Recently I had the occasion to reread my blog posting on how to practice mindfulness meditation (January 19, 2010), and I realized that I had never gotten around to writing about walking meditation even though I had said that I would. This posting is about bringing our meditation practice into walking and, perhaps, also into other activities.
During formal group meditation retreats it is common for the leader to ring the meditation bell to signal the beginning of “walking meditation.” Like sitting practice, walking meditation practice is a formal practice, and it provides a kind of transition between the stillness practice of sitting and the activity of the rest of our waking lives. It is not unusual to discover that our minds get even more active in walking practice than they do in sitting. How much more wild are they likely to become when we actually get up and return to the normal busy-ness of our regular lives! So, walking practice is a kind of half-way stop on the journey toward bringing mindfulness into all of our lives.
How does one practice walking meditation? First, one does a period of sitting meditation. If you are new to sitting meditation, you might sit for about 20 minutes and then do a 5 minute period of walking practice. Or you might sit longer: 30, 45, or 60 minutes. Then, you would walk for around 10 minutes or so. After you walk, you go back to sitting again.
When you rise from your cushion or chair, you do it mindfully, paying attention to the sensations in your body as you make this shift. Maybe your foot has gone to sleep. Maybe there are stiff places. Just notice them and be gentle as you shift from sitting to walking. The older I get, the more pronounced this contrast is becoming!
Then, one begins to walk. There are different traditions. Some practice walking extremely slowly. This can be very interesting. Other traditions, including the one I was trained in, walk a bit slower than one walks outside on the sidewalk, but still not super slowly. Try walking slowly enough that you can notice your foot touching the ground: the heel, the sole, the toe. Then, the other foot: heel, sole, toe again. Instead of using the breath to anchor our practice, in walking we use the sensation of the feet touching the ground. Also notice your legs moving and the movement of your body through space.
If you practice in a group, you all move in a clockwise circle and rest your eyes on the back of the person in front of you. In a group it is actually a kind of shared practice. If the person in front of you is walking slower than you would like, you can notice the impulse that arises to do something to hurry him up. You are going too fast. If there is a big empty space in front of you in the circle and a number of people are starting to stack up behind you, you are probably going too slowly. You could move a little faster.
If you are practicing walking on your own, choose a place to walk in a circle or back and forth in a room. You could experiment with walking outdoors if it’s not too distracting. Again, pay attention to your feet and your sense of movement.
When the mind wanders or gets lost in thoughts, just gently return to the movement of the feet and the sensations of moving through the room.
There is a formal “mudra,” or hand gesture, that is sometimes taught for walking practice. One makes a relaxed fist with the left hand and places it at about the level of the solar plexus. Then, simply place your right hand gently around the left with your right thumb ending up on top of the left hand. Your elbows will be pointing out toward the sides. If this is unclear, it’s fine to just put your hands together somehow at about this same level. This helps you feel that the front of your body is open and that your back is strong. This posture is similar to sitting meditation in that way.
Let your gaze rest a little higher than you would in sitting practice, but resist getting caught up in looking around. It will can be tempting to do so! The idea is to continue your mindfulness practice and learn how to keep it going “off the cushion.”
In formal retreat settings, walking practice is also the time one might go to the restroom. It’s not meant, though, to be a break — a time to chat with friends or smoke a cigarette.
At the end of the walking period, one returns to one’s cushion or chair. In group practice there are many variations of how this is done. If you are new to a group, just watch what the others do and you will soon know what to do. Basically, you a getting back to your seat in a mindful way. Most groups remain standing until everyone is back to their spot and then they sit down together. Some use the ringing of a bell or gong to signal when it is time to sit.
If you are practicing on your own, just mindfully sit down again.
Then, take a few moments to settle yourself again. Then, deliberately begin your practice again by bringing your attention to your breath.
By including walking in our meditation practice, we prepare to bring the fruit of our mindfulness practice into the rest of our lives.