In this article, we’ll explore the basics of walking meditation, and we’ll also cover how you can be more mindful while on move.
We often overlook the tremendous potential of the simplest things in our lives. Consider walking. It’s something virtually all of us do every day of our lives, yet how much attention do we even give to this basic aspect of our existence?
The vast majority of our walking is spent in mindlessness, eager to get from one place to another with nary a thought about how we’re getting there. It’s quite a metaphor for the way we live our lives.
I. Walking Meditation
Although most of us give little consideration to the activity of walking, some of the most thoughtful among us have been keenly aware of its importance. Walking need not be just a way to move our brains around; walking can help improve the way those brains work.
Being physically calm, as we have observed, helps foster the mental tranquillity necessary for moment-to-moment awareness. However, bodily stillness is not essential to mindfulness; it merely helps promote it, especially for those who are in the initial stages of learning the practice.
Walking meditation shares the same goal as all practices in this tradition—that of gaining deeper awareness—but it approaches that objective in a different and complementary way from the techniques that involve physical stillness. In this way, walking meditation provides a balance to the other practices.
Many practitioners have come to prefer walking mindfulness to the motionless forms of meditation because the walking practice can be more versatile than sitting: It doesn’t require a particular setting or equipment, such as a chair or cushion.
Before you try this form of meditation during a stroll in the park or on the way from the car to the office, it’s a good idea to get some experience in a special setting that is free from distractions and hazards so that you can master the basic technique.
Like sitting meditation, walking has several variations that you can explore to help you design the practice that is most effective for you. Experiment with these variations to determine which techniques best sharpen your awareness.
II. Preparing for Walking Meditation
To begin the practice of walking meditation, you must first find a suitable location. You can walk within the privacy of your own home, your backyard, or any other space free from dangers and distractions. The fresh air of the outdoors, of course, has much to recommend it.
The space for walking doesn’t need to be large, but you will be walking back and forth on this space. You’ll start at one end, walk to the other end, turn around, and walk the other way—repeating this many times.
The space doesn’t need to be demarcated in any way; you can simply set the boundaries in your imagination. The surface of the walkway only needs to be level and stable. If you walk barefoot— which is a very pleasant thing to do—just make sure the walking surface will not endanger your feet.
Like sitting meditation, there is no single best time for practicing walking meditation. If you can do so, however, walking just before or just after sitting meditation is beneficial; walking and sitting alternately has a synergistic effect on mindfulness. Whereas sitting meditation after a meal can lead to drowsiness, research suggests that a gentle walk after eating can be healthy and invigorating.
Before you begin, make sure you’re wearing comfortable clothing, appropriate to your environment. Divest yourself of needless sources of distraction or discomfort, such as cell phones or music players. You may want to stretch a bit to loosen and relax your muscles. Do whatever is necessary to maximize your sense of freedom.
III. Walking Meditation in Practice
When you’re ready to start your mediation, take your place at one end of your walkway. Stand tall with your spine upright, and your shoulders relaxed, letting your arms hang naturally by your sides. Keep your chin level with the ground. Relax your jaw and smile slightly. Take a few slow, deep breaths.
Using a body scan, briefly survey the different areas of your body from the feet to the top of your head, releasing any tension as you do. For a few moments, simply stand there and observe the sensations of your body. Take a moment to appreciate your surroundings and the feel and fragrance of the air.
Note: It may be beneficial to engage in basic walking practice outdoors with fresh air.
Pay special attention to the sensations at the bottom of your feet. If you’re barefoot, allow yourself to completely feel the qualities of your walking surface. Wiggle your toes a bit to let them sense the textures under your feet.
As you prepare to walk, remind yourself of your intention to be mindful during this exercise, just as you do at the beginning of sitting meditation. Now, focus your vision on the ground about five or six feet in front of you, but don’t gaze at anything in particular. You’ll keep your eyes open during the entire meditation.
You can place your hands in front of you or behind. If you hold them in front, you may put one hand in the other, as in sitting meditation. If you put them behind you, let one hand clasp the other and allow them to rest against the back. You can also allow the arms to remain at your sides and swing slightly as you move.
Now, begin to walk, using small, careful steps. Mindfully, lift your right foot, move it forward, and place it on the ground a few inches beyond the toes of your left foot. Then, allow your weight to shift onto your right leg, and mindfully lift your left foot. Then, move it and place it on the ground a few inches beyond the toes of your right foot. Shift the weight of your body forward onto your left leg. Repeat.
It’s basic walking, of course, except with greater attention to the experience. At first, walking with attentiveness may feel awkward. Beginning practitioners sometimes even lose their balance because they’re trying to be conscious of what is ordinarily an unconscious process. The awkwardness will dissipate as you become accustomed to the pace and deliberate style of the practice.
