Mindfulness: Not Just for the Yoga Mat - Take it to the Street!
Updated: Jan 19
It was Sunday and I had ton of things to do to prep for the week. One of them was planning for the Asphalt Anthropology class I was teaching the next day at USC. The name of the class was Mindful Communication for Communications majors. The professor had invited me because of the unusual emphasis I place on mindfulness in self-defense training.
Thinking about mindfulness made me think of all the times and ways I’m not mindful. So on my way to the farmer’s market that morning, I decided to be in less of a hurry – less in my head thinking about all the errands I had to run that day. I wanted to see the city like my husband, Brian sees the city… he’s an avid street photographer and he always surprises me with the details of street life he is able to capture.
I resolved to slow my pace, let my eyes wander and be present to the day rather than on the list of things in my mind. When my shopping was done, and I left the bustle of the market, I noticed how strangely quite Hollywood Blvd was. It was still early and few tourists were out exploring the Walk of Fame.
Enjoying the calm I kept practicing seeing like Brian – looking for new artwork and graffiti, gazing high to observe the details of the Churrigueresque architecture and soaking in the way the morning sun reflected in the shop windows.
If I had been lost in my own thoughts, thinking about the past or the future I might have missed the present. And the present revealed itself as a very tall man about ten body lengths away walking in my direction.
The first thing I noticed was the thousand yard stare in his eyes. The second thing I noticed was how, on this empty sidewalk, he pivoted is path to head right towards me.
My heart sank.
I adjusted the angle of my walk to avoid a collision. He adjusted his angle and kept right at me.
Under his purple beret his long, stringy brown and grey hair swayed loosely as he made his approach. His white shirt, button down vest and khaki pants gave him a look which seemed at odds with his threatening demeanor.
I glanced in the street – it was empty but I still feared colliding with a car if I darted into the street.
He was about six body lengths from my now. I pivoted my angle one more time to avoid him.
No use. He pivoted too.
As he closed in I stuck out my hand and said in that cheerful but firm tone women have had to perfect – “Hey man, we’re cool.”
He stopped in his tracks. He seemed stunned by my words.
I took his pause as an opportunity to hustle away as fast as I could.
About four body lengths past him I heard him bellow with a deep rage, “YOU’RE NOT GOOD”.
This wasn’t just a man yelling. This was a madman yelling.
I looked back over my shoulder and he remained frozen, body vibrating in rage.
I hastened my walk and made it to the corner. From there I watched him go down an alley and disappear.
The quickness of my step remained as I headed home, frequently looking back over my shoulder to make sure he hadn’t reappeared.
Living in the city with so much stimuli coming in, I’ve developed over time automatic responses to overt threats for when the adrenaline is pumping. Verbally, there are three basic go-to phrases that I automatically use when I need to shut something down:
1st : “No thank you”
2nd: “No, we’re good”
3rd: “No, I’m not doing this with you”.
These are all for early level threats. From first to last, my tone drops lower and my demeanor becomes more serious. Later level threats generally involve cursing and a growl of indignation to convey “how fucking dare you.”
I no longer recall how I developed my phrases, but they have worked for me countless times so my automatic brain sticks with it. It’s been only the rare occasion when they don’t work and I’ve had to escalate my boundary enforcement. But it’s always better to shut down a threat sooner rather than later.
But here’s a caveat: What struck me after this encounter was that this guy’s mental instability made my automatic responses less of a sure thing.
Who knows what he was thinking.
For all I know, to him I could have been a lizard person from outer space and my tried and true tactics would have fallen flat. Seeing him approach from a distance had everything to do with my abilty to quickly make a plan. But I also think in this case I was just lucky that I was able to momentarily stun him for enough time to make my get-away.
Later, in prepping for my USC class I spoke with Rory Miller my goal of bringing mindfulness to self-defense training. I also shared with him my experience with the man on the street.
That’s when he dropped this bomb on me:
Its easy to experience mindfulness in real violence because you can’t afford illusion.
We commonly associate mindfulness as a practice cultivated on a yoga mat or through quiet meditation. Those are practices that I’ve found invaluable to connecting me to my own body and using breathing mediations like Square Breath to help me manage the daily vicissitudes of life.
But there is no replacement for practicing mindfulness in the outer physical world that prepare us for potential threats. For that, yoga mat mindfulness won’t cut it. We have to take it out into our physical world. Whether its practicing mindfulness as you walk down the street, practicing a martial art, or encountering real life violence – nothing quite distills illusion from reality than being mindful in the physical world.
Can you practice mindfulness in the swirl of the city? Can you identify and tell the truth to yourself when someone is posing a threat? I don’t always get it right myself, that’s why mindfulness in the presence of chaos is so important.
It is that chaos that forces us to be present.