Walking meditation is a wonderful legacy left to us by the Buddha. It is a meditative form that can be used for many purposes – for calming and slowing down, for insight and looking deeply and also for healing. We know from our experience of hikes in nature, or neighborhood walks after dinner, that sudden flashes of insight often arise in concert with our footsteps. We then see clearly how to handle a predicament or solve a problem. Imagine what can happen when we add conscious awareness to our footsteps. When we concentrate on our breath and focus on slow walking, we actually have a brilliant piece of engineering to quiet the mind and body. When we add a third concentration–aware of how our feet touch the earth–we have a meditative practice designed for our times. We focus our mind on the mechanism of each foot touching the earth–Heel, then Ball of Foot, then Toe. We slow down even further and with our body, not our intellect or ego, we make a contract with Mother Earth to walk more lightly on her surface and leave a smaller footprint. We examine our consumption patterns and energy use and commit to decreasing the size of our ecological footprint.
With this concentrated focus of walking meditation there is very little opportunity for the mind to worry about past events or future anticipations. The meditation keeps us present, here in the moment of being fully alive. We slow down internally with the focus on breath, steps and contact with the earth. This is aided by another component we can add to walking meditation–a gentle half smile kept on your lips to nurture the peace and silence within. With the deepening of this internal silence, insight naturally occurs.
Walking meditation is a powerful methodology for healing ourselves and the earth. We start by breathing in and out with full attention to the in-breath and to the out-breath. Co-ordinating our breath with our steps we breathe in, saying silently to ourselves, “Breathing in” as we take two or three slow steps. Then as we breathe out, we say, “Breathing out” as we take two or three slow steps, fully aware of breathing in and out, and of walking slowly step by step. Sometimes you will take two steps, sometimes three or four steps, sometimes there will be more steps on the out-breath than on the in-breath. Allow the breath and lungs to find a natural rhythm with your steps. It is the concentration and awareness that matters, not whether you take two or three steps.
The meditation keeps us present, here in the moment of being fully alive. It slows us down step by step so that our mind enters silence. This is the important first stage of meditative practice, Samatha, learning to stop our busyness and mental agitations. When we come to a stop internally, then the opportunity is there to see deeply into ourselves and know the true nature of our reality.
First of all we must close the external doors of our preoccupations with judgements, ego-attachments and illusions; for then the inner doors to the heart begin to open. That is where Vipassana happens, deep looking and insight into the heart of ourselves and of all matter. Both arise in walking meditation, as we slow down internally with the focus on breath, steps and gatha. With the deepening of this internal silence, insight naturally occurs because in the present moment we touch our true nature and enter heart consciousness. From this consciousness we experience our interconnectedness with all, touching the Divinity in ourselves and others. In this consciousness all our relationships are shaped by the experience of oneness, for our relationships are with Buddha consciousness, with Christ consciousness, with whatever term comes naturally to you to describe the Divinity within all.
Walking meditation is also a powerful methodology for healing, as we automatically discard our distress and anxiety while we are doing it. If we closely observe animals when they are injured or hurt, we would notice that they retreat to a safe place and slow their breathing and metabolism down, so that their internal energies of healing are activated. They do not eat, remaining still and quiet they come to a deep rest and heal as they stop. This is all done instinctively; no one has taught them about Samatha–it is simply the first step animals take in healing themselves. If our modern medical doctors would learn this lesson from animals and the Buddha they could guide their patients to stop and meditate, enter inner silence and enhance the recovery process by allowing the internal energies of healing to arise. All of the components of walking meditation – Samatha, Vipassana and healing – become a single focus as we maintain our awareness of being in the present moment. We just need to practice it.
At the university where I used to teach, I would walk from the bus stop and take a detour around the greenhouses of the Botany Department and come to the Rideau River that runs along one side of the campus. From there I had a kilometer of riverbank to practice walking meditation before arriving at my office building. It is quite secluded in parts and the river has sets of rapids that greatly enrich my walk. One section of the path takes my steps through a cedar grove, and I always feel a sacred blessing from these beautiful trees. I slow my walking right down to a three–three rhythm when I enter the cedar grove. The path is never the same, as the seasons change its character. Autumn leaves give way to snowfall as winter leaves her embrace. My clothes and footwear change, yet my steps, breathing and feet touching the earth remain constant. The rustle of autumn leaves is replaced by the crunch of snow and ice, which gives way to the mud and rain of spring before the heat of summer allows me to walk in sandals or barefoot. The birds and foliage change with the seasons, as does the river–iced over in winter, turbulent in the spring and calm in summer and fall. Students with their books and friends congregate by the river when the weather is sunny.
I notice the changes in the seasonal round of nature, yet remain with my breathing, footsteps and the earth, so that I am not drawn into unnecessary thought. It takes me approximately twenty minutes to arrive at my office. I am in a clear, calm state and better able to be of assistance to students and colleagues and bring my own sense of calm and clarity to the university. On leaving the university I retrace my steps of walking meditation along the river before going home, or to appointments in the city. The experience engenders the same calm and clarity. This walk is Paradise, a constant reminder to me for those occasions when I am not in touch with the Earth Mother. We do not need to walk on water, or over hot coals. We simply need to walk on the earth and touch her deeply with our full awareness. That is all that walking meditation is.