Walking meditation is a Buddhist practice. The goal is to cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness is commonly thought of as awareness. This includes awareness of our physical sensations, our mood, our thoughts, and our motivations. Walking, which involves regulated movement through time and space, can actually make it easier to get into a meditative state. Besides cultivating mindfulness, walking meditation is a way to experience wholeness, relieve stress, and even receive answers to questions.
Four Stages of Walking Meditation
Wildmind is a site with detailed information on different meditation practices. The section on walking meditation describes four “stages.” They’re not really separate, though. In reality, we juggle attention between these four points of focus.
- Physical body: Notice the movement of your joints and muscles, your breathing, what your hands are doing, and the position of your head.
- Mood: This is often called “feeling” in Buddhist texts, and there are just three of them: pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. I think the idea is not to think too hard about this. It doesn’t have to be well defined, just a general impression
- Emotions and thoughts: This can get tricky. The idea isn’t to become absorbed in good or bad feelings or in any particular thought. You just watch them pass by.
- Consciousness: Notice the specifics of your feelings and thoughts. This involves judgment. You can decide whether they’re ones you want to have or not. Once you’ve decided, though, you let them go, pleasant or not.
Walking meditation is a process towards wholeness. Wildmind reminds us that distractions from the outside world insert the will of others on us. It’s like we’re invaded by the voices and energies of others, sometimes not even individuals (for instance, a corporate voice from an advertisement). A walking meditation that focuses on mindfulness brings focus back onto the core of wholeness within us. It also places us within the larger environment.
It can be a challenge, though, to balance awareness of the external world and our internal world. If the mind is busy, it can help to pay some attention to the external environment as a launching-pad for a calmer state of mind. Ideally, we shift attention between our outer environment and our internal environment (the mind) without effort, without allowing ourselves to get sucked in too deeply by either one. That way, we avoid losing touch with what’s going on around us or with what’s going on within us.
How I Do Walking Meditation
I confess that when I practice walking meditation, I’m not as formal about it as Wildmind suggests. I feel like I have to find my own hybrid method of cultivating mindfulness, and walking is one part of that. I walk for a total of 40 minutes (20 minutes going and 20 minutes back). I take as little as possible on my walks, just my keys and a silenced cell phone (in case of an emergency).
I begin with a few leg stretches to get into the mindset. Wildmind suggests just standing for a few moments and being mindful of that experience. I’m not doing this for exercise, so I walk at an easy, relaxed pace. I tend to pay close attention to my environment and my body when I first get out. I breathe deeply and try to gauge whether I’ve dressed properly. I usually prefer taking layers off than shivering in short sleeves, but your mileage may vary.
Once you recognize the surroundings well, it’s easier to tune into what’s going on within you. This can be a double-edged sword, though, making the familiar not seem worthy of attention. Wildmind gives helpful advice about positioning your head, which can help direct your eyes somewhere between the ground and the horizon.
When you develop a balanced head position, so that your chin is very slightly tucked in, it’s much easier to be aware of your thoughts, your emotions, and the outside world in a balanced way.
In practice, I’ve found that my gaze shifts occasionally to the ground or to the horizon, but it’s very helpful to have a set position to return to.
My goal during my walking meditations is to flow with the rhythm of life as it is at the moment I’m walking. Wildmind says some walking meditation practitioners like to focus on an affirmation or mantra while walking. I don’t personally take along an MP3 player, but some people may find meditation music very enjoyable. This Australian site has some free meditation tracks (though beware of many dead links), and there are free meditation downloads by Bengali musician Sri Chinmoy. Anahanta is also a musician of meditation music that you can download.
I’ve sometimes formulated a question on something that’s bothering me before setting out on my walk. I might think: OK, I want to understand how I can get more work done on the blog. How can I do that? But then I let the question go completely and not actively think about it throughout my walk or afterward. If the issue does pop up in my head during my walk, I gently release it. I’ve always received the answer to my question, albeit only when I was ready to receive it!
Wildmind recommends not abruptly jumping into another activity. They again suggest just standing and focusing on that experience. I usually take my walks in the mornings and jump right into the shower when I get back. I find that this little ritual, combined with the warm flow of water, gradually leads me back into the everyday world. Wildmind says you will often feel energized, relaxed, and even joyful after this kind of walking meditation. In the long term, you benefit from a greater sense of wholeness and calmness.