I walk a lot, always have. I walk especially when life seems upside down; when I am stuck; when I’m not sure where, or how, to move forward. I walk until things get better or become clearer. I tend to agree with Hippocrates that ‘walking is man’s best medicine.’
But more recently, my walks have taken on a different flavour. Rather than walking to ‘figure things out,’ I do so to get closer to, and to become more aware of, what just is. Mindfulness has become a recent buzzword, but the practice (quite simply an awareness and acceptance of the present moment) has been around for thousands of years in the Buddhist tradition. Walking meditation has become one of my favourite mindfulness practices. Moreover, walking meditation allows for an awareness of the inextricable link between mind and body (in Eastern traditions they are not distinct but instead seen as parts of the same whole). Finally, walking out in the open facilitates an appreciation of the connection between the individual as part of a greater, wider world. For these three reasons, I would go so far as to say that walking meditation, for me, has become a spiritual practice. And the practice is something so easy, so enjoyable, so accessible to all that I can’t stop blabbering on about its merits.
“If you are depressed, you are living in the past, if you are anxious, you are living in the future, if you are at peace, you are living in the present.’
– Lao Tzu
“The miracle is not to walk on water. It is to walk on this earth with awareness.”
-Thich Nhat Hanh
The ability to stay in the present is seriously lacking in most peoples’ lives; it is no coincidence depression and anxiety are on the ascent (and prescription medication to treat these). While most have at least a passing understanding that mindfulness, or the ability to remain attentive, alert and aware of what is happening in the here and now, is a pretty powerful and universally effective method to combat both (and a host of other ailments), far fewer incorporate a regular mindfulness practice into everyday life.
”There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophies.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche
The Embodied Mind/Mindful Body
A second ‘ailment’ of modern living is over-emphasis on the mind over the body. We strategise and analyse so much that our brains are in overdrive (cue anxiety) while neglecting the fact that there is so much wisdom in the body if we could just tap into it. Bodily sensations are the first form our emotions take; quite simply, emotions are expressed through the body. So the state of being ‘cut off’ from the body means we are equally so from our emotions. Enter a whole shopping list of ‘psychosomatic’ ailments. Walking meditation helps us cultivate an embodied experience in each moment. While sitting meditation often involves an increased awareness of the body as well, I find there is something about movement, the act of witnessing bodily changes while energy is moving and shifting that is particularly helpful.
Peace is the walk.
Happiness is the walk.
Walk for yourself
and you walk for everyone
– Thich Nhat Hanh
All to often we resort to viewing the world from a contracted position, a ‘bubble of me,’ one that can be regarded as a kind of prison of the self. Particularly when we are experiencing pain or sorrow, the inclination is to separate the perfect shade of black we’re experiencing from that anyone else has felt. Walking in the wider world offers perspective. We are not alone, far from it. At its most basic level, feet touching the earth, eyes and ears and all senses taking in the life all around us gives the comfort of interdependence, or interbeing as it is sometimes called. We are able to feel our interconnectedness with the largeness of the wider world and experience living from that place. Walking in this way is such an expansive exercise; it invites us to re-engage with the world around us rather than recoil into isolation.
”If you want to find the answers to the Big Questions about your soul, you’d best begin with the Little Answers about your body.”
– George Sheehan
A Walking Meditation Practice
Below I briefly describe a process that works for me and for some of my clients. But there are no rigid rules — the general format is meant to be played with, adapted according to your own personal needs and preferences. Moreover, the duration is up to you. A mere 10 minutes if that’s all you can manage, but 20 or 30 are preferable, and 90 minutes or more on a long weekend walk can be absolutely transformational. Moreover, while walking in a leafy green park or quiet meadow is a treat, the practice can equally be done walking through the city streets to work. In this way, it is extremely flexible and practical. The only ‘hard fast rule’ is that ALL attention is focused on sensations, emotions, observations and perceptions occurring in the present (when inevitable mind-wandering happens, just gently label this ‘thinking’ and return attention to either the breath or your footsteps). No matter how long you’ve been lost in thought, your footsteps are always there, and a returned focus on them, and the breath, can bring you back to the present moment.
As a reminder, walking meditation is a practice in mindfulness, body awareness and connectedness. It is not meant to be a ‘work out’ although the physical benefits are evident. In keeping with this, if you ever notice that the walk becomes more about the exercise (losing breath or focus), the pace should be slowed.
The six stages of this version of walking meditation can be summarised as: breathing, body, emotions, observations, play and reflections. These can be stretched out or shortened to meet the desired duration of the walk. As a general guideline, consider slowing everything, every stage right down. If one was merely ‘going through the motions,’ the full practice could be completed in 10 minutes or less. But doing so defeats the point. Walking meditation is time set aside for yourself as a gift to enjoy – don’t rush it!
