Walking, Meditating Go Hand-in-Hand
There is a difference between just walking and walking with focused attention. Of course, it''s true about everything we do that ‘paying attention'' is a critical factor. So much of our time is spent on a sort of automatic pilot, however, that we seldom appreciate what''s actually happening on a moment-by-moment basis.
Walking is easy to overlook as an opportunity to pay attention, in part because it''s so commonplace, like eating a meal driving your car, or any of the myriad things we take for granted on a day-to-day basis. It''s very functional, and is so interwoven into the pattern of daily life that it''s easy to write off as ‘nothing special''. But very much like breathing, if you were deprived of this capacity, it wouldn''t take long to appreciate its significance.
Many meditation centers have walking paths, often circular or rectangular in shape, confining movement to a relatively small area. The instructions are simple: Bring your undivided attention to this activity, just as you do the breath in sitting meditation. Walk slowly and deliberately, focusing on the moment-by-moment experience of moving. Be aware of placing one foot in front of the other, making note of the sensation when your heel makes contact with the ground. Sense the shift in weight as your body is propelled forward and you balance momentarily on one leg while the other swings forward, and then makes contact. Repeat the sequence over and over again. When your mind wanders off, bring it back to the sensations of just walking.
Walking meditation can be especially helpful when your mind is activated or super-heated to the point where sitting meditation feels counterproductive and unusually stressful. There is something about the rhythmic pattern of moving — however fast or slow — that can have a calming, mesmerizing effect, called ‘entrainment'', that represents the synchronization of breath, movement, heart rate, and other cyclical somatic processes. It''s something like tuning a musical instrument, in the sense of bringing various physical elements together in a way that creates an harmonic ensemble.
Recently I started wearing a pedometer just to keep track of my walking patterns, putting it on in the morning and removing it at night. Over a period of several weeks, I''ve been astonished not only by how the number of steps add up throughout the course of the day, but at how minimally aware I am that this is happening. I''ve come to realize that it''s a lot like breathing — something that is going on all the time, with very little conscious control or attention. There are moments now when walking is ‘just walking'' rather than something I''m doing to be healthy, or to get somewhere, or for any other functional purpose. At such times I feel a sense of gratitude for this seemingly insignificant capacity, and at the same time recognize how easy it is to take for granted.
Walking meditation — especially slow walking — has a calming effect. It''s not a physiological stressor like intense, effortful aerobic activity. It involves just enough attention and energy resources to keep you alert and avoid falling asleep, as often happens in sitting meditation. As a result, it''s a wonderful way to cultivate the sort of relaxed attention that is highly valued in meditation practice. Walking is an ‘in-between'' state of activation that entails a state of openness and receptivity to stimulation, whether from the physical sensations it generates internally, those emanating from the environment, or thoughts and ideas that come and go, as musicians, poets, and other creative individuals have all discovered. Walking is meditation, when it becomes the focus of your attention.
Paul Salmon, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at U of L, an ACMS-certified health/fitness instructor, RYT/200 yoga instructor and a member of KHFM''s Advisory Board. You can contact him via e-mail at email@example.com .