Doesn’t it sometimes seem like we are always going somewhere? Even when we are sitting perfectly still it feels like we are, or should be, going somewhere or moving towards some “thing.” If you feel this way it is a sure sign that you have stress in your life.
While it is important to have goals and destinations, it is unhealthy for the mind to remain in a constant state of activity. In the extremes this is called obsession. Sometimes it is best to detach from the demands of getting somewhere, allowing yourself time to reflect and reenergize.
There are ways to both calm your mind, allowing yourself to relax and detach from the stresses of life, and at the same time actually improve your effectiveness in achieving your goals.
One way is to learn and practice walking meditation.
What is walking meditation?
When you think of meditation you may envision someone who is stationary, sitting or lying in a comfortable and relaxed position. Typically, this sort of meditation involves closed eyes and inward focus, such as on breathing, mantras, or imagery. Sometimes this form of meditation may focus outwards, but remains stationary.
There are some obvious differences between walking meditation and stationary meditation. The most obvious difference is motion. In walking meditation we are…well… walking. Since we are walking we will keep our eyes open, and we maintain awareness of the world around us. We do not want to trip over a stump, or get run over by a bicycle, after all.
By maintaining awareness of our environment we will open ourselves up to new experiences not usually encountered with stationary mediation, such as wind, rain, other people, and the sounds around us. We may even speak to people we pass, or reach out and touch a tree branch, or otherwise interact with our environment as we walk.
However, this awareness and interaction with our environment should not imply that we are not really meditating, or that we remain unaware of the internal states within ourselves. In fact, when we are in motion it is easier for most of us to be more aware of the physical sensations within our bodies. Walking meditation uses our movement, and the feelings and sensations involved with it, as the focus of our meditation.
We become mindful of only the experience of walking – the feelings within and on our body as our feet meet with the ground and we move forward, our feelings and mental states as we walk, and perhaps a heightened awareness of the environment along our path.
The benefits of walking meditation
Walking meditation is easy to learn and convenient to do. Think about it. How much do you walk each day? Even if you spend most of your day at a desk, you probably walk several miles every day when you total it all up.
With walking meditation there is no real need to walk for extended periods to gain benefit. Once you learn the process and become used to the practice of walking meditation you can employ it even on very short trips, such as when you walk from your house to your car, or from your desk to the break room.
Walking meditation uses the physical, mental and emotional experiences of walking to increase our awareness. It does not matter if you are in the forest, or in New York City, you can gain benefit through walking meditation. When you really master the art of walking meditation just about every walk, no matter the distance, can be a meditative experience.
How does walking meditation work?
I recommend you choose a quite and safe place when you first start learning walking meditation. I often walk on the beach at night (Carpinteria State Beach is known as the safest beach in the country). You could also choose a safe park, garden path, or even your own back yard.
Dress comfortably, take a long, deep breath, and start walking slowly. Focus your attention on your path, noticing each blade of grass, each flower, definitely each hole or stump! Notice how each part of your foot feels as it makes contact with and rolls over the path. Is it soft? Are there stones on the path? Is it level? Really get in touch with all of the physical sensations within your body as you take each step along your path. Notice the feeling of each muscle in your foot, legs, hips – all of the muscles in your body – as you walk.
After you have reached a state of heightened awareness of the path and the sensations within you body, allow yourself to become more aware of your feelings as you walk. How do you feel about the path, about the action of walking, about the environment around you? Do you like the path? Are you happy to be walking? Do you feel comfortable in the environment?
When you are aware of your feelings, allow yourself to also become aware of your emotions and internal states. Are you content? Anxious? Bored? Confused? Irritated? Relaxed? Do not be disturbed if you are bored, or irritated because you don’t see the point of the exercise. Simply allow these emotions to pass without judgment, and continue the meditation.
As you walk you will no doubt have distractions that draw your attention away from the moment; away from awareness of each step, each sensation, each feeling or each emotion. The distraction may be a thought, or a noise, or an object such as a bird flying across your path. As long as it is safe to do so, simply acknowledge the distraction without judgment and allow your attention to return to the moment in mediation.
As you practice you will become more adept at walking meditation, and more aware. You will learn to balance the inner and outer experiences – the awareness of self with the awareness of environment – in a way that is harmonious and conducive to mediation.
Starting out, you may find it useful to practice walking meditation 15-20 minutes each day. As you become more skilled at the practice, you will find that even very short walks can be an opportunity to practice and a great source for learning and stress relief.
How I practice walking meditation
For me, walking meditation is an addition to my daily stationary meditation practice. I use it at different parts of the day when I feel stress building, or when I am stumped by a problem. Since I work from home, it’s very easy for me to simply walk outside and take a stroll through my back yard. If I want to have a longer meditation I can walk down the street, or even to the beach a block away.
Each evening I take my daughter for a walk on the beach. This is usually a 45 minute to an hour walk and is an excellent opportunity to practice a longer walking meditation. I feel very safe on the beach, and it is a tranquil and calming place for me in the evenings. As I walk I am aware of Scarlet in her carrier, of the waves, the birds, the feeling of the sand giving way as I walk.
Some nights I am treated with elaborate sand castles or sand art from the afternoon. Occasionally, there are people on the beach enjoying the atmosphere, or the sounds of people at the campsites.
As I walk I often have to remind myself that I really have nowhere to go. I am there, walking, to enjoy the moment.
Perhaps you could try walking meditation and see what its like to walk with nowhere to go.