To meditate does not mean to fight with a problem.
To meditate means to observe.
Your smile proves it.
It proves that you are being gentle with yourself,
that the sun of awareness is shining in you,
that you have control of your situation.
You are yourself,
and you have acquired some peace.
THICH NHAT HAHN
This is a vast, fascinating and important subject, and I fear I'll only have space for a few hints and glimpses in this post. But if these brief thoughts and jottings encourage anyone to read and explore further, I will be happy.
There's a rich history of walking as an aid to reflection, meditation and spiritual self-discovery. Those great walker-writers of the English Romantic movement who found in Nature such a source of creative inspiration - Wordsworth, Coleridge, Hazlitt, De Quincey et al. - I'll consider in another post. Here I want to concentrate on the religious and ritual aspects of walking.
Two main religions come to mind when we think of walking as meditation: Western Christianity, and Eastern Buddhism (though Buddhism is not, strictly speaking, a religion - rather a set of ethics or a philosophy of life.) Christianity has a long tradition of pilgrimage walking - to Canterbury, to Rome, to Jerusalem, to Santiago de Compostela, to a host of other sacred sites. Such peregrinations are undertaken for a number of reasons: to perform a penance, to give thanks to God, to petition for a cure, to fulfill a vow, to meditate on and reaffirm faith. A pilgrim route also has a symbolic significance as it represents the journey of the soul through the vicissitudes of mortal life to heaven. The popularity of pilgrimage has waxed and waned over the centuries. At the moment its appeal is growing, as more and more people seek an alternative, spiritual, non-materialistic mode of life.
The blog Pilgrimpace expressed a personal view of pilgrimage, and the relationship between walking and prayer, in a post of just over a year ago called The Walking Becomes The Praying:
'A pilgrimage gets to the holy place at last but what gives it its part in prayer is the slamming down of ones feet to complete the journey praying the while for all its features.' ALAN ECCLESTONE
A book that I come back to again and again is A Staircase for Silence by Alan Ecclestone. Ecclestone, a Communist Anglo-Catholic, was for many years Vicar of Darnall in Sheffield and is, for me, one of the most important figures of the twentieth century. A Staircase for Silence is a study of Charles Peguy, the French poet and visionary.
While I walked through Spain I tried to pray. I also reflected and reflect now on the deep connection between prayer and walking. The praying took many forms. Sometimes I prayed formal intercessions for people or situations. Sometimes I sang. Sometimes a breathing prayer such as the Jesus Prayer. But most of all the walking became the praying. The slamming down of the feet, the being at one with myself, landscape and God, tiredness, the mind shutting up and stilling. Walking, pilgrimage itself, became prayer. It felt very real, linking deeply into the rest of my life in all its aspects, and into the Office and Holy Communion. Ecclestone describes Peguy 'treading out in the countryside with the joyfulness of a lover, the delight of an artist, the ecstasy of one who worships.' The Camino was all those for me, but it was also hard and penitential (bloodily so – literally on one occasion, when I witnessed an ill-prepared Spanish peregrino remove his boots outside the bar at Albergueria).
Although Buddhism does not use the idea of prayer as part of its own meditative process, there are affinities, I believe, between Christian walking prayer and Buddhist walking meditation. Both address our inner spiritual needs, our mental and soul conflicts, our human struggle with this world of transience and illusion, in the pursuit of peace, understanding and enlightenment. Whether we're addressing a God or some unnameable not-self doesn't really matter, it seems to me. There may be different points of entry, but they all lead to the same 'interior castle'.
Walking meditation is widely practised in Zen Buddhism (it's known as kinhin, as opposed to zazen, which is sitting meditation). The mindfulness and meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn has written much about this, and I myself mentioned one particular technique here.) The Buddhist monk, poet and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh wrote this poem, offering some of the mental images he uses for walking meditation:
Breathing in, I know I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.
Breathing in, I see myself as a flower.
Breathing out I feel fresh.
Breathing in, I see myself as a mountain.
Breathing out, I feel solid.
Breathing in, I see myself as still water.
Breathing out, I reflect things as they are.
Breathing in, I see myself as space.
Breathing out, I feel free.
There's a tradition of itinerant mendicant monks all over the Far East. Shramanas were wandering monks in ancient India who renounced the world and lived ascetic lives of austerity in order to attain spiritual development and liberation. Komuso were Japanese mendicant monastics who wore straw baskets over their heads - to demonstrate the absence of ego - and who played bamboo flutes for alms in a practice aimed at gaining enlightenment and healing. And of course Gautama Buddha himself walked far and wide thoughout his life, first as a seeker, then as a teacher.
I've found Buddhist mindfulness and meditation techniques incredibly beneficial on my own pilgrimage treks across France and Spain. They really do work in calming the mind, making you more alert to each passing second, giving you a super-consciousness of the landscape you're passing through, and renewing your energy for the miles ahead.