I envy my partner. Put her in nature and she can just sit there for hours. However I find it hard to sit still no matter where I find myself. The problem of course with sitting still and knowing that you suck at it, is that those pesky mental gremlins come out and play. This is why I have opted for walking meditation. As Pam Houston, novelist and essayist notes “Movement helps keep me centered. I am a disaster, for instance, at sitting meditation, but I'm pretty decent at walking meditation.”
A Walk Through Time
Henry David Thoreau, naturalist, poet, philosopher and leading transcendentalist of his time noted, “An early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.” Nietzsche, a philosopher who became one of the most influential of all modern thinkers argued that, “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.” Seneca one of the most influential Stoic philosophers suggested, “It does good also to take walks out of doors, that our spirits may be raised and refreshed by the open air and fresh breeze.” Hippocrates, a Greek physician of the Age of Pericles, who is considered one of the most outstanding figures in the history of medicine suggested, “Walking is man’s best medicine.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau a philosopher, writer, and composer who’s political philosophy influenced the progress of the Enlightenment throughout Europe commented that, ‘I can only meditate when I am walking.” Looks like I am in great company after all and thank goodness that there is an all round consensus that walking is good for you.
There are obvious health benefits to walking as well. Ann Green, past heptathlon world athlete, yoga teacher has noted that, “Walking improves fitness, cardiac health, alleviates depression and fatigue, improves mood, creates less stress on joints and reduces pain, can prevent weight gain, reduce risk for cancer and chronic disease, improve endurance, circulation, and posture, and the list goes on.” But beyond the health benefits, I believe the greatest benefit to us the human animal - is how walking can improve our inner health. Below I share some ways I have found to achieve this.
Ways To Walk
There is no right way to take a walk. But here are a few ideas that I have played with. How I decide to take a walk often is largely predicated on how I am feeling that day or what I am wrestling with in my life at that moment. While many times I just walk with no intention, when you struggling internally giving yourself a purpose to achieve out of your walk gives meaning to the experience. The outcome can often be very therapeutic.
It’s hard to feel the real benefits of walking if you have to do it in a big city. The noise, pollution, and hustle makes it less than relaxing. Whenever possible then take your walk out into nature, or anywhere else that it’s green - a park for instance. To add extra depth to your walk, take your shoes off and go barefoot. If that’s not possible, wearing minimal style shoes really aid in your walk as you feel more connected to the ground beneath your feet.
Deep Walking with a Friend: We spend so much of our lives putting out fires, that we often have little or no time to contemplate the big questions of life. You know, ‘Why are we here?’ ‘What does it all mean?’ ‘What am I truly about?’ I love walking in nature with my partner talking about us, our dreams, obstacles and so forth. Here too we are in good company. Aristotle the famous ancient Greek philosopher is said to have taught as he walked while sharing and exploring ideas with his followers. They became known as ‘peripatetic’ philosophers (‘Peripatetic’ meaning "of walking" or "given to walking about”). The goal is to talk gently about the topics that arise. You don’t want to get upset, and come back from a walk feeling even worse. Deep Walking is about being open and vulnerable, but also about calming the nervous system. When the walk is nearing its conclusion, its time to be quiet and spend the last ten or so minutes just staying with your breath. Breath in deep and exhale fully. Feel all the tension drop from your shoulders.
Walking with Pause: I live part of the year on the beautiful Isle of Man. I often see people out and about walking. Most are plugged into an iPod, walking as if they stole something, and oblivious to everything around them. I am sure that kind of walking may be great for their cardio, but I doubt there’s much else benefit wise. I am going to be honest, I have found myself doing this too. Its so easy to fall into the trap of go, go, go from everyday life and find it spilling over to the very things that are meant to be slowing us down: like going for a walk.
It is at these times that I intentionally walk for a while, stop, pause, sit down and take in everything that is around me. I repeat this same process often throughout the walk. I am always amazed what I would have actually missed had I not sat down in silence and looked around me. That beautiful Bumble Bee on that flower, or the Ladybird that decided to come visit me on my hand the other day. I am not sure if you have had the same experience, it is these small moments that really put a lot of things into perspective. Gary Snyder, poet and environmentalist reflects that, “Walking is the great adventure, the first meditation, a practice of heartiness and soul primary to humankind. Walking is the exact balance between spirit and humility.”
Walking Meditation: This is by far my favorite way to walk, and its done alone and barefoot where very possible. No iPod, no haste, just slow intentional walking. And I mean intentionally slowing down, one foot in front of the next, feeling each step as it presses into the earth, while coordinating it with slow breathing. Each time my thinking mind wanders off somewhere else, I bring it gently back to the moment, back to my breath.
It may sound easy to just slow down, to walk slow, but the first few times was really difficult. The more I slowed down, the faster my thoughts seem to speed up. In those moments I realized how much I was living on fast forward. As Buddhist Monk and scholar Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, “Walk so that your footprints bear only the marks of peaceful joy and complete freedom. To do this you have to learn to let go. Let go of your sorrows, let go of your worries. That is the secret of walking meditation.”
In the end, going for a walk can be beautifully summed in the words of author Rebecca Solnit:
“The rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or stimulates the passage through a series of thoughts. The creates an odd consonance between internal and external passage, one that suggests that the mind is also a landscape of sorts and that walking is one way to traverse it. A new thought often seems like a feature of the landscape that was there all along, as though thinking were traveling rather than making.”