Arinna Weisman and Jean Smith, authors of The Beginner’s Guide to Insight Meditation, shed light on a common yet often misunderstood meditative practice, via simple-to-follow instructions.
Walking can be another wonderful opportunity to cultivate mindfulness. Movement can strengthen our awareness and sometimes is a more accessible object for meditation than the breath.
Formal walking meditation techniques vary in different streams of Theravada Buddhism. In the Burmese tradition and on Insight Meditation retreats, meditators usually walk alone, rather than in a line or a circle, as is done in other Buddhist traditions.
The invitation is to walk back and forth between two points about 20–30 feet apart, which helps us to let go of “getting somewhere.” We practice walking just to walk. Choosing a place to practice at the beginning of the walking period also eliminates spending most of our time deciding where we should walk. We should try to stick to our chosen place because we are often confronted with desires such as “This place is too noisy. I should walk around the back of the building.” But the back area is too cold, so we have to search for a warm spot. But alas, to our horror the only warm areas are filled with other people and we cannot do walking meditation unless we are alone. By now thirty minutes has gone by so we decide to give up.
When you have selected your place, divide the walking meditation into three parts. During the first part, perhaps 10–15 minutes long, walk a little more slowly than you would normally. During the second, also about 10–15 minutes long, slow down even more. In the third, the remaining time you walk, move quite slowly.
It is also fine, instead of breaking your walk into three stages, to choose one of the paces and walk back and forth at that speed. As in all practices in this tradition, what feels appropriate to you, given the conditions, is what you should do.
Exercise: A Guided Walking Meditation
Begin, as you did with sitting meditation, by acknowledging your intention and your commitment to cultivating mindfulness through this practice.
In the first segment of your walking meditation, allow your awareness to focus on the sense of stepping on the ground. If you would like to bring more energy into your system—and one of the wonderful things about walking meditation is that it actually brings energy into the mind—lift your knees a little bit higher and decrease the stride, so that you are taking shorter steps. Notice the sense of stepping on the earth: Stepping, stepping, stepping.
In the next portion, slow down enough so that you notice the lifting of the foot and then the stepping of the foot on the ground. Lifting, stepping—lifting, stepping—lifting, stepping. You will notice, as with sitting meditation, that the mind wanders many times. No problem. Just keep bringing it back to the sensations of lifting and stepping, and to the knowing of that sequence. You know that you are lifting when you lift, and you know that you are stepping when you step.
The last sequence is lifting, stepping, shifting—lifting, stepping, shifting. In this segment, slow down enough so that you really notice the shift of weight and the gradations of pressure that happen from one foot to the other. Start to notice the details of the experience. Notice that when the foot is lifted up, muscles may be working in your side. Observe how the foot glides across the surface of the ground, how the foot hangs, then when stepping—do not shift immediately—just acknowledge placing the foot on the ground. Then let the sequence happen again, staying connected to lifting, stepping, shifting—lifting, stepping, shifting.
Some people find it helpful to do noting—to say descriptive words very softly in their minds as they perform the actions of walking meditation. When they are lifting, they say, “Lifting”; when they are stepping, “Stepping”; when they are shifting, “Shifting.”
Be careful not to make the words predominant or even bossy—they should be far in the background—but noting can give you a little extra support in being aware of the walking process and can help keep you focused.
In addition to noting, walking by counting—a focus on developing stability and mental concentration—is another practice that can assist you when your mind is distracted. In this practice, you can walk at a normal pace. When you take your first step, you count 1. On the next two steps, you say 1, 2. On the next three steps, you say 1, 2, 3. The next four steps are 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on all the way up to 10. When you reach 10, you say 10, then 10, 9 for the next two steps; then 10, 9, 8 for the next three steps, etc.
Whenever you lose your concentration, you go back to 1. What often happens is that when you are in the middle of the sequence and get to 10, you then say 11—you do not remember to make the transition back because you are not really concentrating: you are on rote. If you want to move your body while focusing your mind, counting is very useful. You can do it in a short space and keep turning around, or you can do it on a long walk by repeatedly starting counting over again.
When you are walking, your primary focus is on the sensations of walking. Sometimes you will notice that you are not focused on walking but rather on seeing or hearing—a very common experience. When that happens, just note, “Seeing” or “Hearing,” and come back to walking again. If, during formal practice, you want to look at something, acknowledge this intention, stop walking, look at what you want to look at, then continue walking again with your focus on the steps.
Formal walking practice might not fit into your daily life. Perhaps the only time you take a walk is when you take the dogs out in the morning, and there is no way you can be doing lifting, stepping, shifting. No problem. Just take a general, comprehensive awareness of walking and notice over and over again how it feels for your body to be moving. Or you might find it easier to focus on the feet, noticing the placing of a foot on the ground, connecting with the earth, and feeling the rhythm of walking. This kind of mindfulness is as valuable as formal walking. One is not better than the other. Both are useful in their own way, so which one you choose to do depends on the conditions in your own life.
Jogging can become our practice too—feeling the general movement of the body, and in particular the rhythm of the feet on the ground. Moving the body either in a certain form such as yoga or from our own internal sense of rhythm, exercising, and doing yoga can very much be part of our cultivation of mindfulness.
Excerpted from The Beginner’s Guide to Insight Meditation, by Arinna Weisman and Jean Smith, and available from Wisdom Publications. Reprinted with permission.
For more on mindfulness and meditation, see:
- The September 2010 “How to Meditate” issue of Shambhala Sun magazine
- And don’t miss Mindful.org, the new website dedicated to mindfulness as it applies to every aspect of our lives.