Part 5: Mindfulness, Walking and The Walking Meditation
Thud Thud Thud Thud Thud
The steady steps. Constant within a zone of 110–120 steps a minute
The concentration as they landed on the tarmac, stone paths, boggy ground, the narrow sheep tracks.
The wind whistling. The fine buzzy whine of an insect as it zooms past you. The wildflowers on the rolling hills. The clouds. The rain. The sunshine.
Thud thud thud thud. The steady steps as I pushed on.
Every week getting just a little better. A little more confident.
The stress noises in my head, loud at the start, begin to be drowned out by the silence.
The silence, the concentration, the awareness and the thud thud thud thud of my footfall. As I pushed on.
Because I knew every step brought me another moment of gentle peace. Not just for these precious moments, but for the hours and days ahead.
Walking has always been known as a powerful de-stressor and a way to clear your thoughts or even spontaneously come up with new ideas.
In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg refers to walking as a powerful Keystone Habit, able to “spillover” and influence other routines and shape new habits.
It could be the “spillover” that John Muir refers to:
“But in every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks” John Muir
And John Muir is right in that “one receives more than he seeks”.
John Muir, the father of national parks, would extol the virtues of walking in nature. And it is an incredibly powerful thing.
Though, any walking is good. Your local park, the city walk, the treadmill. Yes, even the treadmill.
The comfortable pace, keeping your focus on your breath and your steps to a steady rhythm. I have clocked hundreds of hours on a treadmill when I cannot get out of work. But even on the treadmill, there is “the spillover”
For me, it’s a 3.5 mile per hour pace that I slowly find my mental stillness after 15 minutes. But everyone is different and we all have our own perfect zone.
The important thing to realise is that walking indoors or outdoors can be powerful.
But yet, And sometimes it’s even hard to quantify or explain what “one receives” from walking.
For me it was peace. I was mentally and physically exhausted in February 2017. (A story for another occasion)
Some say they cannot sleep if they don’t go for their daily evening walk.
Others use it for “digestion” after a heavy meal.
Whatever the personal reason, since time immemorial, “going for the walk” has been synonymous with what I refer to as “moving to attain a mental stillness”
But there is
- walking which is mindful in itself and then there is
- The Walking Meditation which is an actual mindfulness practice.
So we are going to touch on both.
Walking, which is mindful in itself.
A quick google search on the benefits of walking will get you numerous reports, research papers and articles on both the physical and mental benefits of walking.
I just want to touch on why it is so naturally mindful.
The mind as we have discovered likes to wander.
But it can be brought into focus. Meditation and focus on the breath is one such way.
But walking makes it just a little easier, if just slightly different. To start with, the mind, the thoughts, the emotions, will still be there.
But as you walk, there is a slow transformation. You need to be aware of your surroundings. You just cannot help it.
And if you are not aware, there is that lampost approaching fast.
As we walk, the human eye is constantly scanning the environment and sending messages to the brain. The lampost, the sound of a cyclist coming up from behind, the car, the ditch, the bend in the path, the dip, the rise, the puddle … it’s a massive wave of information to keep you safe.
This awareness is the spatial snapshot being made visually, every millisecond, and transferred to the brain so you can manoeuvre and negotiate your way past any possible danger that the brain has noticed.
You may also notice flowers, the smile of a passerby, the smell of the rain. And you should bring your awareness to it all.
This gets more pronounced when you walk across rough terrain or off-path. I began to notice how, subconsciously, my reactions worked once you move at pace.
The eye scans the terrain ahead, 20, 30, 40 feet. The brain digests the information as the eyes then move quickly, slightly downwards, to a focus of about 5–10 feet away as I covered the terrain.
And then a quick glance up again. Is that a boggy patch? Do I need to avoid it? and back to the distance immediately ahead. All the while the brain is making calculations at incredible speeds
“He is walking at xx pace. The boggy patch is xx feet away. He wants to keep this pace. Which means in xx seconds, he needs to 1) take a wider stride to walk over it, or 2) bear right or left for a moment to walk around it. Which one shall it be?”
This constant near and far scanning becomes a rhythm in itself. A constant gathering of information, picking up visual and aural cues and smells along the way.
As I would walk along, I would let this intense stream of awareness and information keep me safe. It became an absolute wonder to observe the depth of the calculations made.
Take the focus off for a few seconds and you begin to notice hesitancy as the brain sends a warning signal to slow down or pay attention.
I watched this happen for hours on end. Hundreds of hours.
Along with this, I had signals which arrived to remind me “Breath properly!”, and to regulate my breathing.
This became something I learned to do better and better going up hills. To find a perfect place for my breathing to match my footfall on inclines, so I did not run out of breath and have to stop and recover.
And then I realised that I had reached “moving to attain a mental stillness”
All the anxious thoughts I had seemed to have melted away.
As time went on in the months after February 2017, I realised that for some walks the effect lasted for almost two to three days.
It took a while to figure it out. The awareness and focus on the terrain, surroundings and my breathing were just such natural parts of mindful practice. It cleared the mind of thoughts for a few hours.
But the other reason was noticing that I was becoming better at walking further and faster, and there was a sense of achievement that created a buzz which carried on for a few days.
The combination of the intense awareness of the walk and the prolonged effect of the sense achievement had changed my mood profoundly.
For many, this is one reason why walking is such a powerful tool for mindfulness. It’s a mood changer.
That, though, whilst powerful, is a world away from The Walking Meditation; another powerful practise but with a whole different approach.
I am going to make a full confession here. 14 years ago in 2006, when I first did a Walking Meditation session, I will admit I did not get on with it at all.
