As I hiked out of the wilderness all I could think about was how much my feet hurt. It was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.
Wearing a brand new pair of boots on a long backpacking trip into West Virginia’s Dolly Sods Wilderness about 35 years ago could have been a big mistake. The new boots gave my feet terrible blisters, and I had forgotten to take any moleskin. Returning to the trailhead after four or five days, I knew I had just one other way to control the pain. Deliberate walking meditation put my entire consciousness into my feet.
I don’t punish my feet any more to get the high that walking meditation brings. But I still hike or walk and meditate at the same time.
A leading exponent of walking meditation is Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, teacher, author, poet and peace activist who is one of the important influences in the development of Western Buddhism. His book with Nguyen Anh-Huong, Walking Meditation (Sounds True: Boulder, Colorado, 2006), says that when we practice walking meditation, “We walk for the sake of walking…We walk slowly, in a relaxed way, keeping a light smile on our lips.”
In the spirit of efficiency and of saving time I wondered if mixing the exercise benefits of walking with the many benefits of meditation could be a “twofer.” But wouldn’t that be multi-tasking where we divide our consciousness? Thich Nhat Hanh’s book led me to think that it might be a perversion of something spiritual to combine meditation with the something so practical as getting the physical activity we all need.
Not at all, said Shinzen Young, a leading Vipassana meditation teacher, when we had lunch together at his favorite restaurant in Boulder during one of his recent visits here. “I work out on a regular basis, and I doubt if I would do that if I weren’t doing a walking meditation at the same time,” he told me. “The only thing that makes working out fun rather than a chore is that I am in a meditative state. Mindfulness can make exercise more palatable, and that affects our health.”
In fact, Shinzen promotes making our workout “do double duty” in his cassette program, Meditation in the Zone: How to Turn Your Workout into a High-Quality Meditation. While it’s currently out of print, I was able to buy a copy on the Internet.
Jon Kabat-Zinn also says we can meditate and get exercise at the same time. “Walking meditation can be practiced at any pace, from ultra-slow to very brisk,” he writes in his best-selling book Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life (Hyperion, 1994). “You can practice walking meditation informally anywhere. Informal walking meditation doesn’t involve pacing back and forth or going around a loop, but just walking normally. You can walk mindfully along a sidewalk, down a corridor at work, going for a hike, walking your dog, or walking with children. It involves recalling that you are here in your body. You simply remind yourself to be in this moment, taking each step as it comes, accepting each moment as it comes.”
People with diabetes benefit more than most people from walking. Everyone needs regular exercise, and those of us who have diabetes absolutely have to give ourselves the gift of regular exercise. Walking is the exercise that comes most naturally to those of us who are still well enough to do it.
But walking by itself, as great as it is for us, can’t capture all of its potential benefits. For that we can meditate as we walk along.
Most of us think about meditation as sitting stock still on a cushion or chair. Certainly, that’s the typical form. In addition to the benefits that sitting meditation offers to everyone, it can help those of us who have diabetes control our blood glucose by reducing the stress in our everyday lives.
But sitting is just one of many ways we can meditate. We can meditate while taking out the trash, as Ram Dass once said. That’s certainly true. And yet walking meditation offers even more. For one thing, we spend more time walking than we do taking out the trash.
When we practice walking meditation, we do find some differences from the usual sitting meditation. While sitting, in most practices we close our eyes and withdraw our attention from the outside world. That doesn’t work when we walk!
With our eyes wide open we have to be aware of our surroundings. We can indeed heighten our awareness of all that is around us, whether it is the beauty of nature, the sound of the wind in the trees, the feel of the air on our skin, the people we see and hear, as well as the noise of a busy city. We can appreciate the warmth of the sun and even learn to appreciate snow or rain falling on us or wind that we always thought of as making us uncomfortable. We literally feel more alive.
While meditating as we walk, we can experience how our bodies feel much more intensely than we can either while doing a sitting meditation or simply walking with our normally scattered mental energy. Instead of thinking of the past or of the future — which our minds are into essentially all the time before we learn to meditate — we can feel all the pleasant sensations as well as the pain that parts of our body is telling us as we move along. This experience can be intense, and that intensity can in turn give us intense pleasure and even joy.
When we do our first walking meditation, starting in a park or similar place away from traffic is a good idea. It’s not so much that we will forget yourself and run into a car, but rather that we might not be as accepting of the noise and sight of vehicles as we can learn to be.
As we meditate while we walk we can let what we see, hear, and feel into our consciousness. In normal day-to-day life we block almost all of this stimulus. When we let it in, we find a heightened sense of joy in the beauty that surrounds us, whether it is the beauty that we perceive with our eyes or our ears or even that we experience with our limited sense of smell.
With walking meditation we train our mind to pay attention to our moving bodies. To maintain that awareness when we see that our mind has wandered off into thought, we gently bring it back.
While traditional walking meditation is so slow as to give us only a little exercise, we can practice it at any pace from ultra-slow to very brisk. We just take each step as it comes and are fully present with it. We can feel ourselves being walked.
This article is based on an earlier version of my article published by HealthCentral.