13 Masters on Mindful Walking
Take a stroll through 13 pages of walking meditation with Buddhist masters.
On walking as a “message to Earth”
In Buddhism, we practice aimlessness (apranahita), even in relation to our personal, social and environmental work. It means that we are not so purposive that we destroy the present moment. “What way from here?” poet Han Shan asks his shadow. Just this step. The path is every step. How can we stray from it?
One day when I was walking down the canyon path in Ojai [California], I realized that I was making a literal impression on the Earth. I stopped and turned around to look at my footprints and they were even and smooth, a kind of script in the dust. That was on Thursday. On Friday, I hurried to the office on the central part of the land and halfway there I caught myself, stopped and turned around to look at my tracks. There was a different message on the Earth. It was then that I saw how completely each step that we take is a message of alienation or awareness to Earth. And it is in the experience of walking that we can learn this truth.
In Zen Buddhist practice, walking in the zendo is a way for us to stitch together our awareness with the world. One Zen master compared walking to the fine sewing of a robe, each step perfect and complete, each step resolved. I like to dwell on this image of the robe because it brings up the sense of precision and harmony that mindfulness cultivates.
Many years ago, I hurried along a trail in a cedar forest on one of the San Juan Islands near Seattle to see whether it was appropriate for a meditation walk. Hours later when I made the walk with twenty others, the world that had disappeared as I hurried through it in the morning was fully present as we walked in slow and quiet steps.
When we walk slowly, the world can fully appear. Not only are the creatures not frightened away by our haste or aggression, but the fine detail of fern and flower, or devastation and disruption, becomes visible. Many of us hurry along because we do not want to see what is really going on in and around us. We are afraid to let our senses touch the body of suffering or the body of beauty.
Walking meditation, for the Buddhist, is a way for the mind of practice to be embodied. Sitting in silence, stopping the body, makes it possible for the breath, mind, and body to calm down and finally synchronize. This is the practice of meditative stabilization, of balance, of the middle way of nonduality and nonviolence. Koan 25 in the Blue Cliff Record says that “If you stick to a fixed position, you fall into a poison sea.” A fixed position here means a conceptual or physical position. But walking meditation teaches us to move along without losing our mind and losing our balance. It teaches us how to ground our awareness with each step that we take. Walking practice is a kind of medicine that heals the split we experience from the world.
Maps help us to find our way through the body of the world. There are many different kinds of maps. Some of them are found in myths where the sacred geographies mirror the human condition. Maps also can show us the way through and across Earth. There are maps for flying, maps for driving, and maps for walking. The topography of the worlds described in each of these maps becomes more detailed the slower you go.
Richard Baker Roshi once said that all we have in this world is what we notice. This statement reminds me of the story of the Australian Aboriginal man who, when riding along in a car with a friend, sang at top speed as his territory flew past him. The Songline [an oral map passed down from generation to generation] is to be followed at a walking pace. In this way, the continuum of ancestor and totem is confirmed in the movement of the walker and in the detail of Earth. The subtle and physical world combine in the song-body and enhance one another. The experience of walking makes it possible to notice and become intimate with what is really there.
Joan Halifax, ecologist and Buddhist teacher, is the author of The Fruitful Darkness: Reconnecting with the Body of the Earth (HarperSanFrancisco)