A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Walking As Meditation (3)

Camino, Spain

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.


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.


George said...

A wonderful, informative posting, Robert. There is little that I can add to this, except to say what I have said before, specifically, that walking is a portal to consciousness. There are many types of meditation, of course, but walking meditation is the one that works best for me. Happy New Year!

Bonnie said...

A great overview of walking as a meditative endeavor. It is all about present moment awareness, allowing, accepting, appreciating whatever is on our path. Walking can certainly open us up to that.

Walking seems to create the rhythm and space for the above-mentionned inner states to arise and rest awhile. Rhythm is a key word here - as there are many religious sects that use rocking and other forms of movement to induce their desired trance-like states. But any repetitive, rhythmic bi-lateral movement seems to work wonders for clearing away the detritus of obsessive, self-absorbed thinking - and offering instead the inner spaciousness required to simply be aware, accept, allow, appreciate.

Thank you Robert for sharing all your years of experience and learnings about the benefits of walking. While this satisfies curious minds, it is good to know that we can reap the benefits whether we understand all the nuances of what is happening or not!

When the paths here are icy I walk on a treadmill - and I must say that while it is physically beneficial - it just does not produce the same effects (for me) as walking outside under a glorious canopy of blue sky.

Dancin' Fool said...

What a wonderful post, and some interesting ideas to follow up on. I walk a lot daily, usually in the company of my dogs but sometimes on my own, and I always find it a positive experience and find that I am walking with a smile on my face.

Happy New Year and happy travels to you.

Trevor Woodford said...

A very interesting post Robert.

I am a lifelong follower of the Karma Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism and I have always found walking meditation to be the most useful and practical form of meditation for us in the Western world.

I would also agree with Bonnie's comment regarding rhythm being a key- as a keen cyclist I have found that a similar mental state can be achieved whilst I am cycling at speed on my own.

Thank you for sharing with us all.

Anonymous said...

This is a real treat to read, and I have shared it with a friend or two who may enjoy it too. One of them introduced me to Zahzen only a few weeks ago; sometimes life seems so synchronous...

Friko said...

Thank you Robert, your post and the comments so far are helping me to make greater use of my walking hours.

I know the benefits of walking simply from the way I feel during and after the walk but the idea of experiencing rhythmic movement out of doors as a way to spiritual enlightenment and the attainment of inner peace are new to me.

Thank you and a happy walking new year to you.

Anonymous said...

thanks for this series Robert - and thanks for quoting me - some new layers being added to my own reflection.


The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, everyone.

Bonnie - your remarks on rhythm have really set me pondering. I think you are so right. Many dedicated walkers talk about finding their walking rhythm. I know I have one: neither too fast nor too slow, around 3-4 km an hour. But over and above this measurable aspect, there's something deeper and more satisfying: a kind of inner, soul-rhythm. And as well as space, in walking we're also creating time. And in walking's creation of time and space, in its simplicity and opportunity for meditation, we're finding an opportunity for healing and a gateway to knowledge.