Whenever someone asks about my “hobbies” to fulfill our we-just-met small talk quota, I always list reading first. Somehow though, it never feels quite right to lump my literary pursuits together with knitting, baking healthy desserts, and curating Spotify playlists to match my every mood. For me (and, I imagine, most bibliophiles), collecting stories, characters, and words themselves feels like giving my mental health a gift. Reading dashes all worry, doubt, and anxiety from my mind—and when I look up pages later, I’m re-inspired and so much more well-equipped to make a game plan for this thing called “life.”
Yoon Im Kane, LCSW, CGP, founder and CEO of Mindful Psychotherapy Services in New York City, tells me that while the act of reading can’t necessarily be considered meditation, it can be approached with what she terms mindful intention. “When you’re engaged in reading a book with mindful intention, you’re regulating the over-activated, stressed parts of your mind by bringing your attention inward,” she explains. “Reading can help access your imagination and emotions while increasing your ability to sustain attention which anchors your mind in much needed mental and emotional balance.” (That’s why reading can emulate the experience of a runner’s high. We’ll call it… the reader’s high!)
“When you’re engaged in reading a book with mindful intention, you’re regulating the over-activated, stressed parts of your mind by bringing your attention inward.” —Yoon Im Kane, LCSW
The goal of all meditative pursuits is—say it with my friends!—paying attention to the current moment. When your brain translates sentences into storylines, you’re absorbed in the task. That’s why, in Kane’s practice, literature is often suggested as a way of mitigating clients’ anxiety and trauma-related issues—especially when narrowing their attention in on the breath (the way you do in traditional mindfulness) feels too overwhelming. “Reading can be a great way to reap the physiological benefits of meditation while focusing on an external task, reading, which can help regulate the nervous system,” says Kane. “It’s all about being fully with your experience, whether that be focusing on your breath or a good book.”
To take a reading mindfulness practice one step further, Kane says you can zero in on your entire sensory experience of the pages in your hands. How do they feel against your skin? If you’re reading on a Kindle, how bright is the light? How much does the device weigh in your hand? We tend to overlook these details, but they’re the building blocks of the present moment. So before you enter the wonderful world of fiction (or nonfiction, if that’s your vibe), take a sec to sink in to the right here, right now.
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