In walking meditation we use the experience of walking as our focus. We become mindful of our experience while walking, and try to keep our awareness involved with the experience of walking. Actually, there are several different kinds of walking meditation. We’ll just be looking at one of them in detail, although we’ll touch on the others. Once you’ve mastered one form, you’ll easily be able to pick up the others.
Obviously, there are some differences between walking meditation and sitting meditation. For one thing we keep our eyes open during walking meditation! That difference implies other changes in the way we do the practice. We are not withdrawing our attention from the outside world to the same extent that we do when we are doing the Mindfulness of Breathing or Metta Bhavana (development of lovingkindness) practices.
We have to be aware of things outside of ourselves (objects we might trip over, other people that we might walk into) and there are many other things outside of ourselves that we will be more aware of than when we are doing sitting – especially if we sit inside. These include the wind, the sun, and the rain; and the sounds of nature and of humans and machines.
But one of the biggest differences is that it’s easier, for most people, to be more intensely and more easily aware of their bodies while doing walking meditation, compared to sitting forms of practice. When your body is in motion, it is generally easier to be aware of it compared to when you are sitting still. When we’re sitting still in meditation the sensations that arise in the body are much more subtle and harder to pay attention to than those that arise while we’re walking, This can make walking meditation an intense experience. You can experience your body very intensely, and you can also find intense enjoyment from this practice.
The practice of walking meditation can also be fitted in to the gaps in our lives quite easily. Even walking from the car into the supermarket can be an opportunity for a minute’s walking meditation.
The form of walking meditation we’ll be introducing here is best done outdoors. For your first attempt, you might want to find a park or open space where you will be able to walk for twenty minutes without encountering traffic.
Why Walking Meditation ?
Some students have a sneaking suspicion that walking meditation is not really meditation at all, or that it’s perhaps a sort of watered down meditation. I think these suspicions are unfounded, and are probably based on the misconception that in order to do meditation you have to be sitting still.
This is probably a very similar misconception to the idea that you can only really meditate well in full lotus position. Both misconceptions are trying to define meditation in terms of what is happening outwardly, rather than in terms of what you are doing internally. Meditation is a process of developing greater awareness so that we can make changes to our consciousness so that we can be more deeply fulfilled, and have a greater understanding of life. It’s essentially an inner activity.
This might seem to be somewhat contradictory to all of the emphasis to have placed on having a good posture in meditation. But in emphasizing a good posture, all I am doing is encouraging you to set up the best possible conditions for developing greater awareness in order to achieve our desired goals of greater awareness, deeper fulfillment, and greater understanding.
Meditation in actionWalking meditation is meditation in action. When we do walking meditation, we are using the physical, mental, and emotional experiences of walking as the basis of developing greater awareness.
Walking meditation is an excellent way of developing our ability to take awareness into our ordinary lives. Any able-bodied person under normal circumstances does at least some walking everyday – even if it’s just walking from the house to the car, and the car to the office. Walking meditation is an excellent way to squeeze more meditation into the day — you can do it anytime you’re walking. Once we have learned how to do walking meditation, each spell of walking – however short – can be used as a meditation practice.
Maintaining awareness The great thing about walking meditation is that you can do it anytime you are walking — even in the noise and bustle of a big city. In fact it’s especially good (even necessary) to do it in a big city, with all the distractions of people and noise, and shop windows tying to catch your attention. When I used to walk through the city center in Glasgow, Scotland, I often used to practice walking meditation. At first, it would be very difficult to keep my awareness involved with my walking. Artfully designed shop window displays and advertisements would be beckoning to me, and my eyes would involuntarily flick to the side as if afraid of missing anything. Attractive people would parade past, dressed in their most eye-catching clothes, and my neck would yearn to turn to squeeze every last moment of enjoyment out of the experience of seeing them. But soon, I began to feel increasingly comfortable keeping my eyes directed forwards.
Regaining wholeness I realized that there was a kind of battle going on. Advertisers and shop window designers were trying to capture some of my awareness, and I was trying to hold onto it. And when I began to realize that I was winning the battle, I would feel a surge of joy and exultation. I then realized that the normal state of distractedness in which I would normally walk down a busy street was deeply unsatisfactory. When your attention is constantly seeking satisfaction outside of yourself – through glancing at consumer goods or at attractive passers-by – then your internal experience becomes fragmented, as if you’re leaving parts of yourself strewn along the city streets. In this state of fragmentation, it is even harder to find sources of fulfillment within. This leads to a vicious cycle, where we feel increasingly hollow and fragmented as we seek fulfillment outside ourselves.
