Finding a healing pace; can we meditate whilst walking? By Fiona Lines
Most of us walk on a regular basis. We walk to work, to catch a bus, and to the kitchen when we want a cup of tea. We walk in country parks, up hills and through woodland. We walk our dogs, with our children and partners, and alone. We go on holiday to walk, for fitness, to meet personal goals or for sheer enjoyment. We walk out of choice and we walk because we might have no other way of getting around. As I see and experience it, just as those indigenous people living in the far north have many words for snow, so walking can be subdivided.
As humans, walking is our primary mode of transport. Can it be a form of meditation too?
It would be handy if so. Think of all that time we could save as we double task! This got me thinking. My students sometimes tell me they find it difficult to meditate at home. They live in busy households with very little time and space to call their own. I started to wonder; could walking meditation be a way to find calm amid a home life full of distractions?
Why meditate whilst walking?
For a start, walking is something that can be done anywhere, and alone. It might be easier to leave the house for 20 minutes than get everyone to be quiet so you can search for inner peace in the spare room. Or perhaps a lunch break at the office is the only time available. In our busy lives, we might as well try to find a bit of calm when we can; going outside and putting one foot in front of the other would seem to be as good a time as any.
Walking is also an ideal entry point into meditation for those that struggle to focus whilst seated. This is because when we focus on walking it becomes more difficult for thoughts to wander. The mind has something to concentrate on in the physical movement of the body, which takes it away from things that might otherwise draw our attention. Once the mind is easily quietened during a walking meditation practice a seated meditation might come more easily, even if you can hear the TV in the background and the dog decides to sit on your lap.
Along with the general benefits associated with meditation, walking meditations also help to condition the body, building fitness and exercising restless muscles. Through the locations where walking meditation is practiced, we may experience a heightened appreciation of our environment and a sense of belonging with the world, particularly if we employ mindfulness techniques to open the senses.
Is it really meditation?
The definition of meditation is very broad. Some people consider that meditation must always look inwards, away from the external world, which rules out even some established walking meditation practices. The argument goes that whilst we walk, we need to engage practically with our environment to avoid obstacles and walk in our chosen direction; we cannot turn our attention inwards. However, I like the explanation that it’s all to do with what’s happening inside of us, regardless of what our physical body is doing. Walking and seated meditations are different but can both be enjoyed to great benefit.
Types of walking meditation
Walking back and forth on a single path is a common type of Buddhist meditation. Because there are no new physical obstacles for the mind to negotiate, awareness can be turned inwards more easily than in other types of walking meditation, and there is no change in terrain which might cause shortness of breath. The pace is generally slow, thoughtful and methodical.
In the same way that during seated meditation it is often helpful to focus on the breath, during this kind of walking meditation it might also be helpful to focus on the soles of the feet, using them as an anchor to the present moment when new thoughts arise.
You may have seen labyrinths on the ground in parks or retreat centres. They look a bit like circular mazes and present a single walking route that requires no conscious thought to navigate. Similar to the Buddhist walking meditation outlined above, labyrinth walking helps to take away external distractions. You can create your own labyrinth (there is plenty of advice online if you do a quick search) which could easily fit into most back gardens.
Mantras are another way to turn a regular walk into a walking meditation. The inspirational Tich Nhat Hanh suggests repeating “Breathing in, we say to ourselves, I have arrived. Breathing out, we say, I am home”. He also suggests counting steps using words that evoke beautiful images. For example, with strides that are in time with the breath, we say to ourselves “walking on the green planet”, becoming one with the earth at every step.
Mindful walking meditation is a lovely way to feel present in your body and environment. Whilst some forms of walking meditation try to eliminate opportunities for the mind to turn to its surroundings, others encourage us to reach out externally. Touch, feel, smell and taste combine to give the experience of being truly present in your environment. For me, in my teaching and personal practice, mindfully walking through the world is where walking meditation excels. As I walk and open my senses I feel more at one with my surroundings. As naturalist John Muir wrote, “Most people are on the world, not in it – have no conscious sympathy of relationship to anything about them – undiffused, separate, and rigidly alone like marbles of polished stone, touching but separate.” Mindful walking meditations help us to better understand our relationship with the world around us.
Walking meditation as a part of everyday life
This potent tool can help us discover in ourselves a sense of calm. Even better, it is accessible to most of us, most of the time, and could be the key to fitting a daily meditation practice into busy lives. In the words of Tich Nhat Hanh: “When we practice walking meditation, we arrive in each moment. Our true home is in the present moment. When we enter the present moment deeply, our regrets and sorrows disappear, and we discover life with all its wonders.”
Fiona Lines is the founder of yoga retreats company Cowdance (cowdance.co.uk)