Since the time I began practicing in the mid-’90s, I’ve always considered walking meditation an important part of my practice. I remember when I first took up the practice of Chan I would practice walking in awareness to the bus station down the busy street. I would simply walk and be aware of my breath as it is, the motion of walking as it is, and the surroundings as it is. The last part is really important if you practicing walking meditation in the city. I was walking in Edinburgh one day and I was not so mindful of the experiential fact that people drive in the “other” side of the road. I was abruptly made aware of that as I started to step off the curb. Close call. I wonder if this would be considered a flash of insight?
In the hall, the crack of two pieces of wood striking together would signal the start of walking meditation. In this Chan tradition walking meditation is not a matter of one step in-breath, one step out-breath that so many are familiar with. Instead, it is a full-on fast pace walking. We would walk rapidly along the perimeter of the hall swinging our arms as we walked, almost a sprint. No time to think, no time for distractions, no time to watch the breath or the feet, just respond and do. An appropriate response. Instead of bringing the attention to the breath or the feet, attention was placed on the whole experience of walking. Eventually, crack! – stopping instantly – end of session and back to the cushion. Every once in a while, as I travel around, someone would ask which is better slow walking or fast walking. Both! It’s not so much a matter of slow or fast as it is a matter of the mind. Where is it?
Since those days, coming into the Plum Village tradition, of course, I’ve had to slow down quite a bit. Especially in the hall: One step in-breath, one step out-breath. I remember when I first took up this slower method of walking. Overall it went well. But I did have what I call a momentary dilemma, to where I almost totally froze up during a walking session. As I was bringing my attention to my walking, I got stuck on the question, Should I focus on my feet or focus on my breath? Does the breath lead the step or does the step lead the walk? For some reason it seemed like they were the most important questions in the world and that I had to get it right, and get it right, right there and then. It seemed like a short panic attack. A couple of moments into it, as I passed the Buddha statue on the alter I came to my senses – oh yeah, just walk, don’t worry about it. Thanks, Buddha.
These days I look at walking meditation as a way to peel away, both in technique and experience. One’s technique is important. If you want to take your practice deeper you need to have a solid technique. It is like how a painter uses a brush and paint to create a masterpiece. In general, you want to find a technique that works for you and then you should stick with it until you have spent some time with it, thoroughly explore it, see where it takes you. Master it. If the method works, wonderful, keep at it. If it doesn’t, move on and find one that does.
There are many different techniques, different methods of walking meditation. As I sharing earlier there is a fast-paced method and there are very slow paced methods. If you think one step in-breath and one step out-breath is slow, well, there are slower techniques. In this technique, however, I stick with the one step in-breath and one step out-breath. So, where does the peeling come in?
Walking meditation is like sitting meditation in that there needs to be a bit of preparation practice. Before walking stand for a moment and bring your attention to the experience of what you are doing. As it says in the sutras, put mindfulness before you. It can be challenging going from a busy day to a practice session. Be sure your mind is there with you. Take some breaths. Observe the experience of the breath and the body. Just remind yourself, if needed, whatever you may need to do or don’t do, this period of time is for your practice. Then you want to make sure there is no tension in your body. Are your shoulders relaxed? Is your face relaxed? You can even check this while you begin to walk.
When you are ready to start walking make your first step with an in-breath or an out-breath. It doesn’t matter which one you begin with as long as the steps are in sync with your breath. Here, you are beginning to bring together in oneness your body, breath, and steps. Just continue to walk one step in-breath, one step out-breath. If you are doing this practice for the first time it may seem mechanical. This is because there is tenseness. Just keep going and relax into the technique, relax into the experience. You want a fluid, relaxed, natural movement as you walk and breathe.
As you find your cadence bring your attention to the sensation of your feet on the floor. Here you are letting go of the breath and directing your attention to your feet. The breath is still there in the periphery, part of the experience but your attention now goes to the feet. Once you start walking in a relaxed way it really does become automatic. There are many points of your step you can to bring your attention to in walking meditation. This one, however, the attention goes to the rear foot as it comes off the floor before it moves forward. The rear foot “peels” away from the floor to move forward. More succinctly, align your in-breath or out-breath with your rear foot as it peels away from from the floor. This does take quite a bit of attention. From the heel starting to lift off the floor to the tip of your toes before they lift is a full in-breath or a full out-breath. Basically, your legs are moving forward is the space, the pause, between the in-breath and out-breath. As you continue to walk try to notice all the experiential subtle nuances of your foot peeling away from the floor. Now, stay with it.
In terms of experience, as we are solidly in our walking practice things begin to peel away. Actually, the peeling away has already begun. When we have the intention of starting the practice of walking meditation we are already peeling away our schedule and busy-ness. Then as we continue we need to put some effort, or non-effort, into training our minds to not be carried away by distractions. When you walk, where are your eyes? Are you looking out a window while you are walking? The painting on the wall? I can always tell the quality of someones walking when they walk by the alter in the hall. So often, people who are are not fully into the practice look at the altar as they walk by. Keep your eyes forward as you walk, relax into the walk, and note the desire and sometimes craving to go eye shopping. As you do this you are peeling away sense desires, peeling away distractions. It is the same for the mind. The mind is never happy unless it is looking for mind-candy, the things to “occupy” our mind. Just as in sitting meditation, as you become aware of your mind wandering just gently bring your attention back to your rear foot as it peels off the floor.
Walking meditation becomes quite powerful when the growing concentration matures and the distractions are fewer and fewer. Through this practice, we peel away the distraction of the sense desires and peel away the busy mind. As we continue walking, a great expansiveness or spaciousness begins to emerge. This is our true home, a manifestation of our true nature. Try to cultivate and maintain this sensation, this experience. It’s a tremendous experience. This is when a smile just automatically manifests on my face. At this point, I peel away my attention from my feet to the whole-body experience of walking. Just walking. The body knows what to do, the breath knows what to do, the feet know what to do – and I am just taking it all in.