Practicing walking meditation is a way of “de-fragmenting” our minds. One of the literal meanings of the word “sati” (usually translated as “mindfulness”) is “recollection.” In practicing mindfulness we are “re-collecting” the fragmented parts of our psyches, and reintegrating them into a whole. As we become more whole, we become more contented and more fulfilled. This is one of the main benefits and aims of the practice of mindfulness.
How to Do Walking Meditation
I believe that the best way to learn this practice is to be led through it. In one way this practice is simpler than any of the others we teach on Wildmind: one simply takes one’s awareness through one’s experience while walking. But in other ways it’s more complex — simply because there is a lot you can be aware of while doing walking meditation.
So it’s easiest to be talked through the practice. I’ve prepared an audio CD that will guide you through the practice, in a guided meditation lasting just under 20 minutes.
You can also try walking meditation on your own. To give you an idea of what this practice involves, you might want to read this transcript, which represents the kind of thing I generally say when leading walking meditation. There is a CD available which contains a guided session of walking meditation, as well as other meditation practices.
Standing So, to begin this period of walking meditation, first of all let’s simply stand. Just stand on the spot, being aware of your weight being transferred through the soles of your feet into the earth. Being aware of all of the subtle movements that go on in order to keep us balanced and upright. Very often we take this for granted, our ability to be able to stand upright. But actually, it took us a couple of years to learn how to do this. So be aware of the constant adjustments that you’re making in order to maintain your balance.
Walking And then you can begin to walk at a fairly slow but normal walking pace, and in a normal manner. We’re not going to be changing the way that we walk; we’re simply going to be aware of it.
Awareness of your body So first of all, keep in attention in the soles of your feet, being aware of the alternating patterns of contact and release; being aware of your foot as the heel first makes contact, as your foot rolls forward onto the ball, and then lifts and travels through the air. Be aware of all the different sensations in your feet, not just a contact in the soles of your feet but the contact between the toes, the feeling of the inside of your shoes, the fabric of your socks, and let your feet be as relaxed as you can. Become aware of your ankles. Notice the qualities of the sensations in those joints – as your foot is on the ground, as your foot travels through the air.
And let your ankle joints be relaxed – make sure you’re not holding on in any way. You can become aware of your lower legs – your shins, your calves. You can be aware of the contact with your clothing: be aware of the temperature on your skin; you can be aware of the muscles. And notice what the calf muscles are doing as you’re walking. You might even want to exaggerate for a few steps what the calf muscles are doing – just so that you can connect with that – and then let your walking go back to a normal relaxed rhythm. Encourage your calf muscles to be relaxed.
And then become aware of your knees- noticing the qualities of the sensations in your knee joints. Then expand your awareness into your thighs. Being aware of the skin, again the contact with your clothing, the temperature. Being aware of the muscles, and noticing what the muscles on the fronts of the thighs, and the muscles on the backs of the thighs are doing. And once more you might want for a few paces just to exaggerate what those muscles are doing – exaggerate the action of those muscles. And then letting your walk go back to a normal rhythm.
Becoming aware of your hips – the muscles around your hip joints — and relaxing those muscles. Really relax. Even when you think you’ve relaxed – relax them some more. And just notice how that changes your walk. Notice how the rhythm and the gait of your walk change as your hips relax. You can be aware of the whole of your pelvis – and notice all of the movements that are going on your pelvis. One hip moves forward and then the other; one hip lifting, the other sinking.
And you can be aware of the complex three-dimensional shape that your pelvis is carving out through space as you walk forwards. The lowest part of your spine – your sacrum – is embedded in the pelvis. So as you feel your spine extending upwards – the lumbar spine, the thoracic spine – you can notice how it moves along with the pelvis. Your spine is in constant motion. It’s swaying from side to side. There is a twisting motion around the central axis. Your spine is in constant, sinuous, sensuous motion.
