Taking a walk is a great thing to do for so many reasons. It can be good exercise, particularly for those not suited to more vigourous exercise. For me I often find it great ‘thinking time’. Walking can include the enjoyment of being out in a natural environment; views of trees, ocean, a river, or wherever you are.
But you may have noticed it is also possible to take a walk and be so highly preoccupied that you hardly notice how you got to where you were going. You hardly see anything, and certainly don’t ‘smell the roses’ along the way.
Mindful walking and walking meditation can be great additions to your skills in the realm of meditation. In my meditation classes in the Coffs Harbour area over the last year and a half we have been frequently doing ‘walking meditation’ and many participants have been finding it really helpful. We do it sometimes before sitting practice, sometimes after, and sometimes between two sessions of sitting.
So how how do you meditate by walking, or vice versa, how does walking become meditative?
I reckon there are at least two complementary approaches:
(1) deliberately taking time out to walk as a meditation practice,
(2) if you are taking a walk anyway, you make it a more mindful experience.
Let’s think of deliberate walking meditation first; formal walking meditation if you like. It is practised in many Buddhist traditions from Zen to a number of the south-east Asian schools. The written records of how Gautama Buddha taught his thousands of followers, two and a half thousand years ago, lay great emphasis upon walking as a meditative practice.
Generally it is done at a fairly slow pace so that it is easier to develop more awareness of simple experiences like the ‘feel’ of one foot making contact with the ground. Then the feel of that foot leaving the ground as the weight moves on to the ball of the foot and then the toes.
Because you are walking slowly there is not a lot of natural swing of the arms – it seems to be better to place the hands together on the lower abdomen, or behind the back. You choose a suitable place to practice, round and round in your home or backyard, or a park, beach or other spot where hopefully you won’t be bothered by anything.
A very brief summary is that you maintain attention on the simplicity of your sensory experiences that are happening right now. Primarily it is your feet contacting and leaving the ground, the swing of the legs, and overall sense of your whole body. It is remembering to stay with one-step-at-a-time; this step right now is all there is.
There can be more to it of course – we could write and read about it all day – but it is more useful to practice. More beneficial to take hours of practice for every few minutes of reading one of the writers on the subject. The reading is to get a little fresh input on how you go about it.
There is one other beginner element that makes a lovely addition: gratitude. As you walk remind yourself to be grateful that you can walk and move about upon this earth. Some people cannot. Even if you move imperfectly due to injury or pain you still have the blessing of movement. If a person confined to a wheelchair is reading this I would love to have a discussion with you about how you bring mindfulness to your unique way of moving about.
Now, the second approach. How about if you are just taking an ordinary walk, and decide that for five or ten minutes you want to apply more mindfulness to your experience? Perhaps you need to walk to the shops or you decide to take a walk for exercise.
In this situation you probably prefer to walk at a more normal pace, unless you want a few passers-by to stare or make comments. However, I should relate my own experience of this from nearly 30 years ago.
Through much of the 1980s I lived in California. I regularly attended a Yoga / Meditation centre in San Francisco and mixed with a lot of people interested in meditation. I remember going to a weekend Buddhist meditation workshop held in a little town to the north – perhaps Santa Rosa or San Raphael if memory serves me. It was in a hall in the main shopping street. The leader had us go outside several times to do ‘walking meditation’ up and down the main road through the middle of town!
So we had about 30 people, dressed in all manner of colourful ‘hippy’ clothing, utterly absorbed in our very slow walking through the throng of busy shoppers and coffee shop people. And guess what? Perhaps California is different to anywhere else on earth, but I don’t remember anybody saying anything to us or even giving us funny looks. My guess is that in most towns of Australia it would be a different experience, hopefully humourous though.
Anyway, you may find it better to walk along at a more normal pace, letting arms and body swing in a free and easy way. But still, as best you can, bring great attention to your footfall, to the feel of feet contacting and coming off the ground. Keep coming back to that, and also from time to time letting your attention scan right through your body. Let yourself get fully immersed in the experience of the rhythm of movement, in how your body swings and moves right now. Just this step … this breath … this moment now.
In this kind of walking you will also be attuned to what you can see and hear. Can you keep your attention on simply seeing, without going into further thought and commentary on what you see? Likewise with hearing, just ‘bare hearing’, hearing sounds as they are without further commentary.
You don’t actually become mindless or unaware. If any sound is an alarm of danger that you need to respond to you will find that a part of your unconscious mind is looking out for you in that respect. You will hear it and take action. In fact it is safer to be focusing our awareness in this mindful way, than to be walking along lost in daydreams or planning.
You may well find that focusing a part of your everyday walk in this way acts as a real break, a pause and a relief from compulsive, over-active thinking. It makes taking a walk an even better stress reliever than it already is. If you are not part of a group that practises these things, see how you go yourself with ‘taking one step at a time’; with appreciating just this step NOW.