As you move, be sure to retain an upright posture. Many people walk improperly, allowing their head and upper torso to lead their body. To maintain a correct carriage as you walk, imagine the rest of your body being led forward by the belly rather than by the head and chest.
Initially, you may find it helpful to coordinate your movements with your breath. On the inhalation, you can lift and move the foot, and as you exhale, you can place the foot and shift your weight. You’ll probably discover, however, that your breath and bodily movements will fall into a natural, synchronized rhythm after a while.
This natural rhythm will allow your mind and body to relax. When you sense this harmony, you can withdraw your attention from the breath. Unlike sitting, in walking practice, we allow the breath to fade into the background and place our attention on other bodily sensations.
IV. Focusing Awareness
There are several places where you may focus your awareness. Some instructors recommend attending to the legs and feet while silently labeling the three parts of each step—lifting, moving, and placing. You may find this technique helpful for your practice but only use it in the initial stages of learning.
An alternative method involves focusing your awareness on the sensations of your feet as they make contact with the ground. This technique is most effective when you’re walking barefoot. Due to a high concentration of nerve endings, the bottoms of the feet are among the most sensitive areas of the body. Consequently, they provide an excellent anchor for attention.
If you find yourself distracted by a thought or an emotion, you can gently return attention to the soles of the feet. If you find it helpful, you can pause to refocus your awareness and then resume your walk. As in other forms of meditation, allow your mind to be relaxed and focused.
A third technique is to direct your awareness to the sensation of your body as a whole. Rather than concentrate on a particular part, try to gain a sense of the body as a single organism. Be open and attentive to whatever experiences come your way. This method is especially useful when you want to practice walking mindfully at a faster pace.
Regardless of the technique you choose, your objective is to keep your attention on each moment, as time moves from one instant to the next. If at any moment you wish to stop and enjoy your environment—to watch the leaves fall or to listen to a sparrow’s chirp—you should feel free to do so.
V. Completing the Walk
When you reach the end of your path, come to a complete stop. Stand still and observe your whole body. If you wish, you can do a brief body scan or simply take a few moments to enjoy the sensation of being alive. You can walk for as long or as short a period as you like, but 30 minutes is a good time for beginners and experienced practitioners.
When you are ready, begin slowly and mindfully to turn around 180 degrees. Stop your turn when you’re facing the other end of the walkway. Once again, set your intention to be mindful during the next segment and begin again.
Once you’ve become accustomed to the basic skills of mindful walking, you’re free to vary the practice in ways that you find meaningful. As you walk, you might recite a gaatha, a short verse from the Buddhist tradition that focuses the mind on a wholesome thought.
Walking practice can also be modified to emphasize our full attentiveness in the present moment. One way to use walking for this purpose is to stop at each step and bring your complete attention to that moment before taking another step. By so doing, you’re reminding yourself that life is a series of present moments.
Walking can also be a way of imagining letting go. With each pace, you can envision leaving your anxieties and worries behind and taking a fresh step into a new moment. It’s important to remember that although you’re walking, you’re not going anywhere. Walking meditation has no destination but awareness.
VI. Being Mindful Anywhere
Anytime you walk, you can be mindful. Your pace will probably be brisker than the formal practice, and you’ll probably find it most helpful to stay aware of your entire body as it moves, rather than focusing on the feet. Rather than thinking about your destination, stay focused on the act of walking.
Anytime is a good time to walk mindfully, but this practice is especially helpful when you get angry. The next time you’ve taken with anger, try to walk mindfully. You’ll discover that it cools the fires of rage.
Another variation on the practice involves using a contemplative tool that has regained popularity among many Christians in recent years. Labyrinths are intricate structures or patterns that define a pathway; they have been found in a wide range of cultures throughout history and assume a variety of different shapes.
A labyrinth should not be confused with a maze, which is a kind of puzzle with many pathway options. You can get lost in a maze, and the goal is to find a way out. A labyrinth, however, has only a single route. It has twists and turns like a maze—but no branches offering alternative paths.
VII. Terms to Remember:
Gaatha: A short verse from the Buddhist tradition that focuses the mind on a wholesome thought.
Labyrinth: Intricate structures or patterns that define a pathway; it has twists and turns but only a single route.
Maze: A kind of puzzle with many pathway options; one can get lost in a maze, and the goal is to find a way out.
VIII. Things to Consider:
- Why do you think philosophers such as Nietzsche, Kant, and Thoreau considered walking essential to their creativity?
- Do sitting and walking meditation affect your mind differently? What are the differences? Which style do you prefer and why?