Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Walking Meditation...

The past week has felt like spring here in Vancouver even though it is still February - the sun is shining, the crocuses and daffodils are blooming and hundreds of people are out walking in the parks and pathways.

Walking meditation is a wonderful way to bring moment-to- moment awareness to our daily lives and thus reduce the autonomic arousal (fight or flight response) that comes with compassion fatigue. It is simple to practice, though it does take practice, and it is especially helpful for people who find it difficult to sit still for other forms of meditation.

Walking meditation, according to stress reduction expert, Jon Kabat-Zinn, means "simply walking and knowing that you are walking. It does not mean looking at your feet! ... Walking meditation involves intentionally attending to the experience of walking itself. It involves focusing on the sensations in your feet or your legs or, alternatively, feeling your whole body moving. You can also integrate awareness of your breathing with the experience of walking."

Buddhist monk, Thicht Nhat Hanh, writes that walking meditation is "going without arriving":

In our daily lives, we usually feel pressured to move ahead. We have to hurry. We seldom ask ourselves where it is that we must hurry to.

When you practice walking meditation, you go for a stroll. You have no purpose or direction in space or time. The purpose of walking meditation is walking meditation itself. Going is important, not arriving. Walking meditation is not a means to an end; it is an end. Each step is life; each step is peace and joy. That is why we don't have to hurry. That is why we slow down. We seem to move forward, but we don't go anywhere; we are not drawn by a goal. Thus we smile while we are walking...

Take short steps in complete relaxation; go slowly with a smile on your lips, with your heart open to an experience of peace. You can feel truly at ease with yourself. Your steps can be those of the healthiest, most secure person on earth. All sorrows and worries can drop away while you are walking. To have peace of mind, to attain self-liberation, learn to walk in this way. It is not difficult. You can do it. Anyone can do it who has some degree of mindfulness and a true intention to be happy.

So, how, exactly, do we begin a practice of walking meditation?

Where and when. Choose a safe spot to walk - preferably outside, perhaps in a park, on a quiet even pathway, or along the shore of a stream though walking the perimeter of your living room or bedroom is also quite adequate. (People have even practiced in small prison cells and concentration camps.) Begin with a specific length of time in mind - at least 10 minutes a day - and gradually increase that time. Early morning may be best if you tend to lose available time as the day goes on but any time will work.

How to start. Begin by standing still for a little while, allowing yourself to become aware of your body. Take a few deep, mindful breaths then let your breathing return to normal. Become completely aware of the sensations of your breathing and stay with that awareness for a little while. Then bring your awareness to your body, noticing all the sensations of standing still with your feet on the ground.

Begin walking. Walk at a slow, relaxed pace, in silence internally and externally. Soften your vision, allowing your eyes to relax and to focus upon nothing yet remaining aware of everything. Keep returning your attention to what is going on internally. The idea is to have your attention on the physical experience of walking - the alternation from right foot to left foot and back, the swinging of your arms and legs, the feeling of your feet against your shoes and your shoes upon the ground. To begin with, keep your mindfulness strong by focusing on only one aspect of your walking. Later, you can adjust your awareness to take in more. Wherever you encounter tension let it go. If you are distracted by thoughts of the past or the future, let them go as well and return to your inner experience of walking.

We can practice walking meditation any time we walk, be it in the early hours as we comfort a wakeful baby or in the evening as we walk home from work, but it is also a good thing to practice more formally, as Jon Kabat-Zinn says, "... back and forth, step by step, moment by moment, walking gently on the earth, in step with your life, being exactly where you are."

If you would like to read more about walking meditation, you might try Jon Kabat-Zinn's, Full Catastrophe Living or Thicht Nacht Hanh's, Being Peace.


Satia said...

I'm beginning to feel a bit like a book recommending stalker but . . .

Thich Nhat Hanh has a lovely book Walking Meditation that includes a dvd and a cd. It is a wonderful way to explore walking meditation because the text is, as all of They's writings are, simple but eloquent. The dvd gives a clear visual of the slow pace of walking meditation (for those who have never participated in a walking meditation) and the cd has two or three guided walking meditations.

Jan Spilman, MEd, RCC Compassion Fatigue Specialist said...

Thank you for the reminder, Satia. I had given Walking Meditation to a friend for his birthday a few years ago and then completely forgotten about it. It's a wonderful book! Jan