If you want to clear your mind, just follow your feet.
Do you know how to walk? Of course you do — you’ve been doing it since you were about one year old. Next to breathing, walking must be one of our most natural bodily functions. Yet both of these activities can make us more aware of ourselves and the present moment, by using them as a focus for meditation. A few minutes of regular practice improves not only posture, but also helps clarity of mind, sense of balance and control in this world which can easily ‘get on top’ of us. So, are you ready to learn the gentle art of walking?
Many consider meditation to be some kind of trance-like state, attainable only by those dedicated to the esoteric world, but the goal of walking meditation is simply to be aware of the body’s movements and observe the mind when it wanders off down old, familiar trails, or strange new ones.
The experience of vipassana (insight) meditation, taught at many temples in Thailand, shows that we waste far too much time (and more important, energy) reflecting on or chewing over the past, and fantasizing or fretting about the future. By bringing ourselves back into the here and now, we conserve vital energy and are in a position to direct that energy in purposeful, meaningful ways. For example, the month-long course at Wat Ram Poeng in Chiang Mai finishes with a three day and night (80 hours plus!) non-stop meditation session — an unthinkable task for a typical busy mind, but not impossible for a mind truly in the present moment.
Ready then? What do you need? Not much. Twenty to thirty minutes of spare time. Some loose clothing (but bare feet). A quiet place — your bedroom, or garden if you’re lucky enough to have one.
Monks usually prepare to meditate by a slow and mindful series of prostrations to Buddha, the object of which is to bring the attention of the wandering mind onto the body. You might want to limber up — do some yoga perhaps, touch your toes, flex your shoulders and wrists, roll your neck and eyes a few times, take a few deep breaths. Forget about everything else now. Just watch the movements of your body, and acknowledge where your attention is, by saying aloud (or to yourself) what you are observing at each moment.
Find a space about 3–5 metres long in which you can walk comfortably. Put your hands behind your back, clasping your left hand gently in your right. Shoulders and spine straight, feet together. Then, being as aware as you can of the movement of your leg and foot muscles, lift the right foot and place it with the heel just in front of your left big toe, saying to yourself “Right goes thus” as you do it. Then repeat with the left foot, saying “Left goes thus”, and continue to a point where you can turn easily.
When you are ready to turn, stop your walking by bringing your left foot together with the right. Acknowledge “Standing, standing, standing”. Pivoting on the right heel, move the right foot ninety degrees to the right, then do the same with the left foot, saying “Turning, turning, turning”. Repeat this one more time, and you should be facing back the way you came, ready to start again. Acknowledging each movement three times is quite important, as it also helps to slow down the mind’s constant roaming. Walking in slow motion will also help to keep the mind on body movements.
Try not to get irritable if you find you’re thinking about that TV series, problems at work or with the car. We all daydream endlessly, and the first step in controlling the mind is to realize that it won’t always be still when we want it to. Just acknowledge “Thinking, thinking, thinking”. Stop for a moment (by bringing the left foot together with the right) and acknowledge “Stopping, stopping, stopping”. Try to be aware of the breath rising and falling. Then start again (always right foot first), bringing your mind back onto the actions of legs and feet.
Patient persistence is the way to approach walking meditation, not pig-headed determination. If you can develop any detachment from your moods and feelings, you will probably watch your mind move through states of contentment, boredom, frustration, while your legs may become tired or stiff. You may become very aware of the floor or ground’s surface and your attitude towards it. For example, you might enjoy the cosiness of a carpet, or notice the changes of a rough stone surface. Don’t get attached to such observations, just acknowledge the feeling or sensation (by saying to yourself “Enjoying, enjoying, enjoying” or “Roughness, roughness, roughness”) and move on.
You shouldn’t expect spectacular results from the first session, but repeated practice will almost certainly help to bring about an equanimity towards the ups and downs of our world which so commonly lead directly to feelings of stress.
‘Right goes thus’ is the first of six stages of walking meditation, during which we watch the complete movement of each foot from behind to in front of the other. The next stage, which should be attempted when you are confident that awareness of the body is improving, divides each step into two actions — lifting (off the ground) and putting (back on the ground). As you move your foot and say the words to yourself, make a short pause in between, to emphasize the different stages.
Stage three is lifting, moving (or forwarding), putting, during which we become aware of the difference between lifting the foot up and moving it forwards. I prefer to use the word ‘forwarding’ since, being one syllable longer, it encourages slower movement. The closer you come to normal walking speed, the more difficult it is to remain conscious of the body, as the actions tend to become automatic. Progressing through each stage, it is not unusual to find that you are walking slower and slower, something like a mime artist on stage.
Making your steps slower also improves balance, as your weight will be on only one foot for several seconds. When you begin practice, you may walk fifteen to twenty ‘lengths’ in half an hour, but later this will probably go down to about five. Don’t worry if you need to stop every few steps. There are no prizes for covering more ‘lengths’, as there may be for a runner or a swimmer. This is rather the opposite.
Stage four is heel up, lifting, moving (forwarding), putting, in which we recognize the preparation for lifting, but pause before the ball of the foot leaves the ground. Stage five is heel up, lifting, moving (forwarding), lowering, touching. This time when one foot has moved just in front of the other, we acknowledge the actions of lowering the foot and then touching the ground. Stage six acknowledges or recognizes one further action. We follow heel up, lifting, moving (forwarding), lowering, but then touching the ground with the ball of the foot before finally pressing the rest of the foot to the ground.
It’s important not to rush through these stages. When studying with a teacher, the teacher will decide when each person is ready to move on to the next stage. Practising alone, you must make the decision yourself, but it’s a good idea to work on each stage for several sessions before moving on to the next one. This will ensure maximum benefit from the exercise.
You may find as you progress that it’s more natural to extend the sessions to an hour instead of twenty or thirty minutes. If your shoulders or arms begin to ache, wait until you finish a ‘length’, and after acknowledging “Standing, standing, standing”, swing your arms in front of you and clasp them gently, as before, left in right. Then continue with turning.
Some days will inevitably be better than others — some days you may find it difficult to let go of a particularly happy or sad mood. Don’t expect a consistent rate of increased awareness, and don’t give up just because it doesn’t go right. The trick is not to cling to emotions, either positive or negative. Just watch them come and go.
Many will find this type of practice boring, annoying or frustrating — some people are far too restless and constantly need an outside stimulus, such as chatting on social media or watching a movie. But with patient persistence, most of us can learn how to deal with boredom, anger and frustration — common symptoms of stress in the modern world. Solutions to problems are often simpler than we think, and practising the gentle art of walking can bring unimagined benefits.