Nita Sweeney, BSJ, MFA, JD, CMT-P is an ultramarathoner, certified meditation teacher, mindfulness coach, mental health warrior and the bestselling author of award-winning books including Make Every Move a Meditation, A Daily Dose of Now, You Should Be Writing and Depression Hates a Moving Target. She lives in central Ohio with her husband Ed and their yellow Labrador retriever Scarlet. In this contribution to the KineSophy mindfulness series, Sweeney addresses one way of practicing we don’t often discuss: accidental meditation.
As with many things, the practice of mindfulness meditation exists on a spectrum. At one end are the Buddhist monastics who devote their lives to the Buddhist path, intentionally meditating every day. On the other end are people who have no interest in meditation, and don’t think they are meditating at all. Most of us with an interest in mindfulness fall in the middle of the spectrum. We want to meditate. We do our best to practice. And often, we succeed.
But if you’re anything like me or the clients I serve, you think your practice isn’t “enough.” I understand. Some days, even with thirty years of meditation practice behind me and a certificate to teach, I worry I’m more like the people who don’t think they’re meditating at all. Don’t worry if you judge your practice, lose interest, or think it’s not enough. Chances are, you’re meditating more often than you know.
Meditating by Accident
Long before you knew about or tried movement meditation, if the conditions were right, you may have accidentally fallen into a state of mindful awareness.
Meditation is a natural state some people experience without realizing that’s what it is. You might exercise in part to achieve this calm, concentrated mind state. I know I do. Once you’ve experienced the pleasure and relief of conscious movement, the impact on the rest of your life becomes clear. When you drop resistance and become fully immersed in the present, that’s meditation.
So, you exercise more. It motivates you. You might have experienced it while making art, playing music, being out in nature, traveling, or being with a loved one. And you might not have realized it’s the meditative state you actually enjoy. Plus, you couldn’t always make that mind state happen.
If you train your mind to appreciate this mind state, you won’t need to hope for accidental or peak meditative experiences. Create conditions which allow the mind to clear, focus and grow wise. Appreciate these when they come, and enjoy the process regardless. Equanimity around such experiences is as important as the experience itself. This is skillful means.
Is accidental meditation as meaningful as intentional meditation?
It depends on what you do with it. (You knew I would say that.) If you see it for what it is, fleeting and impermanent, and let it pass away as it wishes, then yes. But if you grasp after it, that only leads to more suffering.
You may also have had what’s known as a peak experience—a momentary, random flash of insight. People reporting peak experiences note awareness of the connectedness of all things, the sense of self dropping away and an abundant joy, all happening in a flash. Sounds lovely. And they don’t last.
In fact, after a peak experience, someone not trained in meditation, and especially someone not aware of the power of equanimity, may suffer greatly as they try to maintain or regain this state of consciousness.
People who meditate regularly may also have peak experiences. The difference is that they know what to do when it happens. You guessed it!
Recycle this into the practice. Observe it with full attention and a calm mind.
Appreciate it while it lasts. When it passes, let it go.
Accidental Meditation and Exercise
When I mentioned the idea of accidental meditation to an Olympic weightlifter friend who also swims, she said, “Oh yes. The rhythmic movement of swimming might induce a meditative state.”
I agreed that rhythmic movement can reset the nervous system and rewire the brain, switching off the stress alarm. This makes it calming. But that’s not what I was talking about.
I suggested she might be accidentally meditating while lifting weights.
“When you’ve got that bar over your head, you’re probably focused and relaxed.” I clarified that by “relaxed” I meant relaxed internally as well as physically—not slouched, holding tension equally, and not tensing any unnecessary muscles.
“I never thought of it that way,” she said, but agreed with my assessment.
If, as part of your dance routine or yoga, you stare at a spot on the wall for focus, balance or perspective, that’s concentration that might lead to a focused, calm state. Similarly, listening to music with so much concentration that everything but the sound drops away is a meditative state.
Any activity that brings you fully into the present moment, whether or not you intend that, is meditative. This is good news. Meditation is a natural ability that goes along with being human. You already know how to do it. If you choose, develop it more.
Mindful or Self-Conscious?
Does mindful movement require self-consciousness?
At first, yes.
Your initial efforts to meditate while moving may feel clunky and slow. It might help to remember you have likely already experienced meditation. It’s not foreign or exotic; it’s entirely natural. Now you’re just learning how to summon, use and build the meditative state of mind.
Didn’t your sport feel awkward at first? Anything that requires practice feels odd until you get the hang of it.
If you wish, start slowly with your movement meditation, choosing a brief interval of time. Grow into this the same way you might with a physical fitness practice. Few people can bench press fifty pounds the first time they try. Play with it and see how your awareness waxes and wanes. Do your best to stay present, pulling your mind back to your chosen object of meditation if it roams. Observe how the intensity of the exercise impacts the mindfulness.
During your first forays into mindful movement practice, the mind may wander and skitter. In the midst of intense exercise, the mind may calm. It must focus on what you’re doing and cannot jump around.
What about my friend who thought swimming was her mindful state?
It no doubt is. But her Olympic weight lifting is more likely to induce accidental meditation because the inherent risks ratchet up the focus. She is deep in concentration with that barbell above her head.
With practice, mindful movement becomes a working part of the way you do things. Practice turns into your usual mode. Self-consciousness drops away.
You no longer need to practice being mindful; you are mindful. This is what it means to lose yourself in the activity or to be in the zone. Movement and mindfulness become automatic. There’s no you moving; there’s only motion.
The states of mind that result from meditation may sound familiar and may be one of the reasons you enjoy your movement form. Meditation is a natural mind state. You might have been meditating or had peak experiences by accident. Now that you know how to meditate, create conditions for this to happen, and know what to do when it does. Do it on purpose!
This article was adapted from Nita Sweeney’s book Make Every Move a Meditation: Mindful Movement for Mental Health, Well-Being, and Insight. For more of her insights on intentional and accidental meditation, download her free pdf Three Tools for a Healthier, Happier Mind.
Read the other articles in the KineSophy Mindfulness Series.