Whether or not Movement is meditation is an interesting conversation starter (thank you Flynn). To dive deeper into this question, I want to narrow the terms slightly.
To define meditation, I want to take a bit more time. There is a vast number of meditation practices from various religious, spiritual and secular backgrounds.
I want to talk about Mindfulness meditation, since this is the practice, I’m most familiar with and has a large academic literature to draw from, which I surveyed for my master’s thesis.
In the first part I’ll present a common definition of meditation. In part 2 I’ll look into different ways of cultivating mindfulness and then present a conclusion in part 3 on the relationship between Parkour and mindfulness meditation as a complex loop.
TL;DR: Mindfulness can be understood both as a relatively stable personality trait and as a cultivable state of consciousness. Mindfulness is composed of four central processes that are closely interrelated: Acceptance, Defusion/Distance, Self-as-Context, and Contact with the Here and Now.
Despite varying meta-goals, ranging from stress reduction to spiritual transcendence, at the core of mindfulness discourses is a shared, practical definition of mindfulness as a particular quality of attention. According to one common operational definition, it is a „kind of non-elaborative, non-judgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is“ (Bishop et al. 2004, 232).
Individual mindfulness thus describes a type of attention of a person that is characterized by awareness of the present moment and a non-judgmental, accepting basic attitude. Mindfulness can be understood both as a relatively stable personality trait and as a cultivable state of consciousness. Mindfulness is composed of four central processes that are closely interrelated: Acceptance, Defusion/Distance, Self-as-Context, and Contact with the Here and Now (Strosahl et al. 2004).
Defusion/ distance: Defusion is a neologism and refers to the detachment (de-fusion) of thoughts, feelings, physical phenomena or impulses for action. A distance is created from these processes by observing them as they arise and pass away. Cognitive fusion is the autopilot in which the processes of consciousness are not perceived as such. Experiences and the explanation and evaluation of these experiences are seen as a unity instead of perceiving the process of construction. Through defusion, a distance is taken towards the processes. „Cognitive defusion is the process whereby individuals learn to observe thoughts for what they really are (thoughts that come and go), not for what their minds tell them thoughts are (truths and rules that must be followed)“ (Peterson et al. 2009, 436). This distance from one’s own experience helps to better distinguish between the landscape and the map, that is, between the phenomena and the linguistic description and evaluation of the phenomena. Perception of reality is no longer seen as objective truth, but as subjective construction.
Acceptance: mindfulness practice places great emphasis on the acceptance of everything that appears in attention. It is a letting go of control. Any bodily sensations, feelings, thoughts, and impulses for action are accepted, allowed, and observed, but without reacting to them. By accepting or non-judgmental is meant a kind of compassion for oneself. This should not be confused with a passive attitude, but with letting things happen and being humble about the influence one has on one’s experience.
Rather, in contemplating emotions and thoughts, one practices observing their own dynamics and especially their process of change, that is, how they arise and pass away, rather than controlling them. A central instruction in mindfulness meditation is to always bring one’s attention back to the object of concentration, such as the breath, in a kind way. One practices not only distancing oneself from one’s emotions and thoughts, but also compassionate acceptance.
Parallels to systems theory reveal themselves here. Non-trivial systems are described in systems theory as autopoietic, meaning they are not clearly controllable by a hierarchical top-down process. From this perspective, thoughts, emotions, physical phenomena, and behaviors are directly controllable by will only to a limited extent. An attempt at volitional suppression of personal processes is more likely to lead to the opposite result of reinforcing those processes (Hayes et al. 2004, 27). Accepting what just is is thus dialectically at the beginning of any change.
Self-as-context: once no longer identified with one’s own thoughts, feelings, or physical phenomena through defusion, an awareness of one’s self can emerge that goes beyond everyday ‚autopilot‘. From a systemic perspective, the curious observation of one’s own cognitive, emotional, and physiological processes can be understood as second-order cybernetics, i.e., a meta-observation (Schmidt 2016). This second-order observation enables the formation of hypotheses about the mechanisms of the system, which includes the position of the observer. Systems theory typically applies this perspective to social systems. Thus, individual mindfulness practice can be understood as a systemic perspective on one’s psychological processes, which thus produces a „transcendent understanding of the self“ (Hayes et al. 2004, 9). This self has no fixed identity, but is the observational awareness of what is.
Contact with the here and now: Mindfulness is characterized by a reference to the present moment. This consists on the one hand of observing oneself and one’s environment, and on the other hand by describing what shows up in a descriptive, non-judgmental way. Especially the contact to one’s own physical processes serves as an anchor in the here and now. Thoughts can wander into past and future, the perceived breath is always the breath in the here and now.
Stay tuned for part 2, where we will look into different ways of cultivating mindfulness. You can receive updates on Instagram.
Bishop, S.R., Lau, M., Shapiro, S., Carlson, L., Anderson, N.D., Carmody, J., Segal, Z.V., Abbey, S., Speca, M., Velting, D. and Devins, G. (2004), Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11: 230-241. https://doi.org/10.1093/clipsy.bph077
Strosahl, K. D., Hayes, S.C., Wilson, K. G., Giffor, E. V. (2004) An ACT Primer: Core Therapy Processes, Intervention Strategies, and Therapist Competencies. Hayes, S. C. & Strosahl, K. D. (Hrsg.) A Practical Guide to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Springer: New York, NY.
Peterson, B. D., Eifert, G. H., Feingold, T., Davidson, S. (2009) Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to Treat Distressed Couples: A Case Study With Two Couples. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice 16, S. 430–442.
Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., Bunting, K., Twohig, M., Wilson, K. G. (2004) What Is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. In: Hayes, S. C. & Strosahl, K. D. (Hrsg.) A Practical Guide to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Springer: New York, NY.
Schmidt, S. (2016) Eine systemische Perspektive auf die Praxis der Achtsamkeit. KONTEXT, 47(3), S. 335-353.