“The mind can go in a thousand directions, but on this beautiful path, I walk in peace. With each step, the wind blows. With each step, a flower blooms.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
There is a pervading misconception about meditation; that one is expected to sit perfectly still and completely empty one’s mind. In actuality, meditation is about surrender; watching our thoughts, letting them take you where they wish to and loosening the reigns of control. Let stillness and emptiness be by-products of your meditative practice, and not the goal.
Walking meditation has been around for centuries in Buddhist tradition where you pay close attention to the physical act of walking, the way you take one step after another. In monasteries in Thailand, Buddhist monks are known to walk for as long as 10-15 hours a day.
Known as Cankama in Pali and Kinhin in Chinese Buddhist tradition, walking meditation helps to develop mindfulness in daily life. If you learn to be aware during walking meditation with your eyes open, then it becomes easy to arouse that same wakeful quality during other activities, such as yoga, eating, washing dishes etc. This way each activity becomes a spiritual experience, and not just another mundane thing.
Buddha himself addressed four main postures for developing mindfulness: standing, sitting, lying down and walking. These are the foremost postures the human body aligns itself in, and therefore spends the most time in.
How to do it?
“The way to do is to be.” ~ Lao Tzu
- Set aside at least 20-30 minutes for this practice. First, pick a path about 30 to 50 feet long, preferably somewhere in nature. Consider whether to do this bare foot or wearing light shoes. Reconnecting with the earth’s energy beneath your feet is always therapeutic.
- Before beginning to walk, take a few minutes to center yourself, align your spine, even out your weight on both sides of your body. Take about 10 deep breaths, inhaling right down to your belly. Allow your breathing to return back to normal when you feel ready.
- Begin walking. Start with short steps at a relaxed pace you’re comfortable in. Pay attention to every step you take, beginning with the right foot. Enjoy every step and consciously open your heart to experience peace, love and gratitude. If you wish, you can recite a mental mantra as you go.
- If your mind goes wandering away from the step, note the distraction and gently, but firmly, bring your attention back to the step. Continue to sustain awareness and focus on the process of walking.
- Remember that you have nowhere to go, no destination. In the hustle and bustle of practical life, we are always rushing, running late for something or the other. Its time to slow down. Every step helps you to arrive in the present moment, in the here and now. Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Each step is life; each step is peace and joy. That is why we don’t have to hurry. That is why we slow down. We seem to move forward, but we don’t go anywhere; we are not drawn by a goal. Thus we smile while we are walking.”
- With regular practice, you will find a pace suitable to you.
- You may intuitively feel the need to stop or if you grow tired, then that is the time to stop. Do not push your body to do more than what feels right.
Use of positive affirmations
Thich Nhat Hanh talks about using positive affirmations during walking meditation. As you breathe in repeat “I have arrived” and upon breathing out “I am home”. Then breathe in with “In the here”; Out “In the now”. Similarly, “I am solid” and “I am free”. Lastly, “In the ultimate”, and out “I dwell”.
In this method instead of focusing only on the act of walking, you also focus on the different sensations in your body, pay attention to feelings and thoughts that arise, and your immediate surroundings.
– As you take each step, scan your whole body, slowly moving awareness upward from the soles, ankles, calves, knees, thighs to hips and so on, till you reach the top of your head. Be aware of the sensations in your body and let go of any stiffness or trapped energy in any part of your body, and consciously relax them.
– Shift your awareness externally; to the trees, the ground on which you walk, the whistling of the wind, the rustle of the leaves and any other smells and sounds that come into your range of perception.
– Become aware of your mental and emotional state.
In Kinhin, you practice walking meditation with your hands in shashu position – left hand is in a fist with thumb inside. Wrap your right hand around the left, letting your thumb rest in the crevice formed between your left hand thumb and index finger. Place your hands over the solar plexus. Then take small steps, beginning with the right foot.
“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor”. ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
In this variation of walking meditation, you can sync your breath or practice Pranayama at every step. It can be a little tricky, but comes with practice.
You can start with this exercise:
Inhale for 4 steps and retain breath for another 4, then exhale for 4 steps and retain with empty lungs for another 4 steps. You can increase or decrease this based on your comfort level. You can also change the rhythm for inhalation-retention-exhalation, make it into 1:4:2, 2-8-4 or 3-12-6.
Taoist method of visualisation
In Chinese tradition, there is another method of walking meditation that focuses on breathing and visualisation.
Take slow deep breaths for either 3, 6 or 12 steps, breathe out for the same number of steps. As you become accustomed to the rhythm, start visualizing a ball of energy. When you breathe in, imagine it surrounding you and being pulled into 2 inches below your navel (known as dantien or energy center). While breathing out, imagine the energy ball expanding all around you.
According to Buddhist texts, there are five major benefits of walking meditation:
Good for Endurance
“Mindfulness meditation should be more than just watching what you are doing. What you really need to watch is your motivation.” ~ Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Walking meditation builds strength in the body. When the body learns what it can endure, so does the mind.
Good for Striving
In sitting meditation, peacefulness may quickly turn into a kind of dullness if there is no awareness, so it is quite easy to fall asleep. Walking meditation is constantly invigorating, hence energizing the body and keeping you alert.
Good for Health
On a purely physical level it is one of the best ways to keep the body fit. It works best when we bring our awareness to the process of walking and not just carry on walking while the mind drifts off.
Good for Digestion
After a meal, the blood goes to the stomach and away from the brain causing sleepiness. This is why monks walk for hours right after their meals, as it improves circulation to all parts of the body and keeps the mind active.
Good for Concentration
Sitting is an easy position to maintain as we not involved in any kind of movement, our eyes are closed, so there are no visual stimuli either. But walking requires a lot of concentration, especially when synchronizing it with the mind.
Furthermore, there is lot more sensory stimuli as well, adding to the level of difficulty in concentration. This is however, the challenge and the more we strive to maintain our focus, the greater our focus becomes, and we can easily carry that over to other meditative practices.
“There are many ways to calm a negative energy without suppressing or fighting it. You recognize it, you smile to it, and you invite something nicer to come up and replace it; you read some inspiring words, you listen to a piece of beautiful music, you go somewhere in nature, or you do some walking meditation.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh