with this awareness, I take my seat.


Tony Bates is founder and director of Headstrong – The National Centre for Youth Mental Health