Part 4 of a Five Part series on Techniques You Can Use to Start Practicing Mindfulness
Walking meditation is a form of meditation that is done while walking slowly. The movement makes walking meditation easier for some people than sitting meditation. Just as people have different positions that are comfortable for sitting meditation, there are also a variety of ways to practice walking meditation.
Just as with other mindfulness exercises we’ve discussed in this series, walking meditation is yet another way to interrupt the flow of random thoughts by focusing on the body and on physical sensations. Unlike sitting on a meditation cushion, walking meditation requires a bit more interaction with the world for our own safety.
In fact, not to be alarmist, but when you are going to practice walking meditation it is best to be sure you are in a fairly secure environment. Don’t wear headphones while doing this and walk where you can go slowly without getting run down by cars, joggers or bicyclists. Keep in mind that while it may be ideal to walk outdoors, you can walk anywhere–at the mall, in the gym, wherever.
You should walk at a slow pace. The best pace for walking will vary somewhat with each individual and you should discover that pace pretty naturally if you are paying attention to your breath and body. You can practice walking meditation at any pace, even when you are going here and there during your normal day, but it’s good to assume a slower pace when you are deliberately practicing.
You should wear comfortable shoes for walking meditation. The idea is to be aware of our physical sensations, but this shouldn’t include discomfort from our footwear! If you are practicing in an area where it is safe to do so you might enjoy practicing barefoot. Walking barefoot on the Earth is a powerful connection for us, and it is a practice all it’s own, called ‘grounding’ or ‘earthing.’
While you are walking your mind will wander. Just as when you are sitting in meditation, it’s a question of ‘when’ not ‘if.’ As in sitting meditation, gently refocus your mind–in this case focusing on your walking, bringing awareness to your steps, your feet, and your movement.
Walking meditation can be as formal or informal as you’d like. In the end, it’s completely up to you. Practiced by Theraveda Buddhist monks, it’s a somewhat formalized process where you are walking back and forth along a 30-40 foot path while focusing on your walking. You focus on each segment of the step–the lifting of your leg and the accompanying sensations, the moving down of the leg and the foot contacting the ground, the foot pushing off into the next step, and so on. In practicing this way we become aware of the cycle of each step, rising and falling, coming and going.
Zen walking meditation is known as kinhin and it is formalized (because Zen). The hands are held in a specific mudra, or position, with one hand forming a fist and the other covering that hand. The upper body is held as in sitting meditation and practitioners walk slowly around the meditation hall in a clockwise circle. Kinhin is generally practiced between periods of sitting meditation (zazen).
Walking meditation can be done much less formally as well. If you are walking in an area that is beautiful or has many trees, flowers, birds or other natural elements, you may find yourself drawn to observe them. There is no reason not to do so. Simply make them objects of your meditation. If you wish to stop walking to look, go ahead and do so. Transfer your attention to whatever you are watching.
Walking in nature has long been thought to be restorative to human beings, and science is now producing evidence of that. English writers such as Coleridge, Keats and Shelley were inspired by the English countryside. In the United States Emerson, Thoreau and other Transcendentalists elevated nature to the sacred. Naturalist John Muir touches on this sacredness while expressing a dislike for more goal-oriented hiking:
“I don’t like either the word [hike] or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains – not ‘hike!’ Do you know the origin of that word saunter? It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre’, ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.”John Muir
Just as with anything else you do, your practice of walking meditation is your own and it makes sense to do it in the way that works best for you. The simple act of being outside or of being mindful of your body as you walk can help you develop focus as well as restoring your body, mind and spirit.