I just felt silly. Like really silly. (And yes I rolled my eyes and muttered, “What new voodoo is this?!”)
And it annoyed me that I felt silly. I wanted it to work for me.
About five years later, I was doing a solo 15-mile city walk and came across a field. I just stopped and said “I am going to do that mindful walking meditation thingy”
And I put down my pack. Got settled. And did a slow mindful walk.
And this time, in a slow measured way. I got it. It was the simplest thing really. And yet extremely powerful.
What I had not understood before, was not The Walking Meditation.
In fact, I had not really understood mindfulness.
I was a doer. An action must have a result.
Walking meant going somewhere, reaching a destination. Hitting a new milestone.
Yes, walking is all of that. And it is amazing.
AND we have discussed above how powerful walking is as a tool for mindfulness.
But equally, there is another side to mindfulness. The art of not going anywhere. Of not hitting a milestone. But just being in the moment.
In that field, on that day, I discovered that feeling of being in the moment.
And my understanding of mindfulness, the Nine Attitudes of Mindfulness and awareness of the moment changed profoundly.
I still felt a little strange doing it. But frankly, I no longer cared.
So what is The Walking Meditation?
Walking Meditation is a form of meditation that does not focus solely on the breath, but also our gait as we walk.
It is a good alternative for those who do not like sitting meditations with the eyes closed.
And it can be done anywhere. You just need a short stretch of space, perhaps up to 10–15 paces.
Find a space that is private or where you may not be disturbed. If in a public space find a location where you feel safe. Though be aware that some people may look at you as a slow walking meditation can look strange to some people.
Let’s just dive into it. We’ll take you through the stages.
- Stand comfortably with you feet hip wide apart. You can leave your hands by your side for now.
- Take a moment to breathe. Focus on your breath for a few moments. You will keep your eyes open for this exercise. You will want to bring your awareness to your environment too.
- Notice any sensations you have in your body. Start by noticing your feet on the ground. And move your attention up to your head, noticing any aches, or stiffness. Just gently acknowledge them.
- Now bring your hands in front or behind you (whichever is more comfortable) and gently clasp them together. You don’t want to create any stiffness, just enough to keep them together in a natural, relaxed way. Or you can continue to leave them by your sides.
- Bring your focus back to your breath. It should be a gentle, natural rhythm.
- Now when you are ready, take a small simple slow step forward. you don’t need to over-exaggerate it, though keep it slow and gentle.
- It should be a natural step forward. Do not overstretch your stride. Just one simple step forward. Slowly.
- WATCH YOUR BALANCE. It can feel odd and you really should focus on your balance too.
- Now take the next step forward. And then the next. And the next again in a slow, purposeful manner. Don’t jerk your body forwards. It’s still walking. Just slower, with purposeful slow movements.
- This is also a good chance to practise your Lift Offs and Touch Downs. Bring your attention to the way your heel comes into contact with the ground, how your foot makes its forward movement through the arch, to the ball of your foot and the slow gentle push off with the toes.
11. Be aware of the shift in weight from one foot to the other, keeping your focus on your balance and the slow gentle swing of one foot, as it moves forward, and then the other foot as you gently walk.
12. Keep doing this till you reach the end of your space or about 10–15 paces.
13. Now standstill. Take a breath and purposefully but slowly turn around. Stand still for just another moment. And begin your slow walk back to the start.
14. You can bring your focus to things you may normally take for granted. Without swinging your head to look at your environment, just bring it to your attention. The trees, or the room, or the lane. Listen to the sounds around you. Things you may take for granted may include how your neck or shoulders feel as you walk. You may even bring your attention to how your head is balanced on your neck. Just keep it relaxed and let any stiffness drop away.
15. When you reach the start point, standstill. Take a breath and purposefully but slowly turn around. Stand still for just another moment. And begin your slow walk back up the same space, following the same path. In the same gentle, slow, purposeful manner for 10–15 paces.
16. Remember to continue your focus on the way your foot comes into contact with the ground, how it makes it’s forward movement through the arch, to the ball of your foot and the slow gentle push off with the toes.
17. As you keep walking, your breath may have now settled into a pattern of relaxed inhale and exhale.
18. Your mind may wander. It’s ok. It always is. Just remember to be kind and acknowledge where it has wandered to. And just gently call it back to your walking meditation. Bringing your focus back to your balance, the way your foot rolls or the breath.
19. In Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life and Exercises & Meditations, Jon Kabat-Zinn recommends doing this Walking Meditation for 10 minutes once a day for seven days to really get to grips with Walking Meditation.
20. Keep walking up and down the space for 10–15 paces each time. Then turn around and begin again. Do this for 10 minutes and when you reach your final point. Stop, stand still, take a few gentle breaths and thank yourself for the opportunity you have had to take a Walking Meditation.
And there you have it. The Walking Meditation. It may not be what you are normally used to. But stick with it.
It provides a valuable lesson too. Not everything has to be done to reach a destination or a goal. The moment is your focus. And then the next. And the next.
Final confession. I now subconsciously do a Walking meditation most days, in a slow gentle pace up and down my kitchen. I often realise it only after I have begun. It seems to suit my morning routine.
And I have a meditation of the breath when I go to sleep at night to clear away the thoughts.
They have (almost) become daily habits. It took a long while to become natural. But they are there. They just happened.
Before we leave our Million Steps Challenge: Introduction to Mindfulness, we want to share an old video of Thich Nhat Hanh, as he takes a Walking Meditation in front of a group of students.
It’s wonderful in its serenity.
Happy Stepping! (Or rather, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Take Happy Steps”)
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