WALKING MEDITATION: Is It Time for a Break?
by Philip L. Jones
If you've been on a retreat, you may have experienced a common reaction to the periods scheduled for walking meditation: Break Time! After sitting still in one position, being able to move can be a relief. And, after working hard to focus your mind and to be present for your experience while on the cushion, it may feel like you need a break. Maybe a soothing cup of tea and time to let the mind wander seems appealing? While finding the right amount of effort is always a balancing act, walking meditation is more than time for a break. It offers additional ways to open to our lives and to experience some of the deepest truths of this practice.
There are different ways of doing walking meditation. Sometimes we are instructed to do it very slowly with close attention paid as we lift, move and place each foot. We may be instructed to coordinate our breathe with the movements as a further way to strengthen concentration. At other times, we may be instructed to walk at whatever pace seems comfortable, simply being aware of the sensations arising and passing in our feet and lower legs with each step that we take.
In the Satipatthana Sutta (the Discourse on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness), the Buddha did not specify a particular method of walking. What he did instruct us to do was to contemplate the body as a body, to contemplate the nature of arising and passing away in the body and to act with full awareness while walking [MN 10.6-8].
One of the things that contemplating the body as body means is to understand the nature of our experience of the body. So whatever the technique of walking meditation, we begin to bring full awareness to the sensations in the body while we are walking. As we do this, our bodies and the world around us often seem to become more alive. If we are walking on grass, we may become more aware of whether the grass is soft or stiff, whether it is cool or warm, dry or damp. If walking on pavement, we may notice how smooth or abrasive the surface feels, whether it is cool or warm to our feet. We may be more aware of whether the sensations of walking are pleasant, unpleasant or neutral and whether that changes over time.
As we get more interested in these sensory experiences, we are drawn into paying closer attention. As a result, the mind naturally becomes more calm and focused. This deeper state of concentration allows us to look even more closely at the sensations. We may then begin to notice, especially if we are moving very slowly, the arising and passing away of sensations. We begin to see their impermanence. And if we continue to look closely, we may notice how the sensations at the core of our experience of body arise from emptiness and return there.
We may wonder what gives our bodies their sense of solidity if sensations arise from emptiness and return to emptiness. As we continue to explore our experience of body as body, we may begin to see for ourselves how this sense of a solid body is constructed from the experience of sensation and the image or conceptual matrix of our body. This contributes to the understanding of body as body, rather than body as my body.
Even if we aren't on retreat, though, walking meditation can be of benefit. Early in the morning or at night after a long and tiring day, we may not have a lot of energy. If we try sitting meditation, low energy may lead us to doze off. Walking meditation is a practical alternative as it will engage more energy even as the mind settles down.
During a busy day at work or home, we may notice that our bodies feel tight and contracted and that our minds are jumping all over the place. It may not be practical for us to find a quiet space to sit for a few moments to collect our minds and relax our bodies. But there are usually opportunities to walk. By simply focusing on the sensations in our feet as we walk at a normal pace, we can ground ourselves in the present moment once again. We can settle the mind and relax the body. Then we'll be more able to focus on the task at hand.
Whether we are on retreat or in daily life, walking meditation is more than a time for escape. It is a way to give ourselves a break that refreshes while deepening our understanding.