Walking Meditation

by | Feb 15, 2021 | Challenges, Insight, Meaning, Missing Pieces, Self-Development

Walking meditation is a feature of most meditation retreats. People get tired of just sitting! Walking meditation gives sitters a chance to move about and get the blood circulating without losing their concentration. The peace and tranquility you get on the cushion is supposed to last long after you stand up and it will if you know how to preserve it. Walking meditation is a way to transition from passive sitting into the active part of our day. In this blog, I will describe two methods of walking meditation: The first will be a formal practice done privately or with a meditation group. The second will be a casual practice you can do in public when you are out on the street. 

‘Walking on Breath’

‘Walking on Breath,’ is a formal Zen practice. Variations of this are found at most Zen temples and retreats. It is performed with varying degrees of formality. The example here is the most formal practice, I’ve done. You can modify it to suit your needs. With it, we transition from sitting to walking seamlessly. You rise from your zafu and stand calmly, eyes straight ahead. Your hands will be folded together at about the navel. Your elbows will be out from the torso, with your arms parallel to the ground. Various hand positions are be used by various groups. You can just place one hand over the other. In this exercise, we will walk at a very slow and meditative pace. 

1 – Begin with an alert posture, feet together, hands in place, arms parallel to the floor. Your eyes should be slightly downward so that your focus is on the floor about 9ft in front of you. Maintain this attitude and posture throughout the walk. In formal walking meditation, we do not swing our arms or look left or right, or up and down.

2 – Very slowly breathe in. As you do, lift the the left foot slightly off the ground (about an inch) and move it forward in time with your breath, so that it moves toward the floor at the start of the out-breath. After your foot touches the floor, your weight settles over the foot as the out-breath ends. At the completion of this first breath cycle, the left foot will come to rest only half-way ahead of the right foot. This is a very small step. The left heel will be even with the arch of right foot. Be sure to fully concentrate, matching your breath cycle to the rise and fall of your foot.

3 – Next, lift the right foot on the in-breath and move it forward, lowering it on the out-breath. (It is important not to lift your feet too high, or you may have trouble maintaining your balance.) Your weight shifts and settles over the right foot after it touches the ground and the breath is fully expended. The heel of the advancing foot will again be even with the arch of the resting foot. Continue in this way, advancing one foot with each in-and-out breath cycle. 

Clearly, you aren’t going far, or very fast, so you can ‘Walk on Breath’ in a short hallway or a normal size room, taking several steps before you have to turn around. Remain mindful of your body and posture and stay in your best meditative state. ‘Walking on Breath’ looks quite serene and lovely in a monastic setting, but on a public street, it will look odd. That is why I recommend you do it in a private space. That way you won’t feel self-conscious.

‘Walking on Breath,’ will feel awkward at first, especially if you aren’t fully focused. Don’t allow yourself to get sloppy and unfocused. It’s better to walk with discipline for a few minutes than for a longer time in a distracted or half-focused state. Do ‘Walking on Breath’ with bare feet, if possible. The tactile sensation of the solid ground beneath your feet as it merges with the lightness of breath is an important aspect of this practice. 

Walking Mindfully

This mindful walking exercise is better suited for public places, but matching your stride to your breath is equally important. Shoes will not interfere with mindful walking. 

1 – Begin walking with good posture, swinging your arms as usual. Normally, we swing our arms, walk, and breathe unconsciously and it all works out fine; but in this exercise we want to remain fully focused and match our stride to our breathing. 

2 – Begin counting your paces: ‘left, right, left, right,’ or ‘1, 2, 3, 4,’ and so forth. Match your pace to your breath cycle (1 cycle to four strides, for example) and consciously maintain that relationship. The speed at which you walk and the number of strides to one breath cycle may vary from walk to walk, but within any one walk keep the relationship the same. 

Don’t look around or pay attention to external sounds. Keep your senses fully under control. Following the senses will pull your attention outward and cause you to lose focus. In mindful walking we are aware of the external environment but our attention is not captured by it. (Be sure to look left and right when crossing the street, of course!)

3 – Maintain your mindful walking practice for a short time (10 minutes?) attempting to perfect it as you go. Then take a break. Walk, allowing your attention to wander as usual, but observe your inner state as you do. Is your sense of self ‘floating away from you’ as your attention goes toward outside objects and sounds. After a few minutes, pull your focus back and do another session of mindful walking taking care to observe the changes in your consciousness as you go. 

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