Notice your belly – you might feel your clothing in contact with your belly – and notice how your belly is the center of your body. Very often it feels like it’s “down there” because we are so much in our heads. So seek to what extent you can feel your belly is the center of your body, as the center of your being. Notice your chest, and just let your breathing happen. Notice the contact that your chest makes with your clothing. Noticing your shoulders. Notice how they are moving with the rhythm of your walking. Let your shoulders be relaxed, and let your shoulders passively transmit the rhythm of your walk down into your arms. Having your arms simply hanging by your sides and swinging naturally. Notice all the motions in your arms – your upper arms, your elbows, your forearms, your wrists, your hands. And feel the air coursing over the skin on your hands and fingers as your arms swing through the air.
Become aware of your neck – and the muscles supporting your skull. Notice the angle of your head. And notice that as you relax the muscles on the back of your neck, your chin slightly tucks in and your skull comes to a point of balance. And you might want to play around with the angle of your head and see how it changes your experience. You might notice that when you tuck your chin close into your chest, your experience becomes darker and more emotional – that you’re more inward turned, somber. And if you lift your chin and hold it in the air you might notice that your experience becomes much lighter – that you become much more aware of the outside world and perhaps caught up in the outside world, or much more aware of your thoughts and caught up in your thoughts. And then, bringing your head back to a point of balance, your chin slightly tucked in.
Relax your jaw. Relax your eyes — and just let your eyes be softly focused, gently looking ahead – not staring at anything, not allowing yourself to be caught up in anything that’s going past you.
Feelings You can be aware of the feelings that you’re having; not in terms of emotions here, but just the feeling tone. Are there things that feel pleasant; are there things that feel unpleasant – in your body, or outside of you. So if you notice things in your body that are pleasant or unpleasant, just notice them. Don’t either cling onto them, or push them away, but just notice them. If you notice things in the outside world that are either pleasant or unpleasant, just allow them to drift by – just noticing them to drift by without following them or averting your gaze from them.
Thoughts and Emotions You can notice your emotional states. Are you bored? Are you content? Are you irritated? Are you feeling very happy to be doing what you’re doing. Again just noticing whatever emotions happen to be present. And notice your mind also. Is your mind clear, or dull? Is your mind busy, or is it calm? Are you thinking about things unconnected with this practice – or do whatever thoughts that you have center on what you’re doing just now. Just notice these things with no particular judgment – just noticing.
Balancing Inner and Outer And you can notice the balance between your experience of the inner and the outer. I often find that if I can be aware of both the inner world and the outer world in equal balance, then my mind settles at a point of stillness, and calmness, and clarity.
So see if you can find that point of balance, where you’re equally aware of the inner and the outer, and your mind is calm, content, and quiet.
Stopping So, in a few seconds, I’m going to ask you to stop. And I’d like you to come to a natural halt. So, you’re not freezing on the spot; you’re just allowing yourself to come to a stop. So do that now; come to a stop. And just experience yourself standing. Just notice what it’s like to no longer be in motion. Notice once more the complex balancing act that’s going on to keep you upright. Feeling once again, the weight traveling down through the soles of your feet into the earth; simply standing, and experiencing yourself and, finally, bringing this meditation session to a close.
The Stages of Walking Meditation
Walking meditation has no formal stages.
But there is a logical sequence to the practice, and this sequence is rooted in a traditional formulation called “the four foundations of mindfulness.”
These are four levels of experience in which we can anchor our minds to prevent them from being fragmented and strewn around like leaves torn from a tree in an autumn gale.
These levels are
our physical sensations
our mental and emotional states, and
objects of consciousness.
These four foundations give us a way of breaking down a very complex experience so that we can focus on one aspect at a time.
The four foundations crop up in many places in the Buddhist texts on meditation, and so these can be considered to be a very important teaching.
Essentially, these aren’t stages that we work through one at a time, like we do with the development of lovingkindness practice. Instead they are simply a tool to help us appreciate our experience. However because each foundation is more subtle than those preceding it, we’ll work through them in order.
We start with the physical sensations of the body, which are relatively easy to experience (except when — as often happens — we get lost in thought and all but “forget” that we have a body). We then progress to more subtle aspects of our experience.
We’ll look at each of these in foundations turn, and we’ll also look at how we start and end the practice.
H O W T O P R A C T I C E W A L K I N G M E D I T A T I O N