Breathing. Start walking at a brisk but comfortable pace and turn your attention to your breathing. Notice the pressure of your feet touching the earth and the ensuing vibrations in the body. Time your breathing with your gait– breathe in over four steps/counts and out over four steps/counts. And stick with it ‘In, two three, four, out, two three four’ for several minutes. All attention is on the breath, and syncing it with the walking pace.
Body Awareness. The next phase is a body scan. Starting with the feeling of the your feet hitting the ground, take a few moments to ‘check in’ with each body part, scanning for niggles, tingling, any sensations; heaviness, lightness, pressure, energy, even pain. Simply be curious about these sensations, not trying to change them or make them different. When you get to the head, take care to give attention to each part, starting with the back of the neck. Once complete, reverse course and scan from the top of the head back down to the feet – this time, when noticing any tension or pain, breathe into these sensations and try to soften, gently relax. If this doesn’t work, just notice what you are feeling. Finally, spend a few moments reconnecting your breath with your footsteps.
Emotions. When you are done with the scan, spend a few moments trying to tap into your general emotional state, informed by sensations in your body. Do you feel anxious? Heavy? Optimistic? Happy? Try not to think too much about it; rather let your body and general sensations lead to an understanding of what emotions are present. Take a moment to breathe in to each emotion, naming it, without judgment. ‘I am feeling anxious, I am feeling heavy, weighed down…’
Observations. Walking mindfully involves more than just watching the scenery pass. All of our senses are involved. This is a further technique to anchor in the here and now through observations of surroundings. So often we rush through life without even noticing what is going on around us; staying conscious of the world around us, grounded in it, takes practice. So this phase of the meditation is for noticing with all senses (sight, hearing, taste, touch etc) what is going on in your immediate surroundings. ‘I am noticing a blue sky….I feel the warmth of the sun…etc…carry on just noticing and observing everything your senses pick up of your surroundings.
Play. If meditation is newer to you, it may first be useful to just stick with the above stages, perhaps revisiting a focus on the breath or the body here. For more experienced meditators, this is time to experiment playfully. The only caveat, as ever, is that the ‘experiments’ must stay in the present moment. As much as you can, be curious, open and accepting. Some possible activities are:
- Reciting a word or mantra – maybe just linking words ‘so hum’ (I am that) with your breaths (e.g., in breath, ‘so,’ breathe out ‘hum.’) Or doing the same with a mantra of your preference. Another option is merely inviting a quality in, repeating a word, say, courage, peace, or joy.
- Doing a thematic meditation, e.g., one on loving kindness, forgiveness, happiness, Tonglen (Tibetan Buddhist meditation on giving and receiving)…whatever you are working on in your own personal practice.
- Experimenting with the body :
Smile….smiling as you practice walking meditation will keep your steps calm and peaceful and give you a sense of ease. Actively turn the corners of your mouth up and see what changes. Return to a neutral facial position and again see what, if anything, feels different.
If you have a recurring bodily sensation – tense or hunched shoulders for example – experiment with exaggerating this tension/hunch for a period of seconds then letting go. What happens?
- Altering your pace –speed up a bit, slow down or even outright stop for a moment to focus on the weight of your body on your feet, supported by the earth below, feeling your muscles supporting and stabilizing you.
- Experimenting with seeing things in the foreground/background, shifting your focus from figure to ground and back. Same can be done with sounds.
- Asking the question ‘what if this were my last hour on earth’? May sound like a morbid thought, but one that has the effect of immediately focusing the mind on the here and now! Repeat the question – what comes up for you?
- Other repeated questions. E.g, ‘Who and what are you most grateful for?’ ‘What, in this moment, is getting in the way of wellbeing?’ There are so many important questions we can ask ourselves – get playful. Note I find it is useful to keep the questions in the second person (‘you’) rather than first (‘I’).
Reflection. For the last few minutes of the walk (or some may prefer sitting or lying down for this last part), check in again with your body and your emotions, noting any shifts or changes. Not necessarily redoing an entire body scan but perhaps returning to where there was a particular sensation that called your attention before – is it still there? What, if anything, has changed? Has your overall emotional state shifted in the period of the walk? Note it! Finally, give time for celebration, appreciating that you have taken the time out to honour yourself, your body and your surroundings. We are often so tough on ourselves and critical of our bodies. This is a time to be grateful we can engage in moving our body and listening to the self, without any meddlesome judgment.